Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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Issue 6
Stories
Night of Falling Stars
by Steven Savile
Great Mother, Great Father
by William Saxton
The Price of Love
by Alan Schoolcraft
A Spear Through the Heart
by Cherith Baldry
From the Ender Saga
Ender's Stocking
by Orson Scott Card
Tales for the Young and Unafraid
Lost and Found
by David Lubar
This is Only a Test
by David Lubar
InterGalactic Medicine Show Interviews

How Peacefully the Desert Sleeps
    by Brad Beaulieu
How Peacefully the Desert Sleeps
Artwork by Scott Altmann

The first time I woke, blood fell upon the desert floor.
At the time, I didn't know whether it was good news or ill.

Kallie's coughing fit started, as it often did, when the alabaster sun brought the rising heat of the desert with it. When the fit had passed and the pain had subsided, she cleared her throat and spit blood-tainted phlegm onto the cracked desert floor. Then she stood tall on the driver's bench of her two-wheeled cart, hoping to see any sign of the Ohokwa village, but all that greeted her was a sea of adiwa cacti running clear to the horizon.

Kallie's heart sank as she dropped back into her creaking seat and took a long pull off her waterskin; it appeared she would need to rein in her pack bird and spend another scorching day under the direct sun before reaching Ohokwa Gorge. But she whipped her kuko into motion anyway, not willing to give up as long as she was able to withstand the heat.

Only minutes later, movement caught her eye. A few hundred yards up, two Ohokwa warriors bearing tall spears filed out from the cacti and onto the trail. With a whip of the reins and a cluck of her tongue, her kuko released a ragged caw and trudged faster.

With each passing second Kallie's anxiety rose. She was about to take the first real step toward healing the consumption that had struck over a year ago. She'd managed to enter tribal lands and elude the Shaukauna, the settler's fiercest opponent in their unquenchable thirst for westward land, but now it came down to talking, a skill Kallie hadn't been blessed with, and it soured her gut that her future depended on this one conversation.

Kallie was close enough now to see the details in their jet-black hair, which was braided behind their ears into two long strands. White folds of cloth hung loose around their shoulders, ready to cover their dark-skinned faces against the midday sun. They wore white shirts and pale leggings of the softest buckskin, embroidered with the angular designs of their people.

Kallie pulled her cart up short when the taller of the two warriors -- the one with a half-dozen tiny bones piercing the crown of each ear -- laid his spear across her kuko's path. Kallie let out a slow breath, trying dearly to fend off another coughing fit, and pushed up the brim of her wide, leather hat.

"How do?" Kallie said.

Rather than reply, the shorter Ohokwa whistled, his tongue fluttering to create a rhythmic warble. She'd never heard the call in person, but she knew good and well what was about to happen.

A buzzing, like a child blowing a blade of grass between his thumbs, cut through the desert air. Kallie swallowed hard as two red beetles the size of her hand crawled over the top of the nearest adiwa cactus. One of the dejda beetles raised its iridescent wing case and rattled. The second followed suit a moment later, then another, and another, and soon, the entire area was abuzz with their bone chilling call.

She'd never been bothered by crawlies and such, but she'd never come face to face with insects so almighty large, and the stories she'd heard along the way -- the way they swarmed over their prey, their mindlessness when driven by the Ohokwa's whistling, the poison they injected with each thrust of their stinger -- didn't help one bit.

Then, quick as a hiccup, the dejda highest up on the cactus took wing -- a blur of red against the blue sky -- and whirred to land at Kallie's feet. Though she knew it unwise, she couldn't stop herself from shifting along the bench and reaching for the shotgun resting in its holster.

The taller Ohokwa made it clear that drawing the shotgun would be tantamount to suicide, and the shorter whistled again, louder this time. The beetle near Kallie's boot rattled once, sending a furious shiver up her spine, then winged back to the cactus from which it had flown. Kallie inched her right hand back to her lap.

"You have nerve, stranger," the taller Ohokwa said, "bringing firearms to our lands."

His command of her language surprised her, and she chastised herself; she'd made a promise that she wouldn't underestimate them. "It's only to scare the coyotes," she said, her heart beating heavy. "Can't shoot worth a damn, anyway."

As the taller warrior stared at Kallie with hard eyes, the second warrior moved to the rear of her cart and began rummaging through the crates stored in the bed as if they'd just insulted his mother.

Several of the beetles buzzed in unison. One of them took flight, but was immediately whistled back by the taller warrior. Kallie was confused, for she'd heard the Ohokwa had supreme control over the beetles using their whistles and their shared bond. But these, while clearly influenced by the warriors, weren't behaving as she would have guessed.

"You came through Shaukauna land?" the taller warrior asked.

Kallie coughed once, softly. She daren't lie now. The Ohokwa and Shaukauna were practically the same tribe. "I did."

"How?"

"Traveled south, around the foothills, then through the wastes."

"Those are watched lands, tahone."

"Might be," Kallie said with a careless air, "but no one stopped me from passing through."

The warrior's eyes thinned. "Then what brings you?"

Kallie winced at the sound of breaking glass. The warrior in the back ceased his inspection momentarily, but then resumed as liquid -- no doubt the expensive whiskey -- gurgled and spattered against the desert floor.

"Come to trade," Kallie said. "Simple as that."

"But why? Why risk our spears?"

Kallie glanced at a particularly large dejda flexing its wing cases. Maybe it was the goddamned beetles driving the spike of fear through her chest, maybe it was the heat, or maybe it was just time, but Kallie started coughing, and this time she couldn't stop it. She took out her kerchief to mask the blood -- she'd be damned before she let them see it -- but it was too much, the worst one in days, and by the time the fit had passed, the pale kerchief was spotted through with blood.

The warrior continued to stare, but his eyes had thinned and his jaw had stiffened. The resentment in his expression sent a sickly dread running through her. He knew why she'd come. He knew she'd come begging for the Ohokwa's fabled healing tonic, kayeya. Years ago, the Ohokwa had shared their prize with the settlers, but that was before the massacre at Holy Hill. Tensions with the tribes, particularly the Shaukauna and Ohokwa, had only heated since then, and it had nearly boiled over into all-out war several times this hot, dry summer.

"You think the Ohokwa would give a tahone one drop of kayeya?" the warrior said.

Several dejda shouted in unison.

Kallie took as deep a breath as her broken lungs would allow her, and she prayed dearly she wasn't about to make a big mistake. "What name you go by, tribesman?"

He hesitated, but only for a moment, and stood incrementally taller before replying, "Hochomi."

"I brung music boxes, Hochomi, the best quality. Some of them play minutes on end. I brung instruments: two violins and a banjo. I got whiskey, aged sixteen year, and five bottles of fine wine. What could one small woman do to your people, no matter what the men might've done? What could you gain by denying me what means so little to you? Does that bring honor to your tribe, to kill a woman come begging for help?"

Hochomi stared. His broad face softened for the briefest of moments, but then his eyes locked on her shotgun, and he leaned over and spit at the foot of her wagon. "Turn your cart around, tahone, and never tread these lands again."

As the men backed away and stared, Kallie scrambled for some way out of this. It couldn't end here. Not so quickly. Not so finally.

But before she could open her mouth to argue, a stirring in the desert swarmed through Kallie's consciousness. She felt instantly cool in the oppressive heat, and like a drop of oil slicking the surface of a pond, her awareness swelled. She felt Hochomi and his brother warrior; she felt the nearby dejda like red-hot coals laid against the surface of her mind; she felt the beetles' gargantuan nest some miles to the west and south; and for the first time since entering this godforsaken oven, she no longer felt foreign. She felt like part of it, like it was a part of her.

But with the awareness came a sense of longing, and suddenly Kallie felt as if she were being dragged beneath the surface of a deep, black lake. She had no idea what it was, but she refused to allow it stronger purchase than it already had. So she recoiled. She beat against the presence. She scratched. Kicked. Retreated.

The desert air exploded as the dejda released a raucous cry. Several skittered across the desert floor toward her kuko. The pack bird high-stepped sideways as several more beetles took wing and landed at Kallie's feet. When another landed on her knee, she flicked the thing away before recalling how truly foolish such a move was.

Hochomi and his tribesman whistled their low, droning summons. Most of the beetles halted, but Kallie could see them in her mind turning a molten yellow. Several buried their crimson heads in the sand and raised their hind legs. A few fell onto their back and went into a severe apoplexy.

And then the first of them struck.

Kallie had never imagined the beetles could move so quickly. The first, launching itself from a nearby cactus, flew onto Hochomi's shoulder and sunk its mandibles deep into his flesh. In the time it took for blood to soak through the white cloth, Kallie saw the poisonous stinger insert and withdraw several times. Another landed on Hochomi's cheek, interrupting his fluttering whistle.

"Stop!" Kallie shouted, too confused to utter anything useful. She even tried to quell the beetles' sudden anger, but it was no use. She could no more control the beetles than she could the blistering sun.

The other tribesman whistled louder, but the only effect seemed to be to induce more beetles into attacking.

The dejda swarmed.

"No!" Kallie cried, grabbing her shotgun and leveling it at the Ohokwa.

In moments the men's limbs, chests, groins, necks were covered by the ravenous beetles.

Kallie aimed down the barrel of the shotgun, debating on whether to end the men's misery, but the thought of attracting the beetles' attention proved too fearsome. Luckily, her kuko proved wiser in the face of danger. It bucked and fled westward, and -- after a horrid moment of watching the men scream and writhe on the ground -- she let it.

Following a mindless and dangerous chase through the desert, Kallie crested a ridge and saw Ohokwa Gorge for the first time. It hacked the landscape in half, revealing a portion of the flame-colored rock it harbored. She urged her bird onward before she could lose heart and headed for the collection of square adobe buildings near the dogleg in the gorge.

A handful of tribesmen noticed her when she neared and met her at the edge of the village. She tried to explain what had happened, but none of them spoke her language well and she spoke not a lick of Ohokwa. She managed to make them understand Hochomi had been hurt, but they seemed to think she was to blame.

A squat Ohokwa with a ragged scar across his broad face grabbed her shotgun and yanked her down from the wagon. They shouted at her in Ohokwa and stabbed the sky with their bone-handled knives, but all she could do was raise her hands and repeat that she had nothing to do with their brothers' deaths.

A young woman with piercing green eyes and a small mole above one of her thick eyebrows strode forward. Her black hair was tied into a tight bun, exposing her broad, handsome face. The moment she started speaking with the scar-faced warrior, the rest fell silent. Kallie heard Hochomi's name spoken several times; each repetition lent more fury to the woman's demeanor. The next thing Kallie knew the woman was grabbing a spear and stalking toward Kallie. Kallie threw her hands up in defense as the woman raised the spear high and brought the butt of it down hard.

It was the last thing she remembered . . .

. . . before waking to the sound of a rushing river and the screaming pain on the crown of her head. She was trussed up, naked, three hundred feet over the Chedahoa River. Her breath came in heaving gasps. She began coughing horribly and had only enough time to spit and clear her throat before the next wave came. She was nearing the edge of hysteria, but the steady sound of the river coursing through the gorge below proved to be an elixir. She closed her eyes and focused on the sound, willing herself to be calm, and slowly . . . Slowly . . . The coughing subsided until she had regained some measure of control.

She opened her eyes, keeping the sound of the rushing water present. The sun perched directly overhead, the heat of it nearly unbearable. Her hands, bound tight, were reddened and numb. The rope from which she hung was tied to a beam, which was secured to a platform built at the very edge of the gorge. Kallie swayed with every stray breeze, and the beam bent with her.

It was going to snap any moment. She knew it was.

Kallie stopped looking at the beam before she could start coughing again. A lone Ohokwa warrior stood on the platform, his arms crossed over his bared chest, his eyes cruelly impassive as he regarded her. A crowd of Ohokwa watched a few dozen yards from the platform.

The woman, the one who'd struck Kallie, must have been related to Hochomi, or perhaps they were husband and wife, or maybe she was the Ohokwa Queen Kallie had heard so many stories about. Kallie had found only one man, a failed prospector, who'd ever met the Queen, but apparently that mantle changed hands every twenty years or so, whenever a new dejda queen was birthed, so it was possible that the young, fierce woman had been her.

As a hot breeze enveloped her, Kallie released a sarcastic snort at her own foolishness. The ceremony at which the kayeya would be unveiled was to be held on Spring Equinox, only a handful of days away now. She'd had, not high hopes, but middling that she could come and trade for a small bottle of the tonic. At worst she figured she'd be forced from their lands, no worse for the wear, but this . . .

What had happened? The Ohokwa controlled the dejda, partly by their whistles, but it was said with more than that. The whistle was only a way to get their attention, so they'd be ready for what came next. It was the mental bond between the Ohokwa and the dejda that did the rest.

Kallie had clearly connected with the dejda, just like the Ohokwa, but how? How could she, someone who'd never even seen one of the beetles, do such a thing?

The crowd began murmuring and pointing as the sound of galloping horses traveled over the desert floor. A dozen horses approached. The two horses at the rear pulled litters, and in them were Hochomi and his fellow warrior. Whether they were alive or dead Kallie couldn't tell. The Ohokwa woman who'd struck Kallie with the spear rode at the head. She was mounted just like the men, legs spread with only a blanket as padding, and when she neared the platform she slipped off her still-moving horse and bounded up the platform's steps. She unwound the white folds of cloth from around her head to stare at Kallie unobstructed.

"Tell me what you do." Her words came slow and stilted. Her eyes were red, as though she'd been crying.

"I did nothing."

The woman paused, an expression of resolve clear on her face. She held out her hand and barked a command at the warrior next to her. As soon as the warrior had pulled his wicked hunting knife from its sheath and placed the bone handle into her waiting hand, the woman stepped closer and grasped the rope holding Kallie secure.

"Dear God, no! Stop!"

"What you do?"

"I came only to trade! I have much --"

The woman placed the edge of the knife against the rope.

"I felt something! Just before them beetles attacked! But I didn't do anything!"

"What you feel?"

"E-everything! The desert around me, clear to the gorge, the heat and the wind, the cactus and the beetles, a few birds. Even the men a might bit."

"Then what?"

"Nilawi!" a voice shouted.

An older man and woman strode through the parting crowd. The man wore a wide headband made of tiny bones. The woman wore a delicate woolen shawl and an elaborate necklace of dejda casings, which glowed a furious red in the sunlight. They climbed up to the platform, where the man spoke sharply to Nilawi.

Nilawi stared at him defiantly for long seconds, but then she allowed the knife to clatter to the platform's wooden planks and strode down the stairs as if she had ordered Kallie's release. The older man barked several commands to the warrior. A moment later, the warrior, who had never taken his eyes from Kallie, stepped forward and untied the rope securing the beam. Muscles rippling beneath his swarthy skin, he lowered Kallie and hauled her onto the sun-heated wood.

"I am sorry," the older woman said. She removed her shawl and draped it over Kallie to hide her nakedness.

Kallie could do nothing for some time -- the pain was too great -- but soon she was well enough to stand.

"I am Wattoha, Queen of the Ohokwa, and this is my husband, Iye, an elder of our people. Please, we will take you to shelter."

Another Ohokwa who spoke her language fluently, whereas most settlers would be embarrassed to speak Ohokwa.

With Nilawi forging ahead, the couple led Kallie to a slatted walkway which hugged the inside edge of the gorge. There were a hundred such walkways, two hundred, that zigzagged over the depth and breadth of the gorge. She'd never seen such a thing, and had she not been so frightened earlier she might have recognized the beautiful patterns they created over the frothing river and rust-colored stone.

They led Kallie down a passageway into the rock. The temperature dropped. In fact, after not too long, she began to shiver. They stopped at a doorway and motioned Kallie to enter.

"Your clothes are inside. We will wait while you dress."

Kallie entered the bare room without further word. In the center, folded horsehair blankets surrounded a squat table, upon which sat a large urn filled with water. Light came from two Ohokwa lanterns, their pink gems glowing softly.

While Kallie was pulling on her clothes, a coughing fit snuck up on her, but thankfully it didn't last long. Her fits were funny like that; she thought she'd be able to predict when they might come, but try as she might, they still seemed random.

Kallie sat on one of the blankets and guzzled two mugs of the blessedly cold water before Nilawi, Wattoha, and Iye entered the room and sat across from her. They had changed into the buckskin she was more accustomed to seeing tribesmen wear. Wattoha had some of the same features as Nilawi -- stark green eyes and a noble face -- but she wore her hair straight, and it was sprinkled with gray.

"We are sorry for my daughter," Wattoha said.

Iye bristled at these words. He was perhaps fifty, as was Wattoha, and the two sat close. They had the calm look of a couple who knew each other intimately, a knowledge that came not from mere years of familiarity, but decades.

"She is young," Wattoha continued, "and she thought her man had been murdered."

"Your daughter was only protecting her own," Kallie replied carefully. "I might've done the same in her place."

Wattoha smiled. "You are being kind."

"Begging your pardon, but do the men live?" Kallie kept her gaze fixed on Wattoha. She daren't meet Nilawi's eyes. Not now, as angry as she was.

"Hochomi lives, but the poison has traveled deep."

"And the other?"

"Kime has passed to the fields beyond." Wattoha raised one hand to Nilawi, forestalling any interjection. "Please, tell us how you came to be here."

Kallie did the best she could, telling them how she'd caught the consumption, how her husband had died from it, how she'd saved up enough to travel through tribal lands. They asked her to revisit the attack. The Queen seemed unsatisfied with Kallie's explanation, for her demeanor shifted from polite to intense.

"You did nothing to provoke them?" Iye asked, cutting off the final bit of Kallie's tale.

"How could I?"

Iye stood up straighter. "You told my daughter you felt the Queen's presence."

Kallie nearly recoiled. The reason for Wattoha's tension was suddenly as clear as spring water. Wattoha would have been bonded years ago to the dejda Queen, but unlike other members of the tribe, who could control a handful of beetles, the Queen should have been able to feel the attack in the desert, and yet Wattoha had apparently sensed nothing. If she had she would have sent help immediately, and Nilawi and the others wouldn't have been so confused and angry upon her arrival.

And they wouldn't have trussed her up like a pig for the blooding.

"See here," Kallie said slowly. She glanced at Nilawi and suppressed the queasy feeling in her gut. "I don't know what happened back there. You'd know better'n me . . . Maybe the Queen didn't like me, maybe she wanted to know more about settlers by digging in my mind, maybe she was just curious, but I can tell you I didn't do anything to rile her up. Wouldn't know how to. What happened out there must have been her doing, or maybe them beetles went rogue. All I know is I came in peace to trade for a flaskful of kayeya."

Before anyone could reply, the blanket over the doorway was swatted aside, and an old crone hobbled into the room.

Iye rolled his eyes and stood. "Not now, Earth Mother. Please, leave us in peace." He walked to her side and motioned to the doorway, but stopped short of actually touching her.

The old woman ignored him and surveyed the room. She wore a tattered horsehair shawl over her shoulders. Her mouth smacked repeatedly, and her face seemed locked in a permanent scowl as if she had a horrible case of the cankers. Kallie shivered as a beetle crawled up to the woman's shoulder and sat there, studying Kallie. Another dejda crawled up her leg and rattled. These beetles were smaller -- the length of Kallie's pinky -- and their proportions were different than the warriors she'd seen in the desert.

The old woman's eyes opened so wide that Kallie thought for sure they would pop out. "Taking council without Paheka?"

"It's not council -- " Iye began.

"Bah!" Paheka smacked her lips and swatted Iye's hands away. "You here conspiring." She said this as she looked at Kallie, and it seemed directed at her instead of the group as a whole.

The others turned to Kallie, apparently giving the old crone's words some amount of weight.

"I . . . I ain't conspiring."

Paheka hobbled over to Kallie, her lips smacking loudly, and kneeled. She stared into Kallie's eyes. The beetle on her shoulder seemed to do the same. "Conspiring? No, not yet. But she will, hmm? She will."

Iye shook his head, as if he'd hoped for something better. "Leave us in peace, Bone Mother. This doesn't concern you."

Paheka stared at Iye with hard eyes and a mischievous grin. "Doesn't concern me?"

She cackled and left the room, leaving a cold silence in her wake.

The second time I woke, I found fear in one, anger in another.

Strange how closely the two are entwined.

It became clear that Kallie would remain a prisoner until the Ohokwa were satisfied she posed no harm. She was confined to a small room deep within the warrens of the gorge, and several times each day, Wattoha would come with the village elders to question Kallie. They asked her about the reasons for Kallie's journey, the battle in the desert, the things Kallie had felt. The elders clearly thought Kallie had purposefully done something -- that she'd been sent by the settlers, perhaps, to infect their queen -- but Wattoha thought otherwise and would quell the accusations after too long.

On the second day, they spent a lot of time questioning Kallie about whether she'd done something to Nilawi. They brought all the liquids Kallie had brought to trade, her water supply, even the jars of strawberry preserves, and demanded to know what each of them was. Kallie could only wonder what had happened to Nilawi to make them ask such things. Perhaps she had become the latest victim of the beetles, and the elders suspected Kallie had had something to do with it.

Kallie tried to ask questions of her own about Hochomi and why he might have been attacked, about kayeya, about when Kallie would be allowed to leave, but Wattoha, though not unkind, refused to answer a single question, and the more she remained steadfast in her refusal to give information the more Kallie suspected that they would simply kill her once they'd run out of questions.

Several more days passed, and Spring Equinox approached. Kallie was allowed out twice per day, but only down to the river and always accompanied by a warrior. She was given food, though it was so spicy and foreign that Kallie could hardly eat it, and more often than not she heaved up some of the meal afterward. At least the water was drinkable, though the Ohokwa were not generous in this respect either. Once, just before falling asleep on the third day, Kallie experienced feelings of vertigo and a severe ringing in her ears, but as quickly as it had come it was gone, and she wrote it off to lack of a proper meal for nearly a week.

The following morning Kallie traveled down to the river, hoping to clear her mind. She stood on the solid rock of the bank watching the churning water ten feet below when she realized she was being watched.

Kallie had convinced herself that Nilawi had been attacked by the dejda, but here she stood, unharmed, at the head of the bridge. Nilawi shouted over Kallie to the warrior, who quickly bowed his head and left.

Kallie tried to control her breathing. Clearly something terrible had happened. She hadn't seen Nilawi since the day she'd arrived in the gorge, and now Nilawi had found her, far from Wattoha's protection.

It must be Hochomi, Kallie thought. He must have died, and now she's come to murder me.

The horror of hanging suspended over the river flashed through Kallie's mind, and she coughed, once, the sound pathetic against the powerful backdrop of the Chedahoa. Kallie wanted to run, but she stifled the urge. If Nilawi had wanted her dead, she would have simply ordered the warrior to dump her into the river.

"Come," Nilawi said.

The temperature plummeted as she led Kallie into a tunnel and down to the lowermost section of the Ohokwa village. The rock around them grew damp from time to time, and a deep sound Kallie thought was only the weight of the powerful river running its course soon proved itself to be the drone of the dejda, deeper and further ahead. The sound became clearer; she felt it resonate deep within her chest.

They passed many tall doorways, several of which had warriors stationed at them. The hallway transitioned to a more natural tunnel, and the drone sound increased noticeably. Soon they reached an irregular room populated by a hewn altar and dozens of glowing crystals. Below the altar lay a man on a canvas cot. An old woman with a hump back leaned over him, carefully pouring liquid down his mouth. It must be kayeya, Kallie thought. She wondered if there was more of it that she might smuggle away.

When the old woman backed into a corner, Kallie started. The man's face and neck were so swollen the she thought surely his skin would pop if it were touched with a pin. His eyes were so puffy that she doubted he could have opened them even if he could regain consciousness. Dozens of welts from the dejda stings were still red and angry. Even his fingers were little more than a collection of overstuffed sausages. That Hochomi still lived was a miracle in itself, but looking on him, Kallie wondered if it might not be more merciful to simply let him pass.

Nilawi moved to Hochomi's side. She smoothed his hair down and ran the back of her fingers along his cheek.

Time passed in silence, and Kallie felt the awkwardness build. Why had Nilawi brought her here? Surely not just to look upon her man.

"You have love?" Her words were soft and tender.

"Once," said Kallie, "yes." She was surprised that such a simple and unexpected question brought memories of Becker springing from the recesses of her mind -- the twinkle in his eye when he joked, the way spit flew from his mouth when he was riled, the way he'd pinch her backside at least twice a day -- but she hesitated to tell Nilawi any of this, for it felt to Kallie like she was teetering on the edge of some momentous decision. "He's been gone a while now, nearly four year."

"Hochomi gone almost. Maybe dead when sun rise."

"I'm sorry."

Nilawi turned and regarded Kallie. Her hand motioned to Hochomi. "I think Hochomi make you bridge with dejda . . . You feel? Same as before?"

Kallie shook her head, confused.

"In desert," Nilawi said, "when you come."

"You mean the way my mind was, before the attack?" Kallie felt nothing, but even if she had, she would have lied. "I'm sorry. I don't feel a thing."

"Queen has touch you since desert?"

Kallie shook her head and lied. "No."

"I think she do."

"No, I'm sorry."

Nilawi stared, as if trying to read Kallie's mind, then she spun on her heel and paced back into the tunnel. Kallie coughed and followed, her nerves beginning to fray.

She pulled up short when they reached a cave ten times the size of the altar room they'd just left. The walls and ceiling were alive with beetles, skittering, flying, buzzing. In the center sat the dejda Queen, resting on a bed of sand. Her ribbed carapace was deep red, like blood-soaked feathers on the wing of a raven. Her massive head lolled about as if she were blind and had no choice but to smell the intruders or feel them with her possessed antennae. The stinger between the mandibles thrust forward like a probing tongue, and her front legs, which seemed ineffectual at first, clawed at the sand and rock toward Kallie. Her wing casings lifted, and she emitted a rumble that sounded like the call of a diseased goat.

Kallie stepped back without meaning to and wrestled with her rising fear, but it soon began to ebb, because the more the queen struggled to reach her, the clearer it was that she could not move from her bed. She'd probably been there for years, Kallie realized, perhaps since the moment of her birth.

Most of the beetles around the queen were small -- the workers, perhaps, or drones -- but there were also several of the larger warriors, a handful of which flew and landed near Kallie.

"No turn," Nilawi said. "No run."

Kallie nearly disobeyed, but she stood rooted as a small coughing fit overtook her. The queen finally stopped her scrambling and turned her great head to Nilawi. Nilawi's eyes were closed and her hands were hanging at her side, palms facing the queen.

Kallie was struck momentarily by vertigo, but then, as she had in the desert, her awareness expanded. She felt the mass of the gorge through hundreds of rudimentary nerves, felt the air run through it like cold blood through rigid veins, felt the teeming hosts of dejda toiling under the will of the Ohokwa.

"You feel?" Nilawi said.

Kallie knew she should lie. She should tell Nilawi she felt nothing, for surely once Nilawi's fears were confirmed she would end Kallie's life. But Kallie had already shown it on her face. Nilawi knew; all she lacked were the details.

"I feel . . . something."

"Speak it."

Kallie shrugged. "It's . . . wide and deep," she said simply, hoping to remain as vague as possible.

Nilawi pointed to the warrior beetles. "You make them come?"

Kallie had no idea if she could or not, but she wasn't about to try. If she succeeded, Nilawi would feel threatened, and if she failed . . . She didn't want to think about that. She shook her head and stepped backward. The dejda skittered after her, and the contact that had been so tenuous vanished.

Nilawi imposed herself between Kallie and the dejda. The beetles stopped and backed away after a rebellious pause. When Nilawi turned back to Kallie, her face was sad and thoughtful. She glanced at the entrance to the cavern and stepped closer.

"Queen dies," she said, motioning to the monstrous, chittering insect a few paces away. "When she do, she pick someone. Someone to become sister to her daughter." Nilawi pointed to the far end of the cavern. "Twin. You see?"

Kallie had been too shocked to notice, but a mottled red cocoon the size of a curled up collie rested in a bed of sand at the far end of the cavern. As she watched, a shudder undulated down the length of it, sending a chill galloping along Kallie's spine.

Nilawi paced the width of the cavern, the warrior beetles opening their wing cases each time she passed by. The more she paced, the more agitated she seemed to become. "She choose," Nilawi said as she stopped and faced Kallie, her expression an accusation. "She choose you, milk-faced tahone."

Kallie turned to run. Nilawi's low whistle cut over the drone of the insects. Kallie fled toward the altar room. Already she heard the warrior beetles take flight. The first landed on her back and stung her twice near the kidney. The second stung her in the neck. Two more bit into her rump and thigh. She screamed, trying to rid herself of them, but a moment later, she collapsed. A pain, dull at first, built and rose to a fever pitch as she writhed on the ground.

No more stings came, and a moment later, Kallie realized why. Nilawi stood above her, a dejda resting on her outstretched wrist.

"Now she choose me, tahone. Nilawi Gray Heart. You understand? Tell ancestors Nilawi Gray Heart was one who slew you."

The beetles took flight at a final whistle from Nilawi, but another high and piercing sound broke through. The blood-colored beetles fell to the ground or flew into the wall or rolled into a ball. When they were all buzzing and chittering on the ground, the high whistling stopped. It was followed immediately by a cackle. A tattered shawl interrupted Kallie's vision. Paheka placed herself between Kallie and Nilawi and spoke in Ohokwa to the beetles, which all backed away to the queen and beyond.

Nilawi screamed at Paheka, but Paheka only pointed a crooked finger at Nilawi, and two warrior beetles launched themselves from her shoulders toward Nilawi.

Nilawi ran.

The pain or the poison became too much then, and blackness closed in.

The third time I woke, I discovered a great yearning for life.

Though I didn't realize it at the time, this was the most important thing I had learned thus far.

Kallie woke facing a wall slick with moisture, which for some reason -- perhaps the closeness of the wall, perhaps the humidity -- sent her spiraling downward into a horrid coughing fit. She cleared the sour sputum from her aching throat and tried to pull herself up, but try as she might, the throbbing pain in her neck and spine wouldn't allow it. Her grunts echoed into the hidden distance as she tried again and again -- she'd be damned if she'd just wait for whatever fate had in store for her. Every joint in her body felt like it had been seared. Eventually, though the pain didn't lessen, she was able to control it better, and finally she managed a sitting position.

She found herself in a natural cavern the size of her kitchen back home. The rock beneath her thrummed. The faint roar of the river could be heard in the distance. The wet, rounded features of the cavern reflected the pink light from the single crystal set on the ground near a passageway leading out.

Footsteps approached, and Kallie scrambled for a makeshift weapon she could use to defend herself as Paheka limped into the room, her tattered horsehair shawl hanging around her shoulders like vines over a weathered tombstone. Three small dejda crawled along her arms and shoulders; another two or three wandered the folds of her decrepit clothing. Kallie wondered how she could have navigated the passageways, for she bore no crystal.

Paheka crumpled into a cross-legged position and reached beneath the folds of her shawl. She produced a small earthenware bottle and tossed it into Kallie's lap.

"What's this?" Kallie asked, shaking the bottle. Liquid sloshed within.

"Drink," Paheka snapped. "It help you cough."

Kallie pulled out the stick acting as a stopper and sniffed. She'd expected something foul, but it smelled . . . sweet, and fragrant, like brightbonnets or milk thistle. "Is it kayeya?"

Paheka chuckled while creating a bridge from one hand to another for a particularly mobile dejda. "No, tahone. Better than kayeya. Dejda honey, queen milk, what they feed to unborn."

Kallie frowned and set the bottle aside. She wasn't about to drink something given to her by this crazy old woman, whether she claimed it was better than kayeya or not. "Where are we?"

"You safe. That enough for now."

"Is Nilawi still after me?"

"After? Trying kill you, you mean. Yes. She think you block her path to throne.She speak elders. Tell them Goheshdekana think you like noise, cannot choose twin."

Kallie sat back and tried to massage the sting along the meat of her calf. Goheshdekana could be none other than the queen beetle Nilawi had shown her. Kallie had . . . bonded to the queen in some way, but how could she, a tahone, do such a thing?

"Does she have the right of it?" Kallie asked. "Am I interfering?"

Paheka smacked her lips and took in Kallie as if she'd forgotten she was there. "From Nilawi eyes, yes. You do."

"What about from your eyes?"

Paheka frowned and pinched her deep-set eyes as if she was hurting something terrible. Then her eyes snapped open and she fixed Kallie with a fierce glare. "Me think you free Paheka, free her to wander fields."

"Wander --" Kallie coughed "-- wander fields?"

Paheka said nothing in return, but in that moment their eyes connected deeply. Kallie felt Paheka's presence, not just with her eyes and ears, but in her bones and in her blood. Paheka felt suddenly kindred, like a sister, and Kallie knew Paheka had been granted the same sort of senses Kallie had, only she'd had it for years, decades. Perhaps it was what had pushed her to the edge of madness.

Paheka hugged her legs to her chest. She stared at her toes, like a little girl dreaming of the days when she would be grown up.

"What did you mean," Kallie said slowly, "when you first met me? You said I was conspiring."

Paheka considered for a moment. "Conspiring with queen."

"How could I do that?"

"Queen need you. And you need queen."

"That don't make sense."

Paheka continued to stare at her feet, but her hand reached out and scratched the stone absently. "Dejda, queen most, be trapped by Ohokwa. Queen need person from outside. Like you."

"But why?" Kallie said it a little too loud.

Paheka blinked and regarded Kallie anew. A hurt look settled over her, and she stood and pointed to the nearly forgotten bottle. "Drink!" she said as she shambled toward the exit. She cackled, and at a wave from her hand, the cavern went dark.

"No!" Kallie yelled. But the sounds of Paheka's shambling grew softer and softer. Soon there was only silence, and the occasional drip of water in the distance.

The walls closed in. Kallie's muscles tightened. Her breath came faster and faster, until she was gasping. The only thing that helped was the thrum of the Chedahoa, but she knew that was only temporary. She had to figure out what Paheka had meant. She had to understand what Goheshdekana wanted, for only in that could she save herself.

She forced herself to breathe slowly while playing Paheka's words over and over in her mind.

Dejda, queen most, be trapped by Ohokwa.

In what way was the queen trapped? The Ohokwa surely saw to her every need. And even if they didn't, why would the queen need an outsider? How would that free Paheka? The answer lay just out of reach, and the truth eluded her no matter how hard she tried.

Kallie took the bottle with trembling hands and took a whiff. The chance to be free of her consumption begged her to drink it. But she didn't trust Paheka as far as she could throw a newborn calf, so she set the bottle down on the cold rock and groped through the darkness, trying to follow the path Paheka had taken. She scrabbled at the rough cavern walls, stutter-stepping her way to a branch in the passageway as the sounds of dripping and the thrum of the river surrounded her. Her next step sent her sprawling, and something bit into her shin. She felt blood trickling down her leg, and as she stood, she began coughing again. It continued for minutes on end. Kallie spit out a massive amount of sputum and blood, more than ever before.

Paheka's words taunted her . . . It help you cough, she'd said.

The chance that it might act as the tonic did and heal her consumption proved too much of a temptation. At the first sign of the fit easing up, Kallie rushed back to the cavern and waved her hands frantically over the uneven ground until she found the bottle. Without allowing herself time to think, she unstoppered it and drank the sweet, thick liquid. It coursed down her throat. A giddy sensation suffused her frame. She felt warm, like she did after a stiff drink, but her chest felt little different.

Kallie shivered as wings rattled above her head. She shied away and shambled up the passage. Another dejda buzzed near the ground. She screamed and ducked as yet another whizzed by her ear.

Only then did she realize she could feel them. The sense granted by the beetle queen was active again, and she could sense dozens upon dozens of warrior dejda around her. In fact, there were so many that they outlined the passageway ahead of her like cave moss shedding light to guide her way.

She followed their trail. When there was a branch in the passage, the dejda occupied only one of them. A chanting echoed through the tunnels -- the Ohokwa, surely, performing the equinox ceremony. Kallie soon sensed the cavern of the queen and her brood a few hundred paces up. The queen's presence filled the entire space ahead, even beyond, as if she'd somehow grown much, much stronger.

Kallie came upon the queen's cavern. A dozen or so Ohokwa men and women, all naked except for loin cloths, danced around the massive queen. The men chanted in a rhythmic bass, the women in shrill counterpoint. Many Ohokwa watched the ceremony silently, Paheka and Wattoha and Iye among them.

The dejda around Kallie were becoming more animated. A few devolved into a wing-shaking frenzy, but others buzzed with a low burning hatred.

Kallie crept closer.

Wattoha stepped forward and handed an earthenware mug to Nilawi, who rose to a kneeling position and raised the mug above her head, exposing her naked breasts and stomach to the chittering dejda queen.

Kallie could sense the queen clearly now, could feel her -- could it be? -- emotions. Kallie didn't understand how such a thing was possible, but the queen feared, she despaired, and more than anything, she hated. It was an all-encompassing anger Kallie had felt only once in her life: the moments after discovering her niece had been raped by the Branson boys. That had been a blind rage, a time at which she would gladly have killed.

It had also been momentary.

This, on the other hand, this raw emotion flooding the cavern, was constant, as if the queen were a landslide that had no choice but to unleash its furious energy until fully spent, which made the mystery of the queen perfectly, terrifyingly clear. In the queen's mind, the dejda had been slaves for eons, generations beyond count. Their lives had been thrown away at the humans' merest whims. They hadn't been in control of their own destinies since the first Ohokwa woman had learned to bond with the first dejda queen. No matter that the Ohokwa had lent them a growing consciousness in the intervening years; it was a byproduct of their enslavement.

But the queen's nascent thirst for revenge had not been able form fully until now. The Ohokwa minds had been too rigidly fixed on the dejda and had become too similar after so many years being bonded. The queen had needed a catalyst to break from the pattern that had been passed down through the generations.

Kallie's hands went cold . . .

When Kallie had entered the desert, the queen had seized upon her as something new, something that might help her. Like a trickle of water that eventually destroys the dam, that initial contact had scratched away at the bonds that prevented the queen from reaching full consciousness. Kallie realized with a twist in her gut that she had just completed that transformation minutes ago when she'd drank the elixir. Now nothing stood between the queen and her dreams of vengeance.

Nothing except Kallie.

She couldn't allow this to happen, no matter what the Ohokwa might have done to her. She couldn't watch an entire village be murdered like dogs.

Kallie crept forward, attempting to use her link to the queen to quell the anger. She allowed the emotion to travel from her like cool water spreading across a tiled floor.

It was then that Nilawi brought the mug to her lips.

"No!" Kallie shouted. She charged into the light.

The room plunged into an eerie silence.

Kallie raised her hands in a sign of peace. "Don't drink it." The moment Nilawi drank the liquid, another bond to the queen would be created, and when that happened it would be too much for Kallie to control. The queen's anger would bubble over like an unwatched pot.

Nilawi pointed to Kallie and shouted commands in Ohokwa. Two of the nearly naked warriors advanced toward her.

Using her bond in a new fashion, Kallie willed the dejda to protect her, an action not unlike pointing a finger. A dozen of the large beetles buzzed past her and landed on the warriors. The Ohokwa screamed as the beetles bit deep into legs and arms and chests. Several more warriors stepped forward to help, but Nilawi and Wattoha both screamed at them to remain where they were. A moment later, Kallie ordered the attacking beetles to her side as the warriors crawled to safety.

A taut silence filled the room.

The dejda queen's head shook and her mandibles clacked as she fought against the barrier Kallie's emotions had enforced upon her.

"What have you done?" Wattoha asked with great care.

A cackle broke the silence. Paheka pointed a crooked finger at Kallie. She whistled, low and trilling, and the dejda flew into the tunnel. Kallie ordered the beetles back to her side. They didn't return, but neither did they retreat further.

For the moment, she and Paheka had reached a stalemate.

"It's the queen," Kallie said quickly. "She's going to destroy you."

Nilawi's face turned red and angry. She stalked forward, but Wattoha stalled her. "What do you mean?" Wattoha asked.

"Bah!" Paheka limped forward and she shouted to Nilawi in Ohokwa.

Nilawi eyed the mug she'd left on the floor. She took a step toward it, but at a word from Wattoha the warriors stopped her. As Nilawi struggled, Wattoha turned to Kallie.

"Tell me what you mean," Wattoha said, her face rigid with a suppressed rage.

"You know the queen has bonded with me for some reason."

Nilawi shouted in Ohokwa.

"I can feel her hatred," Kallie continued. "I can feel her hunger. She will not be controlled as her ancestors have for ages beyond count. She will destroy you --" Kallie pointed to the mug near Nilawi's feet "-- and all it will take is a sip of the queen's milk."

Wattoha considered Kallie, and then turned to the queen. Kallie felt a probing from Wattoha. She was trying to ascertain the truth of Kallie's claims, but as she'd suspected the Ohokwa Queen was too weak to have any real understanding of Goheshdekana's intent.

With the room's attention held, Paheka stood upright and pointed to Nilawi and the warriors holding her. Kallie felt Paheka's fury wash over her. The cavern wailed with the rattle of dejda. A swarm of them overtook the two warriors. They released Nilawi in a vain attempt at self defense.

Nilawi launched herself at the mug and downed as much of the liquid as she could manage.

The call of the dejda was like an explosion in Kallie's mind. She fell to the ground, unable to mount even the feeblest of counters.

Nilawi screamed. Kallie could only assume the same thing was happening to her.

All around the cavern, beetles flew. Landed. Stung. The Ohokwa cried with surprise and pain and anger. The women fled, though most of them did so with a dozen dejda crawling over their bodies. The warriors attempted to counterattack, but most dropped to the ground moments later, writhing in pain.

Paheka reared back and clapped, laughing shrilly as Wattoha and Iye crumpled to the ground. She pointed and smiled insanely at the carnage before her. The dejda swarmed everywhere, obscuring Kallie's vision, but they were clearly leaving Paheka, Nilawi, and Kallie alone.

An axe slipped free from a fallen warrior's grasp and clattered to the ground near Kallie's feet. She took it up immediately and charged. Paheka's eyes widened and she laughed even more while pointing a crooked finger in Kallie's direction.

Kallie came down as hard as she could on the back of the queen's head.

A sickening crunch rose above the buzzing call of the beetles.

Paheka collapsed, lifeless. The beetles fell to the ground, still moving, but most had ceased their high-pitched rattle.

Kallie breathed heavily, ready to strike again, but the queen lay utterly still. Nilawi stared up at Kallie with wide eyes, crazed eyes, but then something behind Kallie captured Nilawi's attention.

Kallie spun around.

The undulating form of the hatchling queen's cocoon shivered. Glistening mandibles ripped at the casing, and it was then that Kallie realized her connection to the queen hadn't been severed. It persisted. She stood confused for long moments, but understanding came as the new queen crawled from its birthing chamber and flexed her huge wing cases.

Kallie had never been connected to Goheshdekana -- at least, it hadn't been completely so. It had been the growing mind of the new queen that had connected with her in the desert, that Kallie had nurtured with the thoughts and emotions of a settler.

She took a step forward, brandishing the axe, but the young queen clicked her mandibles, and many of the warrior dejda whirred around Kallie. Kallie considered charging forward anyway, but at the mere thought, a half-dozen of them landed on her hair and chest and stomach. She dropped the axe and tried to shake them away, ineffectually. Only when she'd retreated to Nilawi's side did they free themselves from her and return to their queen's side.

Even as the cries of dying Ohokwa echoed through the passageways behind them, the young queen stared on, jubilant.

The queen didn't have to use words for Kallie to know that she and Nilawi were being allowed to leave. Nilawi seemed not to care, however. She was on her knees, crying, caressing her mother's cheek. Kallie tugged at her, gently at first, but then with force, until finally Nilawi stood and followed her out of the cavern.

The last Kallie saw of the young queen was her moving to the dead queen's body and biting into the gooey flesh of her engorged abdomen. Her brood quickly followed suit.

The flatbed wagon rocked and jingled as it trekked eastward and the morning heat intensified. Kallie rode in the rear, watching the second wagon and the horses that followed.

She coughed, once, knowing that her consumption had been cured -- some small gift in payment for leading the queen to the plane of consciousness. She felt no relief, however, for the mind of the queen was still with her, crowding the back of her mind. She wanted to scrape it clean, to start over, but she knew the feeling would be with her until either she or the dejda queen was dead.

Kallie regarded Nilawi, who met her gaze with a strange mixture of fear and defiance and apology. Kallie could feel Nilawi -- their common link to the queen granted each a faint but clear empathy of the other. Kallie tried to smile, but was sure she'd failed miserably. Nilawi's face hardened as she turned to study the cloud of beetles swarming above the gorge.

Six Ohokwa children rode with them, all of them dazed, many staring with anxious eyes toward the gorge.

God in Heaven, Kallie thought as she looked over the children, two wagons and four horses -- nineteen Ohokwa tribesmen, all told. Nineteen from a village of, what, four hundred?

The dejda could have killed them all, including Kallie. The young queen had granted some small amount of mercy. Either that or she wished word of her transcendence to travel as the Ohokwa survivors flew east to Shaukauna lands, unwilling heralds to the new power rising in the desert.

It was clear the future of tribesmen and settlers alike had been forever changed, but Kallie tried to console herself -- perhaps the dejda would be satisfied with owning the gorge, or perhaps just the desert.

Kallie hugged her stomach tighter as memories flooded her mind. Please, God, let her be satisfied with the gorge.

The fourth time I woke, I found myself.

Mine eyes have opened, my children, and never shall they close again.


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