My awareness falls backward. Another life flits past too quickly to see, and then another…
…and I find myself on a merchant ship, high in the clouds. My little son is by my side, clutching my clothing, and his younger sister is in my arms. I’m terrified for us, because the raiders have us check-mated. They will soon board.
The captain is telling me that I’m the only crew that can do it. Even if the darkness that is corroding my skills has retired me to the job of teaching the children, I am still a Wind-seeker. The feathers that grow from my scalp, mixed with my hair, are the evidence and the source of my abilities. I know the weather with an intimacy no human can comprehend. Under my command, the pinnace can carry the mothers and children of the crew to safety.
I’m apprehensive, but the captain is merciless. “It’s your malaise that sidelined you, not your skills, woman!”
“But without any men…” I begin. I don’t have sufficient arm strength to handle an entire pinnace on my own, Captain!
“I’m ordering all women and children off along with you. Kai, Hok and Graz aren’t of age, so I’m calling them children. They will be your crew.”
Pressing on before I can protest further, he insists, “Sirth, I cannot entrust them with anyone else. I need all the men to delay the raiders long enough for you to get underway.”
We board the pinnace, in its bay, deep in the bilge of the ship. My baby is in my friend’s arms now. She and the other four adult women and our eight young children are terrified, and the teenage girl and two boys that are my new crew aren’t much better. Nor am I.
I can hear fighting on the deck above as the raiders board. I throw the lever, and the explosive bolts blow. The little craft drops from the ship into the clouds below.
No time to rig up, with corsairs ready to intercept us. I keep the buoyancy suppressed to gain distance from the raiders through sheer force of gravity, and we plummet into the clouds while I use my Seeker skills to whip the cloud spirits into a frenzy. By their power of the wind, they angle us away from the scene. The dropping sensation that all sky sailors dread terrifies my companions. Their shrieks fill my ears.
But before the clouds swallow us, while we are still in sight of our cloudship home, I release the suppressors, and the husbands back on the ship see the plummeting cease and the little craft escaping using the air speed the drop bought us.
“Feel the spirits, little Pru?” I ask, smiling down at my son. He nods his little head, wide-eyed. His feathers fan out, sensing our invisible kin. He’s probably never felt them so agitated, but he certainly knows that the spirits are desperately helping us, and perhaps his senses are already strong enough to feel their friends hindering the raiders behind us.
Time is short. The fatigue will be on me soon. I tell the three teenage apprentices, “Haul up the sails! We need to be underway normally before I lose strength!”
The pinnace is fast. In the skies above the vast Pak continent, nothing capable of carrying people is faster. No matter how valuable my cargo of youth and women might be as potential slaves, corsairs sailed by humans stand no chance of catching a pinnace helmed by a Daughter of the Wind.
With that thought, my fear evaporates and my Wind-seeker pride returns. For these, my sailing family, I can overcome my illness and be a mighty sailor one last time. I can do this…
Go back even farther, Little Sen.
# # #
I’m a quasi-man of the sand breed, trekking across an open, windswept plain, struggling to keep a human baby fed while I trek to an outpost town of the empire. Right now, I’m killing herd animals that have young, to milk the dead beasts to feed the girl.
The baby’s tribe is allied with the empire. I hope to find a wet nurse there for her. Her family and the rest of her band have been killed, and the other bands of her tribe are fleeing the invading hord. I don’t know where to find them.
This is a world of violent snows, fierce predators and harsh deserts, and safety lies only in large numbers. Even a lone quasi-man, a fierce predator in his own right, cannot survive alone. That would be true even without a baby to protect.
I am praying that the wolf spirit that has been my shadow dual since birth will not cause the Imperials to refuse me. This baby is a normal human, and thus, clearly not my daughter, but she’s the only survivor of the band that adopted me. I want her to live.
You must go much farther, past these fleeting, short lives…
# # #
My wife and baby are at the airlock with me to bid me farewell. I’m completing all the connections and seals on my life-support suit. I’m leaving these two behind in this colony buried in the soil of this airless world. The odds are, I will not see them again.
It’s for survival of the habitat. As the only Enhanced with the necessary skills, I’m the best possible choice for this job. She fears I’m sacrificing myself due to the congenital spirit-condensing condition I have fought all my life. But she and our child are frail natural humans, and I know that her only chance, my child’s only chance, everyone’s only chance, is for me to go out there…
You’ve gone back barely three thousand years, Little Sen. It’s much farther. Let me help you find it.
# # #
With Oranos now guiding my journey, I fall backward through memories of more lives at greater speed, until I arrive at one that is ten thousand years distant in time.
I’m in the air. It’s a very familiar feeling for the current me, the feeling of my wings and my Wind mana lifting me as I cut through the sky. It’s exactly the same sensation of flying as it is for Tiana. Which makes sense, because my self-image is identical to Tiana as well: a young woman with raven hair and enormous black wings.
The personality of this person feels more akin to the original Tiana than to the current me. A harsh, principled, self-sacrificing sort of woman. Although, at the moment, I am wearing a rare smile.
Because I’m holding a newborn baby in swaddling cloth to my breast as I look down at him. I have drawn my raiment away from my chest to give him his meal. It’s a bit exhibitionistic, but it seems that the me in this lifetime doesn’t have the same inhibition against displaying myself. Besides…
He is CUUUUUUTE!
This little bug is just adorable!
I’m tickled by the way his tiny hands lay upon the skin of my breast as if to hang onto it, the way his tiny mouth can barely fit over the tip of my nipple, the way he almost seems to smile as he sucks the nourishment that miraculously flows out of my flesh for him, the little scowl of diligent effort his brow is making…
I wonder what it would feel like if he ever grew fangs, the way a child of my own kind would, and sank them into my flesh to receive his first blood from me. Sadly, I will never know that feeling.
I missed my chance after all. Four thousand years passed while I never found the inclination to have a baby of my own. Now that I finally have a child, this boy, this tiny demigod, doesn’t have a speck of miasma in him. He is fortunate that he will never depend on Servants for blood, but, by the same token, he will be forever disadvantaged with respect to the superior magics, in the same way that the mortals of this world are disadvantaged. Without easy access to blood magic, he will have to follow a far harder path to access the magic of higher realms.
But he does have affinity to all elements. And, like all the fledgling magic races that we are creating at a frantic pace, to be our replacements and carry on our role after we pass, he possesses nascent non-elemental magics, a great advantage over the mortals. Except, his potential for them seems far stronger than the other new races. It isn’t just my motherly pride; I know that, in him, we have finally found what this imperiled world needs most.
…because my own kind are doomed. The Affliction that has killed most of us has also destroyed our ability to receive mortal seed. Neither I nor the few other survivors of my race can produce more of us, and the time remaining to those that survive is horribly short. We can only use our remaining lifespan to conceive weird hybrids using unorthodox means such as the power of this child’s divine father.
But none of this matters at this moment. Right now, my baby is too cute for it to matter.
Why ever did I wait four thousand years to experience such a simple, wonderful thing? Why ever did I learn of this joy only now, when my life can no longer be numbered even in decades? I won’t live to see this boy’s twentieth birthday.
“Shouldn’t you be resting, Sen?” a disembodied voice asks. ” You’ve just given birth.”
The baby’s father cannot enter this lowest of realms, the mortal plane. He can only see us and converse.
I laugh. “Am I a fragile mortal, who must fly near death merely to birth a child?”
Faintly, I can hear him muttering, “Even your kind normally need rest after that.”
But, to me, he says, “You’re headed to the Underground City of C’r, I see.”
“I made up my mind during labor. Ilim Below will provide a safe place for him to grow. My mountain’s barrier is showing signs of weakening.”
After a bit, he observes, “You are no longer whole, and you lose more to the Affliction with each passing day. Bearing that child has surely shortened the little time that remains to you. I should have insisted that you pass the unborn to a healthier host. His body doesn’t need miasma, and some of the new magical body types are mature enough to carry him.”
I shake my head, deciding not to retort to the suggestion that I should inflict pregnancy upon a girl barely in puberty. I answer instead, “The risk of infecting an innocent host mother with the Affliction was too great. And this boy is worth it, no matter how many years he shaved from my life.”
“He is flawed. All the new ones are. Through him, we have confirmed that we have no means to recover your species.”
He is not yet convinced. I know that. He thought that, just maybe, with the power of a planetary-grade tutelary entity, he could father a daughter of my own kind. It had been our last hope.
I received instead a son of a completely new nature. I may try again, but the indications are, I can no longer bear daughters.
It’s disconcerting to hear a higher realm entity being so pessimistic. When he and his fellow planetary stewards were recruiting my sisters and I to incarnate into Huade to help shepherd it, he had been almost mind-numbingly optimistic…
“It worked well, for four thousand years,” he defends himself. “If only these foolish humans had not…”
He doesn’t complete the thought. Casting blame isn’t in his nature.
“You higher realm types are always reading people’s minds,” I grumble. “Learn to respect our privacy already.”
I can understand his frustration, though. By recruiting my sisters and I, he became our ultimate cause of death. We were enjoying safe, endless higher realm lives when he convinced us to descend here into the mortal world. Confronting that fact is surely brutal to a sensitive soul like him. He and his colleagues had only wanted our help to create a better life for the world in their care…
But his next words sound more positive. “You have faith in your son, I see.”
With a nod, I say, “This child may have failed your goal at birth, but I believe these flawed children will still achieve our larger aims.”
He doesn’t respond, so I urge him, “Trust in these children, Oranos. I believe they can succeed.”
The baby boy wriggles cutely for a moment, an adorable little frown wrinkling his brow. Then, he settles in and drinks with a bit more gusto. After bending down to give him a light kiss on the fine hairs of his scalp, I continue, “He is but a baby, but this world is in dire need of his kind.”