This cover was illustrated by NICHOLAS PILOTTI.
The cliffs soared above the slick desert dunes. Enormous spires of rusty rock so tall that they’d trapped the coast’s clouds and damned the region to drought. A god raised them from the dirt beneath the ocean, said the songs, but that’s what I’d been told. Songs aren’t always truths.
But in this case, I’d be willing to wager they were.
“Two centuries ago,” said the southern individual guiding me through the dunes, “Lodoro Gun Dolo rose from the sea, blackened by oil and tar and gasoline, and looked upon the lands we walked and said, ‘No more.’ And none knew quite what he meant. Then came sunrise the next day, and poof!” My guide raised a craggy white hand against the shadow of the sun and pointed to the sheer rock faces that stretched horizon to horizon. To my left stood this wall of jagged peaks. To my right the endless dunes.
I’d blipped into that vastness in a small village. My guide, Budon, offered to take me to a religious site.
“He rose these rocks to change the weather?” I asked.
“To block the storms of the sea,” said Budon, “and dry the land of all its life. Storms rose but from the sand itself, formed of the dust of damned villages and cities and peoples, and now the fields one thousand kilometers long which once gave unto us life and liberty have been swallowed in sand.”
Budon didn’t exaggerate, either. My eyes saw nothing but sand in our several-days’ worth of travel towards the rock faces.
I said, “And now your people build upon the rock?” My eyes travelled upwards to the jagged skyline. I saw dots several hundred meters above moving across the crag. Bubon’s body spoke of muscled, powerful movements and a lifetime in the sun. His thin eyes were nearly engulfed by lengthy eyelashes, and his nostrils and mouth reminded me of large hoofed mammals—expressive lips, mighty teeth, and emotive eyes to match. His neck and shoulders were so thick I could imagine the swinging force used for climbing, or the blows his strikes could have on an enemy.
Those dots were his people climbing the rock, bodies adapted perfectly for ascension without the risk of falling. For a race shorter than a meter tall, they were athletically impressive.
“We live, yes,” Bubon said, “but I have brought you here for something else, my friend.” He grabbed his satchel and took a swig of the waterbag attached to the side. He smacked his lips and nodded. “Onward. To Nhellehn’Opho.”
From the dunes, I saw mere specs ascending the cliff faces. Bubon guided me to a new vision. If one looked closely enough to the rock, trails lead into the heights. Small handholds, footholds, and other such anomalies both natural and chipped into the surface.
“A road,” I said aloud. Budon nodded.
To these people, this was a road in the same way a trailblazer forges a rudimentary path. I’d recognize a burrow anywhere, given my early life as a mouse, and roads were easy to spot for bipeds sanctioned to the ground. But for the arboreal lives? Such interesting cultural differences were precisely why I enjoyed my travels so much.
You always learn a new angle.
Bubon scuttled along the surface, pushing and pulling his levers into whichever crevice seemed to fit. I inspected his moves thoroughly. The way his arms pulled as his legs pushed. The way his toes would curl and pull in order to allow his arms to put pressure out in stabilization.
The skeleton was a machine oiled and powered by the muscle and organs. Each movement worked in such precision and balance that even great machinists can rarely rework the pure power of biology into something of metal and wood and stone.
Knowing that my body had no business exacting such feats of athleticism, I would climb the first few holds myself before using my observations. I could probably climb most of the way to the top—this particular stone wall rose around fifty meters to the next steppe—but it would take me far longer. My fingers simply weren’t used to the stress given by hanging my body below. Climbing trees and buildings was nothing compared to a sheer cliff face.
But as I said, I’d put my observations to use.
Feeling through my body and watching Budon’s technique, I allowed Force to manifest in my Aura. I implied the pressures with a sorcery across my body—strengthening my physicality to take on the forces at bay. With Force, I pulled steadier and pushed stronger. I advanced the cliff face with tactical precision.
Up there, Budon escorted me through several cracks and crevices filled with wooden trails. Sort of like ropes bridges, but rather driven into the stone on either side, giving these lengthy waving paths a solidity through the rock. Our elevation rose higher until were were nearly eight-hundred-meters above sea level. It took several hours to rise this high.
We passed many other people like Budon. Only these natives did not look precisely like my guide. They did not wear desert wrappings. Instead, each of these natives had heads cloaked in clunky sea-shell-like helmets. Symmetrical devices forged of what seemed like pearlescent, light-weight materials that covered their head and shoulders as a single-piece cowl.
“For the sun,” said Budon of the garments. “To reflect the radiance back to the sky itself. An outer-skeleton, sort of. This high in the mountains that is important.” And I soon understood why. As the path took us to greater elevations, I realized that unlike traditionally-formed mountains, the fog and cold temperatures often associated with heights did not apply here. Whatever the god Lodoro Gun Dolo had done to these jagged peaks, he ultimately sapped them of all life or protection.
The sun was only more powerful. The temperature only hotter. The lack of moisture more thirsting.
We passed a small group of the natives—Ophonites, Budon referred to their priesthood—who used pulleys to rise to and from a deep cave. I wanted to peek down inside, but Budon refused. “Not our place,” he said.
At the end of the path, Nhellehn’Opho revealed itself.
Most temples in the sky rose above their mountains. The mortal obsessions with out-building our environment always leads us to the tallest architecture. But here, with these rock crawlers, Nhellehn’Opho was not a temple built upon the peaks.
But rather a temple carved into the ground—an enormous, spiraling, hollowed out pit some hundred meters deep barreled into the surface of the orange, rusty rock. Twisting pillars, ancient archways, and beautiful balconies adorned every last steppe of the reverse-pyramid.
Getting down was more akin to an asphalt pathway than a trail blazed in the jungle. Where the first climb forced my use of sorcery, this second climb into the first rung of the temple was forged of perfect red-concrete holds. A ladder, of sorts, leading to the next section.
The Ophonite priests chanted in the depths below. I saw the faint greenery of brush lining each steppe. Small, succulent-like leaves grappled from their branches and prayed to the sky above. The pots were formed of a similar material to the head-garments.
“Waddar,” Budon called the helmets as several priests strode by, bowing to us kindly in passing. “The Waddar are gifts from the depths of Nhellehn’Opho. For after Lodoro Gun Dolo’s wrath was unleashed on our prosperous world, only Nhellehn gave us shelter.”
“Nhellehn is another god?”
Budon nodded as we came to the next steppe. This time, overlooking the edge and peering below, I could hear the clinking and clanking of metal. Budon answered as he ascended the six-meter tall ladder.
“Nhellehn is the savior of our people. Across the desert, there are others,” he shrugged, “many stories of those rising up to aid their kin. Even farther across the dunes they speak of greenery, still. And gods there who built sanctuaries. But to us, it is Nhellehn.”
I made my way down. On this steppe, Budon walked to the edge and pointed into the dark. In the faint shine of the sun, I saw the enormous metal haul of a vehicle. Written in runes on the side, peeking through a rusted painted yellow and blue sign, read, LAMAL MINING COMPANY, SARADIAN COAST, 1200981. The writing wrapped around the cylindrical edge of an enormous barrel of steel painted in the same colors.
“Nhellehn died saving us,” said Budon. “She drilled into these depths and built a nest for us. In the birth of her children, she died, and has never recovered.”
My mind twitched around the language and the runes. Lamal, it seemed, was pronounced Nhellehn. A system of writing whose pronunciation and inscribed meaning were not entirely consistent. At least, in the centuries after this occurred, things may have changed.
The Many Tongues song which allowed me to read and speak sometimes couldn’t pick up on such things. This was an interesting moment where my brain’s interpretation of the letters and the words in my mouth seemed at odds.
In short—it doesn’t translate properly to this story.
“This is enormous,” I said, eyes gulping the images of the massive mining vessel trapped in its own hole. The temple must have been built around the vehicle in the centuries after its death.
“Come, my friend,” said Budon. He lead me through the temple’s labyrinthian doorways into a tunnel maze carved into the rock. The holes were perfectly round, as if carved by giant worms, and so smooth it nearly felt like volcanic rock compared to the iron heavy sedimentary stone of which the coastline was created.
We arrived at a white doorway which opened to a set of wooden paths. More pikes driven into the rock, swerving up between the sheer rusty flanks to the sky. I asked Budon how those wooden planks were driven into the rock. Strange that a pole could be shoved into one side and have enough room to move into the other properly. Like sticking a rod between two walls.
Budon explained that the rods were driven into a higher section by several centimeters and then driven into the lower from the higher hole. Whatever small distance was left from the higher hole allowed the pole to sit relatively snug between them—even if not level—and then they cemented the pieces in place.
Well, that explained why the paths were so wavy.
Then, finally, I saw the reason Budon had traveled so far with me.
Above us, dozens of robotic crab-like vehicles scrounged across the rock face. Machines somewhere between an automobile fit for myself or a human. The vehicles, ruined by horrific weather, screeched and screamed with every movement. Sturdy solar plates on their backs seemed to be a power source, feeding power via neon-green tubes to the rust-stained limbs.
Between three towers of orange stone, a squadron of these vehicles leapt from side to side, and collapsed their forelimbs. The hind legs held the vehicle in place not unlike a platform, while the pilot’s pod and forelimbs turned and clicked together—forming drills.
Then the back limbs slowly pressed the drill bit into the surface of the rock. Hundreds of holes already lined these towers. Now, more were formed.
The drill bits appeared to superheat, as steam and red hot metal burned into the stone. That explained the smooth, volcanic touch of the tunnels. The edges of the rock were melted over.
“The sheet rock that Lodoro Gun Dolo dragged from the ocean depths and sheered to form these peaks came with a hidden treasure,” Budon said, motioning me to a nearby hole. “Though Lodoro Gun Dolo banished us from our past civilization, he left behind remnants of the ocean’s depths. Cradled in our doom remained a glimmer of balance—a chance at rebuilding. Part of that came from Nhellehn and her children, and what they showed us.”
Deep in the tunnel lit by lanterns came the sparkling vision of pearlescent ore. A small shrine sat before it in a chamber large as a church. The shrine was the battered body of one of the mining vehicles outside—posed as if protecting the ore.
“The material for your garments?” I said. “The Waddar?”
Budon smiled, “Indeed. Mine was broken in the dunes by raiders. When we ran into one another, I’d been without for some time. Finding you in the dunes gave me hope. I wished to be taken by the sun and to return to the dust of the sand. But upon meeting another lonely soul I knew I must return here, and forge again my Waddar.”
I dug my hand into Budon’s shoulder in a gesture of brotherhood. “I am glad we met, Budon.”
“And I, Opaline.”
I stayed in Nhellehn’Opho for my entire time on that world, learning of their past world from their perspective, and never once informing Budon or his people that Nhellehn appeared merely to be a mining machine, and her children squadron drones built for the same purpose. Who was I to interfere with their belief? These people were joyous, and thriving, despite an apocalypse brought onto them by an ireful god.
When Budon’s lenghty ritual was finished, and his Waddar was fitted and forged by the priests, we strode into the desert together.
“Here,” he said to me, “for that game you showed me.” And he handed me a cylinder of the Ophonite—the ore used in Waddar making. I accepted his gift, and showed him how to play Patchwork. Under the stars we played, and he told me of constellations and their many, many meanings.
I told him I’d abandon him. I told him I couldn’t tell him why.
He called me an angel.
I told him that was ridiculous. I was no angel. But he said that angels come to those who need them, and leave when the need has been lost. I said I’d met angels beyond number, then, and he said the same. And we agreed that angels were not empty divinities who spread wings between the clouds, but instead people with open ears and open hearts, who wish to learn and teach of others and their own. I liked that definition.
Perhaps I should have mentioned sooner, but Budon forced me into a fitting. Now, each time I walk a desert, or stride beneath the wicked sun, I have a second helm other than the Kaihan Helm—my Waddar, forged of the rock crawlers of Nhellen’Opho.