"Maybe you have another gift awakening," Jayra said.
"Huh?" Khyber turned so fast on one heel, she nearly knocked herself off both feet as she stared at her mother. Where had those words come from? If Jayra was had tapped the parent-child bond, Khyber should have felt it.
The kl'resti, Twist-Feather, chuckled and spun like a corkscrew through the air above the picnic grounds in the Logon town park. She shifted through the rainbow three times before coming to rest on the teen girl's right shoulder. Her butterfly wings folded into her back and she took on the feathery cat features that seemed to be her favorite shape.
"You've been restless since we got to the park," her mother said.
"Don't frighten her," her father, Kyle said, coming up to the picnic table with an armload of blankets to put on the ground.
"What's to be frightened of?" Khyber grinned, immediately relaxing, and shrugged to launch Twist-Feather back into the air. "Being an Istorica is boring."
"It's a headache," he corrected with a grin for his wife. He shuddered in exaggeration and turned to head back to their truck.
"Make up your mind," Jayra said, sticking her tongue out at him, earning a chuckle from their daughter. "It can't be boring and frightening."
"Keep shoving more facts and figures and historical texts into her head, it's going to explode," Kyle called over his shoulder as he headed down the slope to the parking lot. "She's only fourteen."
"She's a brilliant fourteen." Jayra sighed and settled down on the end of the picnic bench, and bent to take a handful of paper plates out of the top basket of the stack. "You don't feel any pressure, do you, Khy?"
"Not from you or Dad, or Abehla Dayree or Abehlo, or Abehla Gaylen." Khyber twitched her shoulders, feeling again that itch in her shoulders, as if something or someone tapped on them, trying to get her attention.
"From who, then?"
"Mom...I'm brilliant. The other kids, even the ones who know I'm the Ja'hanna's granddaughter, who know what it means..." She sighed and walked backwards up the gradual slope, a few shuffling steps at a time. Khyber hated complaining, as much because she knew her parents couldn't do anything about ridiculous adolescent ranking and power games as the sense that her general restlessness felt like whining.
She was the Istorica for the exiles from Rehdonna. The living repository of their histories and genealogies and teachings. Since she was old enough to talk and prove that she remembered everything she heard, everything she saw--and at age three could read and remember everything she read--she had been assigned the task of remembering everything the exiles learned and did. Someday, she would have the knowledge to put the pieces together, recognize a blooming Talent, and find the Taksearhe who could take them home to Rehdonna. She was tasked with storing their language, their customs, so that a Seeker could go into her mind, retrieve everything the exiles or their descendants would need to know to fit back into the society of Rehdonna--when the day came. It was an awesome, grave, vital duty. Istoricas, in some sense, were almost as rare as Taksearhe of the Taksearhe.
Since before she could speak, she had heard the story of her grandmother Dayree's miserable childhood, tormented for not displaying a Talent the Taksearhe clan and their nobility considered worthwhile, until her Gatherer Talent burst into life at the moment of need. Khyber's parents and grandparents never allowed her to think she had failed her family and the exile community by not being born a Taksearhe able to reach through the vortex between the dimensions and realities and find the way home to Rehdonna. Whenever she slid anywhere near feelings of guilt, they sensed it and set her thinking straight.
Still, sometimes Khyber couldn't help wishing...
"It's still hard, isn't it?" Jayra said, her voice softer.
"Considering I'll be graduating high school at fourteen? Uh, yeah." She managed a grin that was only half-forced and twitched her shoulders again.
"What makes you so restless? Do you...sense something?"
"I don't know. I had weird dreams last night."
"Too much crammed into that little skull of yours, too fast," Kyle said, joining them with two folding chairs in each hand. "The others are finally getting here. Follow your nose, chiya. We have plenty of people to help set up. Go goof off for a change." He gestured with a jerk of his chin, as if he could nudge her over the crest of the hill.
"What kind of weird dreams?" Jayra asked.
"People talking to me. Trying to talk to me." Khyber shrugged again. "Too much in my head." She looked past her father and spied the first car coming around the line of trees that shielded the sloping road up to the picnic spot.
Their family had come early to the park to hold the tables for everyone else. On such a beautiful, unusually warm spring day, common sense said other people would have the same idea--get outside and enjoy the sunshine and warm weather and balmy breezes. Khyber had looked forward to seeing her cousins and aunts and uncles today, but suddenly their arrival felt like an invasion. She needed to get away and run, work off the restlessness that made her twitchy. A few more steps took her over the crest of the hill, then she headed down, toward the road and more picnic spots. Spouting a mixture of sounds ranging from a chuckling brook to oinks to braying, Twist-Feather swirled down out of the sky and perched on her shoulder again. This time the shape-shifting creature shrank in size so her body was little more than a handful of fluff, and wrapped her tail, five times the length of her body, around Khyber's neck.
She stayed in that resting spot for less than ten minutes. Sprouting wings a swan would have envied--albeit in swirls of lime green and lemony yellow--Twist-Feather leaped up from Khyber's shoulder and spiraled up into the sky again. The girl laughed and tipped her head back to watch her companion shift shape again in a kaleidoscope of shapes and colors.
Laughter from the little playground next to the picnic pavilion at the bottom of the slope answered her. A shiver of inexplicable recognition raced up Khyber's back as she looked down, and saw a little girl run out from the shelter, pointing up at the sky.
That little girl could see Twist-feather.
Overhead, Twist-feather turned cartwheels and somersaults, trailing rainbow-striped feathers in a mad mixture of styles; ostrich, peacock, feather boa, rooster and hawk. She shouldn't have been able to fly with such ridiculously long, flamboyant wings and tail feathers. The weight alone should have kept her on the ground.
Khyber had read every book on birds she could find in the Logon and Rosemont branches of the Wildvine County library system. She understood enough of aerodynamics to know Twist-feather shouldn't have been able to resist the tumbling of this windy day, let alone get aloft. Let alone keep herself aloft.
But she did.
The fact remained that while Twist-feather did impossible acrobatics in the turbulent air over the rolling, tree-covered park, a little girl Khyber didn't recognize could see her. She stood by the swing set now, holding the hand of a man who was probably her father, pointing up at Twist-feather with her free hand and laughing.
No stranger could see Twist-feather. Khyber had grown up with that as a solid fact. While every child among the exiles had been able to see the kl'resti, by the time they hit adolescence only those with any hint of Talent could still see the shape-shifting creature. Only three of Khyber's nine cousins could see her now, and they all had clear signs of inheriting their grandmother Gaylen's healing Talent. Only a handful of the elders, all of them members of the Council, could see Twist-feather. Khyber's parents and grandparents were the only ones who could get Twist-feather to listen to them, besides Khyber herself. Granted, listening and acknowledging their presence was very different from actually obeying.
Yet there was a stranger, staring up into the sky and laughing, and Twist-feather circled lower in the sky, watching the little girl.
"Don't," Khyber whispered, watching her friend flip over onto her back and glide through the windy sky as if doing the backstroke in a glassy pond.
Twist-feather turned over after a few seconds and swooped down. The little girl and her tall, dark-haired father laughed and ducked.
He could see Twist-feather, too.
Khyber stopped short, not even breathing as her brain spun through the implications of that realization. Was she imagining it, or was there something familiar about the dark-haired man's face? She nearly stumbled as she realized she had gone halfway down the hill. Father and daughter weren't watching Twist-feather now, but looking at her. The man waved to her, then bent and caught up the little girl, settling her astride his hip. He looked up at Twist-feather, then back to her. Then he called out in words that made no sense to Khyber. Tears touched her eyes, until she realized with a jolt that stole the air from her lungs that he wasn't speaking English.
He spoke the language of Rehdonna. He spoke formal greeting, asking the name of her clan, requesting to speak with her elders.
"Enday--enday'ti, pla!" Khyber shouted, gesturing for them to stop. She turned and stumbled a few steps up the hill, then looked back and repeated her plea: Stay--stay there, please!
The man bowed to her and adjusted his hold on the little girl. She ignored Khyber to wave at Twist-feather. The kl'resti spun in circles higher up in the air, heading back the way she and Khyber had come a few minutes ago. Back to the picnic area where their extended family should be gathering by now.
"Dad!" Khyber shrieked as she raced up the hill. Please, please, D'hune, let Abehla be here by now.
Jayra, Dayree and Jayx were already heading up the slope when Khyber reached the top and plunged down toward them. Her mother and grandparents must have heard her. Maybe they sensed the turmoil spinning through her, stealing the air from her brain. In the parking lot, Kyle was just turning away from Grandmother Gaylen's car, his arms full of the long tray of fruit pocket pastries that were her specialty. Behind him, knots of aunts and uncles and cousins were coming from their cars, carrying food and spots equipment for a day in the sunshine. Everyone seemed to stop short and watch Khyber bomb down the slope.
"Travelers," Khyber managed to say, despite her dry mouth. She spoke Rehdonnayan, and the understanding that lit the faces of everyone who could hear her was almost comical--and gratifying. She waited for her mother and grandparents to reach her. Kyle hurried to put down the tray of pastries and linked arms with Gaylen as they hurried to catch up with them. Khyber's legs felt wobbly, and not just from the strain of running up and down hills multiple times, as she led the way back up the hill, and over.
"Who can they be?" Jayra murmured.
"Two choices," Jayx said, as they linked arms and paused at the top of the hill to look down at father and daughter. "No, three. This is our Taksearhe, at last. Or Jo'am brought through more exiles for sanctuary, and never told any of us. Or these are descendants of the Tobrizz who were stranded here when Jo'am first brought Clearing Deep to safety."
"No," Khyber said. "It isn't fair for a Tobrizz to be able to see Twist-Feather."
"Talent is talent, chiya," Dayree said. "We cannot question D'hune's gifting, except to request understanding."
"Well..." Kyle exchanged glances with his father-by-law. The men stepped to the outside of their group, putting Dayree in the middle as their Ja'hanna, with Jayra on one side of her and Khyber on the other, as her heirs. Gaylen walked between Khyber and Kyle, and Jayx linked arms with Jayra.
"In the name of D'hune," Dayree said. "May our path be lighted and guarded, and may we act with honor and compassion, no matter who they may be."
"Waiting for us," Khyber added, as the father put his daughter down, caught hold of her hand, and waved to them with the other.
The two groups walked toward each other, the exiles' representatives going downhill and the others heading uphill. The father and daughter had left the playground area, designated with railroad ties that were partly covered with moss and overgrown with grass. They stopped maybe ten yards higher up the slope from it, and waited. Khyber tried not to think about those two people being from their enemy, but now that her grandfather had mentioned the Tobrizz, she couldn't keep her imagination from conjuring images of attackers stepping through slits in the air and surrounding them. She imagined that little girl would suddenly warp and melt and grow into an adult, hidden under illusions just a moment ago.
"Cousin?" the man called. He spoke in Rehdonnayan. "Do you remember your birthday, when my Abehlo gave you the puzzle box? We stayed up all night, hiding under the covers with a glowstone, but Aunt Dayree caught us anyway."
"My puzzle..." Jayra stopped short. Her face went so white, Khyber thought her mother would faint. Then a moment later her face flushed bright pink and she tipped her head back and laughed.
"It can't be," Dayree said, as Jayra tugged her arms free of her parents' grip and ran down the slope. "Kirstan?"
"Yes, Aunt Dayree. I finally found you. Twist-feather is a pretty clear sign if I do--" The rest of his words were cut off as Jayra reached him and threw her arms around him. The two laughed and spun each other about, nearly knocking themselves to the ground.
Kirstan? Khyber shuddered once, sensing that all was not just well with them, but D'hune had sent them a great gift. Then the pieces came together in her mind, and she flushed hot. A well-trained Istorica didn't let emotions like fear and imminent jealousy get in the way of clarity of thought and memory. She should have seen the family resemblance as they got closer to Kirstan and the little girl--his daughter, most likely. She should have suggested that he was Kirsten, son of Kedrin, son of Jo'am, the Alcaradan of the Taksearhe clan, who had brought the villagers of Clearing Deep to Earth and Wildvine County for safety when her own mother was a little girl. Kirstan had been visiting with Jayra and her parents, and had come to Earth in the evacuation that had first revealed Dayree's Talent as a Gatherer.
Twist-feather let out a high-pitched yowl that could only be described as triumphant, and came in for a heavy landing on Khyber's shoulders, making the girl stumble. She batted the girl's head with her wings before folding them tight and then absorbing them into her back. The kl'resti's neck elongated so she could curve her head around and look Khyber in the eyes, blinking at her with huge, lavender and green lashes fringing her sparkling green eyes.
"Am I being stupid?" she murmured to her friend.
"Not at all," Dayree said just as quietly, and patted Khyber's arm. "You are afraid that Twist-feather will leave you for Kirstan, since she was first bonded with his grandfather, aren't you?"
"Yes, Abehla." Funny, but the fear didn't sound quite so silly coming from her grandmother's lips, with warm compassion in her eyes.
"Is she yours?" the little girl called, all her attention on Twist-feather as she followed Jayra and Kirstan, walking arm-in-arm back to meet their group. She looked like she was only five years old, in faded jeans and green hi-tops and a pink sweatshirt.
Khyber couldn't say anything. Twist-feather didn't really belong to anyone, in the sense that someone could command her. The kl'resti went where she pleased, did what she wanted, and answered to no one. In fact, she was more prone to scold than to let anyone tell her what to do.
"I think, from what I remember my Abehlo telling me about kl'resti..." Kirstan winked at Khyber and bent down to address his daughter. "It's more that your cousin belongs to Twist-feather."
Cousin. Khyber grinned at the jolt she felt. Yes, they were cousins. What was wrong with her that she couldn't keep track of important details like that? Her mind latched onto one detail she knew was more important than anything.
"You have come to take us home? Back to Rehdonna?"
Funny, how her heart skipped a beat at the word "home". Here, Earth, Wildvine County, the town of Logon, was home. Not Rehdonna. Despite all her grandparents' and parents' efforts to be fair, to be even-handed with the memories, Khyber knew Rehdonna wasn't their home true. Not the way it had been, how it had been changing, how those in power treated them when they left--when they fled for their lives. When the brute squad of the Taksearhe clan came to kidnap Grandmother Dayree and her mother, Jayra, and force them to conform to the plans and values of the clan. After Jo'am, the alcaradan--the equivalent of a prince on Earth--their defender and advocate, had been murdered.
"Eventually," Kirstan said. His smile faded and he looked at the others, his gaze meeting each person's eyes in turn. "Rehdonna is in a time of turmoil. The Tobrizz have been attacking, villages have been decimated. Some clans no longer exist, so badly damaged they have merged with other clans that could protect them better, either in weapons or Talents or simply terrain that protects them better. Those in mountains and on islands or sheltered valleys are more secure than those who live on vast, rolling plains." He bowed to Dayree. "There are some who curse you for refusing to bow to the dictates of the power-hungry."
"That says much," Dayree said, her smile thin and grim. She gestured back over the hill toward their picnic tables. "The timing is good--you will join us for lunch?"
"Chiya, go fetch your mother." Kirstan pressed his hands on his daughter's shoulders, turning her around and giving her a nudge to head back down the hillside.
"What's her name?" Khyber asked, watching the little girl run. That earned a bark of laughter from Kirstan.
"Forgive me. Well, when my tandeer joins us, then we can make more formal introductions." He gestured, and they headed uphill without waiting for the girl and her mother to appear. "We can discuss this more, later, but you should know that my tandeer is of Earth, not Rehdonna."
"But she must have gifts, some Talent, for you to be Tandeer-bonded," Gaylen murmured as they crossed over the top and headed downhill. "Your daughter is a bond child--does she carry the Taksearhe gift?"
"As he said, to be discussed later." Dayree waved to several more members of their family who had reached the picnic tables and were putting down their baskets and drinks and other supplies. "Only some curse me for abandoning my clan? What do the others say?"
"We have had too many examples of what life would be like under Tobrizz rule," Kirstan said. "Too many instances where those with Talents was taken and their minds changed, and came back to use their Talents against their own blood. Our leaders have discussed what would have happened if Tobrizz-minded in our clan had forced you to bow to their commands. If they had taken the next step and joined with the Tobrizz, you could have been used against us to kidnap children, youths, anyone vulnerable."
"Jayra and I could have been useful in evacuating villages to safety," she offered.
"True." One corner of his mouth turned up.
"What does that mean?" Jayx asked. His eyes narrowed as he leaned forward, studying Kirstan a little more closely.
"It means I have taken a page from Abehlo Jo'am's book. I found Earth more than ten years ago, in a desperation move to rescue a village under siege. No one was more surprised than me when I took a blind Step and landed in this world. Fortunately, this country, but on the West Coast. It took me nearly a week to get the whole village here. I have brought several villages, spreading them out throughout the country. The Tobrizz have learned much and grown more sensitive, as well as finding the Talents this world produces, to breed with them. Their new generation can feel the massive outpouring of power involved. As I learned with the third village, when I tried taking five at one time, and landed nearly on top of the Tobrizz hunters. Right now, it's safer and wiser to only take two at a time. Less power output, less dissonance in the material of reality when I enter this world. They can't track us."
"Meaning Gatherers are unnecessary. Perhaps even a danger." Dayree and Jayra exchanged wry glances as their group gathered around the tables. "How comforting."
Khyber was pleased to see her cousins and aunts and uncles noticed the stranger among them and moved away, letting them talk in peace. She was even more pleased that her parents didn't send her away. After all, this was very grim, adult talk. Then again, she was probably allowed to stay in her function as Istorica.
"Aunt Dayree..." Kirstan sighed. "I have been searching for Earth since my father died. He had in his possessions Abehlo's journals, where he wrote that he evacuated others from Rehdonna, possibly here to Earth, after the people of Clearing Deep returned to Rehdonna."
"Wait." She stood very straight and held out a hand, as if to reach for his. "Kedrin...?"
"Within a year of you and your people vanishing from Rehdonna."
"Oh, Kirstan, I am so sorry. I suppose Tolik and his cronies on the Council took the opportunity to consolidate their power."
"Hardly." He offered a flat-lipped smile, and there was something fierce in his gaze that made Khyber shiver. "We have all been too busy battling the Tobrizz. Tolik and his supporters have become very old-fashioned in their thinking and methods. It didn't take much to hammer in the object lesson of what our lives would be like if we followed the path of the so-called enlightened, progressive thinkers to the very end of the trail."
"The end of our world, rather," Gaylen murmured.
"Are you Alcaradan now?" Khyber asked when the thoughtful silence grew a little too thick for her comfort.
"I suppose I will be, eventually. Right now, I would much rather explore and search for the lost," Kirstan said with a smile and a nodding bow to her that made her feel much older.
"Now that you have found us, what do you intend to do?" Jayx said.
"Unfortunately, move very slowly, cautiously. Perhaps not even move for a long time. The Tobrizz's Earth-born Talents...I don't know what to call them. Hounds?" Kirstan shuddered. "Leaches? All I am sure of is that some were able to grab hold of me when I Stepped from Rehdonna. After two more encounters, more examples of what they can and cannot do, I am only able to theorize. It seems to me they cannot travel under their own power."
"Good for us," Kyle muttered.
"Indeed." The two men exchanged understanding glances, and their group settled down at one of the tables. "They cannot follow a trail, and I hope it means they cannot give the feel and taste and smell and energy resonance of another world to their own Seekers and warped Taksearhe. Otherwise, after that first too-close encounter, they should have backtracked me to Rehdonna. However, the ones who did latch onto me had the power to ride my energy and partially endure the vortex between worlds. There was a sick, hollow feeling to them in the few seconds they were connected to me."
"It sounds like this has happened more than once."
"Partially?" Jayx asked.
"They died and were lost in the vortex. Unfortunately, they have my scent, I suppose you could say. The taste of my energy and Talent. As I have theirs. I must be very cautious about using my Talent and ensure none of them are anywhere within...oh, ten Earth miles, before I can Step home to Rehdonna. I fear that they have much stronger hunters, more tenacious and experienced. One of these days, D'hune's grace will not protect me and I will take one of them home to Rehdonna, and then where will we be?"
"Could they sense some of us using our Talents?" Khyber asked.
She almost grinned at how the adults all sat up and their eyes widened. Had she actually thought of something they hadn't? Still, it was a very serious, potentially dangerous topic. It was good she had thought of it, because they would have to deal with it.
"Yes," Kirstan said slowly. "Perhaps they could. All the more reason to find the other refugees and take everyone home, or gather together for safety. Some of them have illusion Talents, the ability to partially blind hunters to their presence. With enough power sources, perhaps linked with the Gatherer Talent, they could hide an entire village from the Tobrizz."
"What if the Tobrizz develop a Talent strong enough to call through the vortex, and bring their own kind through to them?" Gaylen said after several moments of quiet contemplation of what Kirstan had proposed.
"We must pray D'hune that possibility is many years, and generations, away," Dayree said. "Our first priority is protecting our people. Hiding them. Gathering our numbers together for greater strength."
"Because the Tobrizz would feel the energy at work, and follow it, and show up in time to cause trouble," Khyber said.
"Exactly, little cousin." Kirstan nodded, and lines of weariness formed around his mouth, even as he tried to smile. "But we should focus on the good news we have had today. Do you know why my family stopped here at this particular park today?"