THE LIVING STONE
Howell Roland, Jr.
“He who hunts the valcan
without the deadly tone
which the swirling death cords sings
walks on sands of death”
The song of Jarlath
Thirst! Jarlath's throat felt swollen and dry. He looked over at the short knarf which trotted across the hot orange sand only a step from his side.
The return gaze from Darth's hazel eyes sought moisture!
“We take moisture only from the valcan!” Jarlath answered his four legged companion's silent question in the whistling language that his people had developed between themselves and the knarf.
Jarlath gave the signal for alertness with his hand.
The knarf, uncurling its upper lip to reveal long fangs, went back to sniffing the hot air for the scent of their quarry-a task it had pursued since the rising of the giant red sun.
Jarlath also cast the thought of moisture from his mind. If he could not locate the huge creature he sought, he would welcome death to returning empty-handed to the crater. Bringing all his thoughts to bear upon searching for their quarry, Jarlath keep his head constantly turning. Unlike the knarf, Jarlath depended upon his sight. With quick right to left movements of his head, he searched the sand dunes for a patch of darker orange. His life and that of Darth, his knarf companion, depended upon their sighting the valcan before its black eyes registered their presence.
All day they had combed the burning sands of the hard desert in pursuit of one of its most deadly inhabitant inhabitant—the valcan. Jarlath glanced toward the bright giant red sun hanging low in the horizon. If they didn't soon come upon the creature, night would fall! With the coming of darkness would go any chance of becoming the new shaman. Instead the job would fall to Vark, his uncle.
Jarlath smiled, but the curve of his lips was not the position they took whenever he was pleased. His failure would please many of the tribe. The living stone would surely be pleased to have someone other than him as the shaman. For he had received no communication from the divine living stone. But, he reflected hopefully as he scanned the desert for a tell tale sign of the valcan, it might only be waiting until he became the new shaman before speaking in his mind, which should Vark and his backers have their way he would never become a weaver of spells.
To most people of the tribe Jarlath was looked upon as less than human. His hand automatically touched his red hair, the visible cause of all his problems. It only it was dark like everyone else's and not the color of the scorching sun. Jarlath gritted his teeth. Even thought he might complete the test and kill a valcan before the setting of the red sun, they would still look upon him with suspicion. And continue to name him “Sun Child” behind his back. Of course, to his face they would call him shaman, provided he could walk the pattern of spells.
So carried away had Jarlath become with his thoughts that he failed to spot the mass of dark orange towering above the nearby sand dune. Only when the torrid breeze changed direction and Darth's warning whistle filled the air did he see the huge scaly creature already preparing to charge.
Although thoughts of death rushed through Jarlath's mind, he didn't panic. He touched a throwing star but passed it up. Instead his finger reached for his sling. The long days spent with the sling had made using it just that-- a reflex!
As his fingers located the one stone he carried in his pouch – a small white stone, his inheritance – the words of Slip, an old outcast of the tribe, came to mind: “Always seek to cast the shaman stone into the valcan's eyes. For it is said that the creature will die the moment the stone of the before ones pierces its eyes”. Because Slip had once been keeper of room of records, Jarlath had listened intensely when every the old man spoke.
With the old man's words seemly fresh in his mind, Jarlath released the shaman stone sending it hurling through the air to meet the charging valcan. All the grueling practice sessions paid off. The missile struck true! It hit the valcan in the right eye. To Jarlath, it seemed as though the creature ran into an invisible wall. The moment the stone struck, the valcan stopped in its tracks, stood tall upon powerful hind legs with it weaker front limbs pawing at it hideous scaly face.
Suddenly without making a sound, the huge creature toppled to the sand. Jarlath was stunned. I did it! He thought. He was surprised as he had expected the great creature to let out a scream of pain as it died. Yet like a true king of the desert, the valcan had died silently.
Jarlath took his eyes off the fallen valcan and quickly scanned the desert. One must constantly be alert when in the hard desert. The only living being in sight was Darth, who stood facing the fallen valcan with the fur on his back standing straight up as he bared his long fangs and growled from deep in his throat. Jarlath smiled. Without the knarf's keen sense of smell and companionship, he would have found it difficult to survive the dangers of the hard desert.
Knowing he must move quickly to take the creature's moisture before the setting of the red sun, Jarlath drew a special hollow metal tub from his belt and drove it into the neck of the valcan. Then putting his lips to the end which protruded from the creature's thick neck, Jarlath sucked on it until the valcan moisture came forth.
After taking as much of the valcan moisture as he could consume, Jarlath let Darth get his fill while he busied himself with the unpleasant task of digging the shaman stone from the creature's tiny brain. Jarlath would sooner die than lose the stone of the before ones.
Having retrieved it, he turned the shaman stone over several time in his hand hardly believing his eyes. Always before the shaman stone had been pure white. But now it had tiny streaks of red. Fear gripped Jarlath. What was the meaning of the color change? True the shaman stone he held had never been used to kill a valcan but was that what changed it color? Or was it some kind of warning that had nothing to do with killing the valcan?
Reluctantly, Jarlath replaced the shaman stone in to his belt pouch. There were other things of importance that must be done before the red sun ended it journey across the sky. Later, would he dwell upon the change in the shaman stone's color seeking an answer.
“Are you moisture full?” Jarlath asked Darth. The knarf rubbed his head against Jarlath's let. He gave the knarf a couple of strokes behind his ears. “Now stand guard,” he commanded in the limited whistling language he shared with his four legged companion.
The short but powerful knarf trotted over to a nearby sand dune. Making one of his incredible leaps, Darth reached the summit of the sand dune with ease. Turning so that he faced the opposite direction from which the hot desert breeze blew, the fateful knarf sniffed the air often while he also visually searched the surface of the desert for signs of life.
Jarlath whistled his approval. In Darth's present position any creature would be hard pressed to surprise them. Feeling as completely secure as one could upon the hard desert, Jarlath set about the messy job of skinning the orange valcan. He worked swiftly, glancing several times toward the red sun to judge the amount of time remaining before darkness settled upon the desert.
When he cut the last section of the orange hide free from the carcass, Jarlath set to work fashioning it into a shaman's robe. The task was extremely difficult and delicate but he used special glue, he had brought along, to seal the seams and to attach the sleeves to the main body of the hide robe. The sun had sunk dangerously low in the west by the time he completed his task of turning the orange scaly hide of the valcan into a crude robe, but one that was beautiful in his eyes.
Quickly fastening on the robe, Jarlath gave a short whistle. Darth vacated his post and came running over showing that he too knew that it was getting late. Wearing the orange robe made from the hide of the valcan – the sign of a shaman, Jarlath led the way back in the direction of the crater. Darth as always scouted ahead.
Jarlath felt completely comfortable in the robe. It seemed as though he had always missed its weight without actually realizing it. No longer did he feel the heat of the desert. Instead he felt as cool as he did inside the crater but without having to suffer the mental depression which gripped him when he was near of the crater and the living stone.
He let a little relief creep into his thoughts, along with it came resentment. He should never have had to seek out the valcan for his shaman robe. By birth right his father robe should have gone to him instead of to Vark. But no! The council had used the fact that the living stone had never spoken directly to Jarlath's mind, as it had to other spell weaver abbots since the first shaman, to try to name Vark the new shaman. To Vark had been given his father's valcan robe and thereby making it impossible for Jarlath to walk the pattern of spells. For only wearing a robe fashioned from the hide of a valcan could one hope to survive the forces of energy which assaulted the walker of the pattern of spells.
What worried Jarlath most was a deep-seated feeling that the living stone was indeed behind the council's actions. How would they dare do anything as radical as refuse a rightful heir his chance to walk the patter of spells if they did not believe it was the will of the living stone. Blast the living stone! He would work for the people of the tribe not their holy rock!
Touching the rough robe with his hand, Jarlath smiled. None had become a shaman through the testing way for a hundred years! His father would have been proud of him.
Darth's whistle attracted Jarlath's full attention! The knarf emerged from behind a dune to Jarlath's right and lifted his head and gave a second shorter sharp whistle. Only someone familiar with the whistling language could have recognized its meaning.
“OK, lead the way,” Jarlath answered in the old language of the tribe. Although he had not spoken in the whistling language he usually used to communicate with the knarf, Darth understood. He turned and headed back in the direction he had appeared.
Around the dune Darth turned a bit to the north. Jarlath had to run to keep pace. He could see nothing of the terrain because of the numerous sand dunes in the area. Darth led him up one of the dunes. Upon reaching the top, Jarlath spotted what Darth had located – a cluster of several big rocks.
“Good work,” Jarlath said. He added a whistle of approval.
He and Darth had barely settled down upon the middle rock when the sudden darkness particular to Hades descended. Almost immediately the hard desert changed from the quite abandoned appearance it maintained during the period when the red sun ruled the sky to a place alive with noises of life.
The whisper of shifting sand reached them. Darth growled so low that Jarlath was only aware of it by the vibration of the knarf's body. Jarlath gave his companion a pat and made himself as comfortable as possible. Always the slight whisper of shifting sand could be heard, but Jarlath knew that he and Darth were safe from the makers of the sound as long as they remained on the rock. Only should they be foolish enough to leave the rock's protection and set foot upon the open sand of the desert would the sinister lants, whose quick growth from bulbs buried deep in the desert floor which accounted for the whisper of shifting sand, pose a threat.
What made the plants so dangerous was the fact that they were almost impossible to detect. Their runners stopped their ascent a hair's breadth below the surface of the desert where its runners formed a net-like pattern. Any creature unlucky enough to step on the buried menace would activate the runners causing them to spring up and twist themselves around their unsuspecting victim. One prick of a runner's thorny spine was enough to paralyze even a valcan.
The plants made night travel very dangerous. Hoppers, night crawlers, bat birds and most of the other night creatures of the hard desert could be seen by the light cast by a green glow stone and fought, but the carnivorous lant plants made night travel almost impossible. Even Darth, with his excellent nose would have problems sniffing out the locations of the vile plants.
The lant plant was not the only carnivorous form of vegetation active during the night. The trap plant also took its toll on the animal life that prowled with the sinking of the giant red sun. Like the lants, the trap plant sent runners straight up from it large center, which was really no more than a gigantic mouth, to just below the surface of the desert. Hidden by a layer of sand, the trap plants interlocking runners spread out in a large flattened circle forming a net made of roots. Then the trap plants root like net secreted a powerful odorless acid onto the sand below it. The strong acid dissolved the sand forming a pit below the runners to the mouth like maul of the plant. The edges of the runners released a chemical that caused the sand to harden so that the side of the pit didn't cave in. And the thin layer of sand on top of the runners hid the pitfall completely. Hades was a dangerous planet during the day but at night it was doubly so.
Jarlath moved restlessly unable to sleep. I wasn't the hardness of the rock or the sounds of the desert that kept him awake but the excitement of the day's events. That wasn't the case with Darth. From the easy breathing of his four legged companion, Jarlath knew that even taking moisture of a valcan could not rob his friend of a good night's sleep. Yet, though Darth seemed deep in sleep any unusual sound or smell would bring him fully alert and ready for instant action. Therefore, Jarlath did not worry too much about being surprised by some desert night creature.
Many thoughts passed through Jarlath's mind as he waited for sleep. Now that he had the shaman robe the way lay open for him to walk the pattern of spells, which when completed would give him the knowledge to use all the spells he had spent most of his adolescent life learning. Mastering the written language of the before ones who had created the spells had been extremely difficult and trying.
The idea of entering the courtyard of power sent a chill down Jarlath's spine. Jarlath tried to shake the sensation. He should not feel frightened. He should only feel happiness at the thought of walking the pattern of spells. He should not have a nagging fear that the living stone would intervene against him. Never before had the rightful heir in his family been rejected by either the council or the living stone except for the first leader, a man called Captain, whom the remembers said had not only been rejected but destroyed by the living stone. Yet the council had rejected Jarlath already and hinted that the living stone would do likewise.
Jarlath touched his hair, the reminder of his unusual birth and the visual cause of his present problems. His mother had developed a strange affliction while carrying him in her womb. His father had told him that her skin had turned as orange as the desert sand. She was affected by the disease in other ways as well. The radiation from the living stone which kept crater cool had turned against her and made her so weak that his father had been compelled to take her near the rim of the crater where the rays of the red sun were strong and the radiation from the living stone weak.
It had been there, near the rim that Jarlath came forth into the world. His mother could not withstand the strain. She had died before he left her womb. The only means by which his father could save him was through weaving the spell of creation – the spell which according to the writing of the before ones must never be used. His father had not hesitated to disobey the holly script and the living stone. He had woven the spell. The weaving of such a powerful forbidden spell had taken such a great toll of his father's strength that thought it worked and Jarlath was born of spell, his father never fully recovered.
Again Jarlath ran his hand through his hair – which some said was the sign of the desert. All Jarlath knew was the he was more at home in the desert than in the crater. And all these years he had never told anyone that he could survive away from the radiation of the living stone. He was not a captive of the crater, unlike the others of the tribe he could live in the desert for days.
Though his father had lived for fifteen years after Jarlath's birth, he was only a husk of his former self. He had often told Jarlath that the living stone was angry with him because he had dared to use the forbidden spell and kept sucking his life force. But his father was a great fighter. Death had taken him only two months ago. Jarlath had watched helplessly as his father had fallen upon his face in the middle of a simple healing spell. It had been as thought the last of his energy had been suddenly been sucked from his body.
Following the death of his father, the council had quickly proclaimed Vark the new shaman in hopes that Jarlath would not object. He had. The council had struck to their decision. Jarlath had taken the only path open to the son of a shaman who had been refused the valcan hide robe.
Suddenly Jarlath noticed the silence of the desert. Darth rose quickly to his feet further reinforcing Jarlath's sense that all was not well. With blinding speed, Jarlath's hand brought a throwing star from its place in his belt. With it nestled in his hand ready for instant use, he tried to locate the cause of the suddenly stillness of the desert. Even the night crawlers, which raised their hissing voices as they wormed their way across the sand with stinger tipped tail held high, were silent.
A moment later, he caught the low buffing sound. The desert air carried sound waves well but still he could not identify the exact direction from which the noise came. Reaching down, Jarlath touched Darth with his hand to see in which direction the knarf faced. Darth's head pointed directly west. Jarlath quickly turned to face that direction. As he did so, the identity of the maker of the sound came to mind – a bat bird. Jarlath could vividly picture in his mind the sharp jagged teeth and the incredible long neck of the aerial creature. He steeled himself knowing he would only have a moment to throw between the time he sighted the creature's blowing red eyes and it attack. Jarlath waited motionless.
Unlike them, the bat bird did not have to fear the carnivorous plants for it did not walk upon the desert, but flew just above the sand. The buffing sound came from the force of the wind, driven by the down beat of the creature wings, hitting the desert floor.
For a creature so large, the bat bird flew with great speed. Because of the dangers posed by the carnivorous night plants, Jarlath and Darth were at a disadvantage. They could only wait for the creature to attack. The only thing which gave them a chance against the bat bird was the fact that like most creatures of the night it eyes glowed, thus making it possible for Jarlath to see its approach in the blackness of the moonless desert night.
Suddenly large red orbs loomed directly ahead. Burning red eyes rushed forward. Taking only a blink of an eye to gage the location and speed of the attacking bat bird, Jarlath hurled his throwing star. It whistled a deadly tune that ended in the thumbing sound of contact.
Quick, Jarlath snatched another throwing star from his belt, but the loud flopping noise and the sudden absence of those burning orbs told him his throw had struck home – the creature's neck. Letting out a sign of relief, Jarlath reached down and patted Darth.
“I think we will forgo the pleasure of taking its moisture, old boy.”
Almost before Jarlath settled back down and laid his head on Darth's back the sounds of the night returned. Added to the usual sounds were those of scavengers converging on the bat bird's corpse to tear away the flesh, for all night creatures at flesh instead of taking moisture. The sounds of the feast grew frenzied. It was during the sounds of bones being crushed and snarling fight over scraps of flesh that Jarlath drifted off into a shallow sleep.