Mute, incredulous assent. I remembered my own first field promotion. “I hope you enjoyed sitting down to eat,” I said. “It might be the last time you ever do. Get everyone ready. We’re breaking camp. Now. Go. ”
They left without ado. I stepped outside my tent and started pulling at a rope. Ash insisted on helping me, which I saw as a serious waste of talent. Without anyone ever saying so, I’d gotten the idea that before I came, he was what passed for authority in old beat-down Ariel. Then I realized that the men were stealing glances to watch an officer help an officer. I shut up. I expect obedience, but there are no peons in my command. Later, I went and helped him.
It’s a lot of rowing to get to Redmarak. Oh, the river narrows to that which lets two decent barges pass. But the current runs slower than it ought to, perhaps mechanically induced. Machines, always machines on this damned world. You know they even determined vocation that way? Took you into the Temple with a bunch of relics to see what jumped. Those that didn’t ended up sweeping the streets or such. The things a world will think of.
I brooded through the night. Ash wouldn’t let me row. We passed through what the locals called the Eye of the Profusion, an interminable canyon barely wider than the river. Cliffs rose forever on either side. Mountains piled on after that. The first Faith had apparently gained some great victory here. The men made religious gestures, all with their thumbs tucked tightly against their palms. I wondered at the significance of that.
Dawn found us on the edge of the swamps. We made for a large and treeless island. If I guessed right, this was the site of one of the battles that sent shrieks through the Auger soul. The saplings tickling my ears with their leaves suggested the right age. I told the men about a warrior fallen in white armor. Then I remembered the cache I’d found in the city square.
“Breathe on him,” I said. I ordered everyone back to their boats. Let the search begin.
“Suriel,” I said, “now would be the time.”
And I’ll be damned if he didn’t show up.
This is going to take some explanation. Humans are not alone in the universe. We always thought we were. The Profusion assumed we were. Hell, I certainly thought we were – until a golden being nine feet tall unfurled its wings inside my living room. Ship says it doesn’t matter. That I should evaluate my conversations with Suriel as though he could exist, or not. But that’s just Ship’s fancy way of saying he doesn’t quite believe me. And I’ll admit I’ve always encountered Suriel in psychologically suspect circumstance.
But the Niskivim feel more real to me than I do. I’ve never touched one, dared not approach. Somehow I’ve always expected that meant certain incidental death. Yet Suriel has guided me in ways I never expected. I don’t know where they came from. I don’t know why they’re here. But I saw thirty of them break the siege around Cibola and guide me precisely to the places necessary to disable an army. I felt the coldness of Suriel lounging in my favorite recliner. And it was Suriel who guided me to that cache in the center of Ariel, where the two entombed men hid.
They’re not really golden, of course. Just gold-colored, with veins of green and blue. You can see those because Niskivim are semi-transparent. I suspect they do not exist entirely on this plane. Their bodies are just like supremely muscled versions of ours in that they can walk and talk upright. But they also have wings, membrane-thin wings that they wrap around themselves like cloaks. And they have an extra set of arms that they carry crossed behind their backs. But those arms don’t end in hands, only gradually transition into what look and function like swords. When they fight, they move with all the rigidity and awkwardness of wind over water. I have seen them slice through Profusionist armor with a flick. I have never seen Suriel waste a motion, or stand in any way but gracefully.