Sand & Storm
Moonfire Trilogy 1
The entire world laid to waste. There are no second chances.
The ancient machine that produced icefire was destroyed twenty years ago, but the deadly magic is again on the increase. No one understands why or where it’s coming from.
Massive changes in weather patterns plunge the northern half of the inhabited world in deep drought. People are once again fleeing, but nowhere is safe.
King Isandor sends people to investigate a concentration of icefire in the mountains at the border, but two consecutive patrols both vanish. It appears that, after having suffered badly in wars, the neighbouring country Arania is on the offensive, and is using icefire as weapon. Their culture is harsh and their barbarism knows no boundaries.
Meanwhile two young meteorology students make a string of discoveries that will change the way the people understand the world. They’re on the threshold of the age of enlightenment, but vital knowledge necessary to save their world may well get lost when war overruns the inhabited world.
“This book starts twenty years after the last one ended, with new dangers threatening characters we already know and many added to enrich the tale. If you loved the first trilogy, as I did, you’ll love this book as well.–Amazon reviewer”
“A wonderful story full of creative mechanical and mythical tales and people.–Amazon reviewer”
THE WEATHER STATION stood by the side of the road, a tiny hut, once painted white but now a dust-stained yellow, surrounded by a rolling stubble field that disappeared into the hazy horizon.
“There you are,” Pashtan said. He let the reins rest and the two donkeys came to a halt. The cart stopped with its usual creaking and groaning.
Javes gathered his equipment and jumped off the front bench. His boots, when they hit the ground, threw up a little cloud of dust. Over the past few weeks, they had gone from dark brown polished leather to smudged grey. Mother would kill him when he came home, and as the end of his field assignment neared, that thought occurred to him more often. Home, where he could go back to being a tryhard and sitting in the back of the class, being laughed at by the fellow students.
Yes, he dreaded that time. There was the prick Rolan who had been boasting about going to Solmeni. Yoshi who was going to Twin Bridges, and Branto and Siana, who had both scored assignments on the coast. Even Lana, who was going to work for the library in Tiverius, and had clearly been disappointed with her placement, had a more interesting job than his.
Yet, in one way, he didn’t mind it. For one, no one here knew who he was.
He trudged across the dry gravel road to the weather station, checked for scorpions as Pashtan had told him he should always do, undid the latch and opened the door.
The station wasn’t big enough to step inside, with each side barely as wide as a man. The door was long and tall and needed to be secured against the wind, lest it blow shut on him and injure his hands or damage the equipment.
There were no scorpions inside the shady den, but a legion of spiders had woven together all the equipment inside. The barygraph was barely visible under the silk. Wow. He used the corner of his notebook to push aside the white filaments. The owner of the web scurried behind the power board that held the connection plugs to the telegraph line that he’d been assured was going to be built in the future.
Ew, he hated spiders.
Javes folded out the shelf that formed a little worktable and secured it with the piece of metal that was neatly stowed on the inside of the door for that purpose. He lifted the barygraph machine from the bottom shelf onto the table, took out the roll, unscrewed the rings that held the recording paper onto it and let the paper fall to the bottom of the cabinet, all curled up.
He wiped sweat from his forehead. Now that the breeze of movement from sitting on the cart had stopped, the air was more searing than ever.
He took a clean, flat sheet from his folder, threaded it between the roll and the rings and tightened the screws again. He set the machine back and moved the bellows, with the arm holding the pencil, back into position.
He wiped his forehead again. Sweat threatened to run into his eyes. His forearms glistened with it.
He picked up the curl of paper with the barygraph scribbles for the past two weeks and slotted it in his folder, using a fold of his shirt to open the covers. Whoever at the Scriptorium had thought that issuing students with black folders was a good idea?
All right, done.
He folded away the table. Then he shut the door and climbed back onto the cart, where Pashtan waited, slowly chewing his tobacco. Pashtan leaned against the backrest of the seat, with his hands folded in his lap. He wore the loose grey-white robe that locals called a temuz. His face was infuriatingly free of sweat.
Javes sat down next to him, and tried to mimic his tutor’s stoic demeanour, but the sweat had crept into his right eye and it stung.
“And?” Pashtan said, pushing the wad of tobacco like a lump into his cheek.
Javes gave his tutor a quizzing look. And what? “I got the readouts.”
“What did it say?”
Oh. Well. “I . . .”
“You haven’t looked.”
“No.” Javes admitted. And damn it, he had to wipe his face again.
He opened the folder while wiping the sweat off with his elbow, and started riffling through the papers. He also should have marked the paper with the place and date where he had collected it, he realised. But it was just so hot here that he could barely think.
“Do you want to be a meteorologist, boy?”
“Yes. Why?” Javes looked into his tutor’s eyes. For the past two weeks, Pashtan had asked him these uncomfortable questions. He had also stubbornly refused to call Javes by his name.
“I ask because you need to have a hunger to learn.”
“I do want to learn,” Javes scoffed. He was tempted to add, It’s just so hot, but he’d made that mistake before and reaped the reward of Pashtan’s scolding him for being a soft city boy for the next few days.
“I see very little evidence of that. Come on, have a look at the readout. Tell me what you see.”
His ears burning, Javes located the paper in the folder. First, he wrote the number of the station and the date in the corner. Pashtan was looking at him. His silence was worse than his scorn would have been.
He slowly unrolled the paper. Over the past two weeks, the expanding and contracting bellows in the barygraph had made a squiggly line over the paper—with a sharp spike a few days ago, and another yesterday.
Javes stared at it, trying to decide what that meant. He’d never seen a sonorics spike like that. “I think a spider got into the equipment.”
“Why do you think so?”
Javes showed him the readout.
Pashtan’s brown eyes widened.
“What is it?” Javes asked.
“Dust devils in the area. We don’t normally see them as far south as this.”
Pashtan didn’t explain what dust devils were, and Javes was scared to ask in case it was something else he should have known but didn’t. By the expression on Pashtan’s face, he could guess it was not a good thing.
But not to worry. He had only two days left in this forsaken dustbowl of a place, and he could go back home. Back to where the students in his year would hide his books, or, like last year, replace the text of a speech he was going to make with a lewd picture, all because they discovered that his father owned the Singing Lark Hotel, where guests paid by the hour, not the night, and where few people went up to a room alone.
And yes, his father owned it, and no, Javes wasn’t terribly proud of it, but his father said that was business. You sometimes had to put aside things you didn’t like if other people wanted to pay for it. He said he had plans for the place and was waiting for the right time.
But these stupid boys in his year had discovered that his father owned it, and they called his father a pimp, and Javes had tried to explain about the waiting for a good time, but that just made the lewd jokes worse. Asking those boys what their fathers had done to provide people with work and salaries hadn’t helped either.
And the worst thing about the lewd pictures was that all these stupid boys had girls that they talked about having kissed, and Javes had only ever looked at girls from behind, in class.
That was waiting for him at home.
When they had made the round trip past all the stations, Pashtan steered the cart back towards the town. It was getting towards the end of the afternoon, the time when the weather was at its hottest. The air shimmered above the stubble fields. A few scraggly trees hung onto a handful of measly leaves, but most appeared to consist primarily of dead branches.
A tiny village, a loosely strewn collection of blocky white houses, lay in a valley to the right. Last week, Javes had accompanied Pashtan into the village at midday, where they had stopped at a drinking place. Over a jug of blissfully iced beer, irate farmers had told them of the drought, how it was all the fault of people in the capital, and especially the meteorologist. Javes happened to study under Vikius han Maronian and knew that he was the least likely person to wish anyone ill. And besides, meteorologists didn’t control the weather, they measured it and tried to predict it.
“Farming has always been dicey in this region,” Pashtan had told him after they left.
“But they can’t blame anyone for the weather!”
“That’s all they have left to blame.”
“They don’t have to blame anyone. Weather just is. No one has the blame for it.”
“You can’t possibly understand their mindset.”
“What I don’t understand is that if it’s so terrible, why don’t they just leave? They don’t have to spend their lives in this place. There are plenty of other farming towns that would be happy to have them.”
“If they’ve lived in this area and farmed the land for hundreds of years? Seriously, boy, at times I wonder what they teach you there in that city. Do they teach you that nothing of tradition has value and everything must be measured in the currency of money? Is that why no one in Tiverius cares about our region, and why the railway they promised us is still unbuilt, and senators of the doga come to all regions except ours?”
His ears still burned from that conversation when he remembered it, which was every time they passed this miserable village on the way home.
Because Pashtan was right about those things. The promise of a railway to the northern district was a great standing joke in Tiverius, and the saying “promising railways to the north” was a saying that stood for promising castles in the air and having no intention to honour those promises.
Pashtan had studied in Tiverius; he had said so when Javes had just arrived after a long and dusty journey by train to Watya and by bus from there.
Javes stole glances at his tutor’s dark, weather-beaten face, with its deep crevices and dark eyes, hidden by deep folds of skin, that squinted ahead at the road. Imagine having the misfortune of having been born here, and having to fight this sort of ridicule all your life. Imagine coming to Tiverius as a student and finding that there were virtually no students from your region there. Imagine hearing for the first time of all the tasteless jokes that were being made at dinner parties, in eating houses, even in the doga, about your region and your people.
That would be pretty bad.
But really, he wasn’t here to solve the problems of the suppressed people of the north. What could he do about it anyway? People already laughed when he opened his mouth and that was just when he talked about normal things.
The hot wind whipped up drifts of dust that stuck to Javes’ sweaty skin. The donkeys plodded along. The cart bumped and creaked. The little village disappeared behind the hill, and then the next one and the next one. Javes wished he was home in his cool room.
All of a sudden Pashtan sat up straight. “Whoa!” He pulled the reins. The donkeys stopped, snorting.
Pashtan stood up on the driver’s seat, peering ahead.
Javes started, “What’s going on—”
“Boy. Quick, get the cover.”
Javes didn’t want to say I have a name. He stared ahead, trying to make out what Pashtan was seeing. Just dust and more dust. On the ground, in the air. It was hard to see any kind of distance, in fact.
“Come on, do as I say and be quick.”
“What is it?”
“Dust devil.” Pashtan jumped off the driver’s seat. He started unharnessing the donkeys.
Javes went to the back of the cart. He found the cloth that they would put over the cart when it stood in front of the house at night and unfolded it, still glancing at the horizon. What did a dust devil even look like?
But Pashtan was far too busy for him to ask. He’d probably be annoyed at yet another stupid question from the city boy with no name.
He threw the cloth over the bed of the wagon, tied down the straps on one side, pulled the rest of the cloth over and started on the other side.
By that time, he became aware of a low keening sound.
“What’s that?” he asked.
And boy, had it gone dusty all of a sudden. He could barely see past the front of the cart, where Pashtan had turned the donkeys around in the harness so that they faced the cart.
“The cloth!” he yelled at Javes. “Give it to me!”
“I thought you said to put it over the cart. So I did.”
“Over the animals! By the thousand flaming stars. Why does Tiverius keep sending me these numbwits.” He stomped off to the back of the cart and started undoing all the straps that Javes had just tied up.
The keening sound increased. Javes’ hair whipped around his face. Sand stung the exposed skin on his face and hands. He pulled the hood of his robe over his head.
“Come on, useless lump, help me.”
Javes tried to grab the other end of the flapping cover and was lashed in the face by the rope that whipped about in the wind. Then the fabric was torn from his hands.
Pashtan dragged the cloth over the donkeys. “TIE . . . IT . . . DOWN . . . ON . . . YOUR . . . SIDE!” His voice was blown in shards over the roaring of the wind.
Javes managed to grab hold of the flapping cloth. Sand blew in his eyes, in his mouth. He couldn’t see anything anymore. With fingers that were numb from the biting sand, he tied the cloth onto the harness.
“Pashtan, I’ve done it. What now?”
There was no answer. Javes called again, “Pashtan!”
There was a muffled sound of a voice.
The wind had increased so much that Javes could barely still stand up, even if he was on the protected side of the cart. He ducked under the shelter they had just made out of the cloth and the donkeys, and met the heaving flank of one of the donkeys. He crouched there, threading his fingers through the fur. Sand whirled around his and the donkey’s feet, and he had to keep pulling his feet out.
The donkey started fidgeting.
“Calm down, be still. It’s only a dust storm. It will soon be over.”
Through the roaring of the wind came the keening sound again, like a dog whining. What was that? A crash sounded nearby. The donkey shied. A corner of the cloth lifted briefly. Some of the cloth must have come loose, because it flapped like crazy, and the sand was coming in. The cloth didn’t cover him properly anymore. He reached for the corner that was being tossed about by the wind.
It was dark out there. He couldn’t see the cart, or Pashtan.
Something out there made a loud, Wheeeeeuuuuuuuuuu keening noise, like a howling wolf.
Javes grew very, very scared.
What if they were buried in sand? What if he died here? What would people at home say about him? Would his parents even care in their pretty house with their dinner parties and two older sons who ran successful businesses? Would students in his year care?
The keening became so loud that his ears hurt, and his head hurt. And then a huge shape loomed out of the raging dust. It looked vaguely human, but was at least three times taller. The outlines were fuzzy and they crackled with lightning. The thing appeared to have arms and long claws for hands. The eyes burned with an evil red glow like hot coals.
But that was . . . the mud monster out of his childhood nightmares that would wake him up and send him screaming and running to his parents. His brothers used to tease him about it.
He hadn’t thought about it for a long time, had never believed it was real, but here it was, and there would be no escape into wakefulness this time.
It roared and stretched two claw-like hands towards the cart.
Javes might have screamed, he wasn’t sure. But he let himself drop under the cloth and pressed himself against the donkey’s heaving flank.
“It’s nothing, it’s only my imagination. It’s nothing, it’s nothing.”
Something went crunch and jolted the harness.
He said to himself, “It’s nothing, it’s nothing. It can’t see me.” Just like he used to do as a little boy, hidden under the blankets of his bed.
The cloth jerked. The other donkey’s legs disappeared, as it bolted, or blew away, or . . . was eaten. Javes held his breath. Surely he was next?
He closed his eyes. He held his breath.
He waited, and waited.
Did he imagine it or did the sound become weaker?
He waited. He counted to ten, keeping his eyes closed.
Yes, he had not imagined it, the fury of the wind lessened. The cloth slackened. Sand stopped lashing against his trouser legs and stopped whirling around his feet.
And there was utter, deadly silence.