* * *
Peldanir startled awake hours before dawn. The small campfire had dwindled to embers, and his hosts were asleep around it. He could feel the unease in each of them. He knew they had not intended to sleep because they did not trust him. Why should they, when he had risen from the dead before their eyes? But they had tried to honor him, first with a funeral and then by sharing their camp and their food. He bore them no ill will, but he did not belong with them. He belonged nowhere.
He got up silently and left them to their sleep. He made his way out of the grove, having never learned their names or the purpose of their journey, and headed south into the open plains. He knew a tribe of the Varzil would be traveling that way, a few days’ walk from this spot. He would join them and disappear into the desert, until another death claimed him.
The copper-colored dragon who accompanied his hosts saw him creep away. She flew above him for a few miles and returned to her little tribe of wanderers. Peldanir knew she would not forget him. He knew they would meet again one day.
He walked for three days and did not encounter the Varzil tribe. They must be farther south than he anticipated. He kept going.
Another three days passed, and there was still no sign of the Varzil. In fact, there seemed to be no living creatures; no horses roaming the plains, no deer, not even birds. He happened across a lone rabbit scrounging for food, and caught it for his first meal in days.
As he sat beside his small fire sucking the last marrow from the rabbit’s bones, he caught a movement out of the corner of his eye. He turned and saw a large white sphere settle on the ground not too far away. He watched it calmly. He knew what it was: a ship of his father’s people.
So they’ve come back, he thought. Interesting that they find me in this wilderness.
An opening, a vertical slit, appeared in the belly of the sphere. Peldanir saw shadows moving within, and one tall creature stepped out. He approached Peldanir.
He looked like any man, but the build of his body was denser than those of the people of Vael. His face was harsh and craggy as rock, his eyes colorless and flat as he looked at Peldanir. He smiled, but there was no warmth in it.
Though he had never met him, Peldanir knew instantly that this was Iru, his father.
“So you are the product of my transgression,” Iru said. “My son. It is gratifying to meet you at last.”
“Gratifying,” Peldanir echoed. “I suppose that’s one word for it. At least I can look at the source of all my troubles and know it for what it is.”
Iru’s smile died on his face. His eyes narrowed.
“Is that any way to greet your father? What you call troubles is in truth a great gift. You should thank me that I had the foresight to mate with one of these creatures so that you could live forever. We learned much from the experiment, and that knowledge has been put to important use in Nur.”
Peldanir simply looked at him, thinking about this.
“You are considered a prince at home,” Iru went on.
“How can I be of importance in a place in which I’ve never set foot? It was my mother’s kin who cared for me when I was a child, who accepted me as their own. You left me here. And when the rest departed, they didn’t even offer to take me with them. I’m indeed honored by your kind.”
Iru sat down on the other side of the fire, looking at him as a wolf looks at his prey.
“That was necessary, I’m afraid. You carry the blood of both worlds, the attributes of both. Your birth in Vael grounded us here, made us a real part of this world. Your life here continues to anchor our… influence, our connection to Vael. It is because of you we were able to return.”
Peldanir felt a cold deeper than the winter around him seep into his blood.
“What do you want here… Father?” He spat the last word. Iru’s pale eyes glinted in the firelight. He laughed, the sound like metal scraping rock.
“Everything, my son. We spent thousands of years becoming the gods of this world. And now we have come back to claim it.”
He stood up again, gazing out at the sleeping landscape.
“Haven’t you noticed how rich the energy, the life of this world is? The very rocks, every blade of grass, the air, each being living here, is made of pure, fertile magic. It isn’t something the people learn. Their very existence is creative power. It makes me hungry just to think of it. Without this energy, Nur would have ceased to exist long ago.”
Now Peldanir laughed, bitterly.
“You’re no gods. The people no longer think of you that way. They’ve mostly forgotten you. You’re only a myth to them now. And they won’t just hand this world over to you.”
Iru came around the fire. He laid his hand, heavy as iron, on Peldanir’s shoulder.
“But, my son, you are here to help us accomplish this task.”
“Am I? How do you think I can help you?”
Iru removed his hand. He turned his back to Peldanir and looked at his ship.
“Well, you are also one of them. Those we seek will trust you more readily than they trust us. You will help us find the ones we are looking for.”
“Who is it that interests you so much?”
“His name is Zaghran, and he is a shapeshifter. I doubt he will be alone. He is trying to get to another of his kind, whom we have imprisoned in the middle of this world. We must prevent him finding her, or releasing her. You will help us.”
“What will happen if he finds her?”
Iru turned and looked down at Peldanir.
“He will not find her. Instead, you will find him for us. Then you will bring him, and whatever weak-minded creatures he has convinced to follow him, to us. Then we will finish what we started here so long ago.”
“And if I refuse to help you do this?”
Peldanir saw Iru’s face shift, as if that face was a mask hiding something else he could not name. He felt a chill race up his spine at the sight.
“You are my son,” Iru hissed, “and you will not refuse me. And when our work is accomplished for good and all, perhaps we will reward you and allow you to come to your rightful home.”
“Home,” Peldanir murmured. “That would be something, indeed.”
“We are agreed, then. Good. We will meet again when you have performed your task.”
Iru went back to his ship and vanished within it. The ship rose into the sky and merely blinked out of sight.
Suddenly Peldanir could hear birds singing in the late afternoon sun again. He heard creatures moving about. There were deer peeking between the trees again, and he heard a horse whinnying far away. The world returned as though the presence of the Nurain ship had blotted it out.
He put out his campfire and headed south again, intending to walk through the night if he must. He longed to be among his mother’s descendants again. He longed to be among the living.
He thought of the people who had taken him in when he came back to life not so long ago, and of the dragon who guarded them. He wondered if they were the ones his father was looking for, and if they knew what pursued them.
A sense of dread overcame him, and he broke into a run