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Chapter 3

Eye of the Storm

The towering thunderhead in Na's dream, thrusting from lower clouds through a golden haze into a deep blue sky, beneath a sparkling sun and a pair of crescent moons
          Na dreamed as he glided down from the peak of the passage. He, Que and Ki flew together, up through the boiling crown of a giant thunderhead. Ki was in the lead, with Que and Na slightly behind on the left and right, respectively. As they broke through the anvil summit, windblown by a powerful gale, the trio was bathed in a wonderful soft light from above. Out of nowhere, two huge male reys descended toward Ki. As they approached, Ki began to spin, extending her wings to greet them, and rising upward. But when Ki met and eclipsed the source of light overhead, the males transformed into two monstrous serpents. Up became down, and both Ki and her assailants plunged now into a swirling, glowing pit. As the serpents overtook her, one swallowed Ki whole, then the other spun and swallowed the first. The surviving serpent then turned to Na. As its huge mouth opened around him, Na stared in terror into a bottomless abyss within.
          Na awoke from his nightmare with a start. He was flying (if it could be called that) upside down, encrusted in ice. He violently shook the ice away, then desperately searched above and ahead for the tribe. Locating and reaching them at last, he lapsed again into an exhausted sleep. But the cold wind continued to blow through his slumber, echoing across suollit clouds and hideous serpent attacks. It was all Que's fault. If only she would support him, really care for him. After a seeming eternity, a faint but familiar voice intruded.
          "Father … Father," Ki whispered.
          Na shook off the last pretense of sleep, to confront the shrunken visage of his daughter.
          "Your plan, father?" Ki asked with a small, flat voice. "If we continue as we are, soon we will all be dead. And without a tribe, where will our departed souls find a home?"
          "It must be the time," Na responded, feeling an odd prickle of excitement he hadn't experienced in untold passages. "It is time for a birthing. But this birth will not be that of your first child; it will be the birth of a new tribe." He shuddered giddily, refusing to look any further than his obstinate belief in grand legend and destiny.
          "Yes, father," Ki returned coldly. "I know. Trah must not …" For the first time in Na's recollection, Ki almost lost her composure. "But Pi has refused to join us, and I don't think mother will come either. Frankly, she thinks you have lost your mind."
          Na winced, and grumbled the equivalent of an angry frown. "Her damned security is more important to her than anything else. In any event, she will be safe with her darling Zaag."
          "Father, how can you think that mother prefers Zaag to you?"
          "Isn't it obvious? She spends most of her time with him now. Zaag has had an eye for her ever since I can remember. And what does she do? Goes along with it! What am I supposed to think?"
          "Sometimes I worry that you intentionally drove mother away, in some perverse test of her love for you. And that now you are desperate to drop her, before she has a chance to drop you first. She certainly feels that you don't pay attention to her any more. Whenever you are together, all you do is talk about your grand vision. You belittle her ideas, and ignore her own needs. She says your myths are more important to you than people."
          "Because I refuse to stay with her on her terms? She also refuses to go with me on mine! Maybe the person named Na is less important to your mother than some of her other friends. I don't think I even love her any more." Na felt an old rumble building within. Why couldn't he trust anyone completely? Could it be true they would always betray him? He must avoid his own anger, and maintain his composure.
          "That's not what I have been hearing from you. Maybe you are just angry with her? And with yourself? Perhaps mother is right. Maybe you are a self-centered fool, or mad even. I don't know who is sane and who isn't any more, what is real and what isn't. I only know that I can't continue like this." Ki paused momentarily. "Even if Pi doesn't join us."
          "Ki, the legend must be true. You must be the one foretold. Does not our tribe face extinction? Are you not the only daughter of your parents? Is not the legend ridiculed by the others in the tribe? We must believe that Maddee will somehow provide you a mate."
          Life had truly become unbearable for Na. He felt utterly betrayed. What was life without seeking Soel? Yet how could so weak and pitiful a tribe ever again hope to seek out a mighty cyclone, to rise to the cloud summits where they might catch a fleeting glimpse of Her beauty? There were tales of strong tribes in distant currents that routinely sailed the larger storms, but these stories were seldom repeated during recent passages. The unattainable was to be forgotten.
          If Ki were the one, she must fulfill the mysterious legend – even if it made no practical sense. Powers beyond Na had made the decision; this was to be the cycle. "We will break from the tribe during the coming feed run, and seek a major river of fire."
          "The creator and the destroyer; gatekeeper to the storm of storms," intoned Ki softly, as if in a trance. The tribe had frequented the outlying springs of the region's rivers of fire for several hundred cycles, but never approached the forbidding heart of any river too closely. At the feeding level, this central flow appeared to the reys as a wall of fire – an impenetrable barrier of scathing heat, rising straight out of the abyss. Though not actually composed of fire – there is almost no free oxygen in Jopitar's atmosphere – the deep rivers carry much the same emotional significance to the reys as fire does to humans. The rivers are best accessed from the greater depths of the feed zone, through the organic soup patrolled by packs of ribbon serpents.
          The tribal elders realized that their own river complex had been slowly weakening for some time. Eventually every underlying convective plume would diminish, and break up. Tribes dependent on that circulation must then either attempt a risky exodus to another plume system, or weaken and face possible extinction. What the elders could not know was that a young, vigorous plume encroaching from the north was responsible for their current dilemma. The new system was currently sheering off a northern stream of the local plume. Though reinvigorated, this entire section was being dragged away.
          Father and daughter rose silently to the uppermost level of the tribe. They hovered there together in a possessed solitude, detached from the others, and steeled their minds for the coming ordeal by chanting verses of preparation:

Ready us now for the Father –
who holds open the world on towering storm,
braced by white fire above and below.

The dark face of Maddee –
who girds His pure soul against falsehood's siren,
heedless to the cries of His children.

The glowering Giant –
who hurls us into the void's gaping mouth,
even while washing us clean with His tears.

Purify us in the River's heat,
baptize us with the whirlwind's sleet,
that we might hear Your call,
and follow Your way.

The other reys ignored them, caught up in their own troubles.

          The reality of Na's and Ki's decision didn't really strike home until midway through the third quad, as the tribe approached the feed layer.
          "Father, how old was your own sire when he died?" Ki asked Na with a low voice.
          "About 1,900 cycles. He was killed by a freak lightning bolt." Na kooted inquisitively; Ki's question did not disturb him right away. "Why do you ask?"
          "Do you miss him?" Ki persisted. But now Na only returned a hesitant, quavering tone to his daughter.
          "Father, why do you believe that no one else can ever really love you?"
          Na fought a surge of rage, surprised by the insolence of Ki's question. "Don't be foolish!" he stuttered. "I know that you love me! And my mother and father. And the Holy Mother herself!"
          "That's not what I mean. Your own parents and children have no choice but to love you. And the Great Mother loves all Her children. I mean anyone who has a real choice."
          Na stared hard out into the dark.
          "Do you want to do something so wonderful that the others – especially mother, maybe even yourself – will also have no choice but to love you?"
          Na nearly exploded. "How can you think that? You know why we must do what we plan; the Spirits themselves demand it!"
          "As you say, father," Ki deferred, then backed away and prayed silently to herself. Her mind was in turmoil. Were they doomed to fail? To do an extraordinary thing, you must become that thing. How else could a difficult goal be accomplished, except through a committed will? But if her father's focus was actually on winning love, on proving his worth, how could they succeed? What if Maddee had sought to please the great serpent, rather than Her own inner song?

Maddee, Maddee – why do You forsake us?
Must You rend our lives, in order to find peace?
Pray round Your children in Your sight,
and lead us back to hallowed light.

          Na broke the long and awkward silence with a refound gentle resolve. "It is time to go, my dear one." Dutifully, Ki followed. The two cast a final gaze at their tribal family, then slipped quietly from the ragged formation – down; down; down, and westward.
          It was several coiles before an unexpected wave of anxiety and sadness swept over Na. Why was he doing this? What did he hope to gain? He compulsively looked back over his left wing, to see – Que?? Time stopped for an instant, but the image dissolved in the swirling heat. Could it really be her? She might have joined them after all! Should he tell Ki? No – what if Ki decided he really was mad? But what if Que had joined them; he knew she would; what was wrong with him? Bewildered and suddenly frightened, Na threw himself back into his purpose. Into the deep currents, rushing after glory; or karma; or his own tail.
          The pair sought out an Alpha fountain. These rare oases spouted the most delectable manna, with the highest nutritional value and caloric content, but were normally far too small to serve an entire tribe. They were also found only at the greater depths, closer to the main flow of a major river of fire than was usually deemed safe. They were consequently visited mainly for ritualistic purposes. Na and Ki were not overly concerned with serpents; flying in almost complete silence, two lone reys produced very little turbulence, and would be difficult to detect. But the Alphas proved elusive. After several worrisome coiles, Ki at last spotted the characteristic hot column in the distance, and signaled to her father. "An omen!" Na exalted to whoever might be listening. "The Mother blesses our mission." Quickly they closed on their prize, then banked in a majestic arc to the left to circle around its perimeter. But they ate sparingly of the rich broth. Was it out of guilt for their starving brethren? Or fear that they might offend the Mother in Her generosity? They certainly wanted to avoid bloated, excess weight in the coming trial.
          Hunger barely assuaged, the twosome left the fountain with some reluctance. Na again probed the gently sinking currents, choosing the strongest, willing his way through the glowing heat. Strangely, the currents somehow did not seem right. Why were they still descending? And why was the dominant flow toward the northwest, rather than just west? Na shrugged wearily to himself. Several hundred cycles had passed since he was last in these environs; his internal map must be flawed.
          Coile by coile the current grew, the pressure multiplied. At last the flow leveled, then began to continuously lift, merging with rumbling currents rising from untold depths. A distant, eerie roar carried across the expanse of rushing. A potent river of fire was near.
          The rey duo rose in silence with the gathering tempest, mesmerized by its growing power. They banked left, lest they be sucked into the deadly heat of the main flow. Initially Na maintained the lead, with Ki behind and to his left. Na imagined that Que would have flown across from Ki, on the right, if she were there. The magical trio. Maybe she would yet join them? There was still time. But soon Na tired, mentally as much as physically, and exchanged places with Ki. As she and her father skirted the periphery of the searing wall of fire, Ki noted that they were barely, if at all, arcing toward the right; this river must be much wider than she had expected.
          As the coiles passed, the updraft quickened. The immense vertical river swelled and cooled as it rose; at last it had chilled sufficiently that the reys could enter its main body. Ki let the current drag them in. The warmth hit her like a slap. An exhilaration she had never known filled Ki's breast; she embraced the winds with her wings, and held them tight.
          More coiles. A peal of distant thunder rolled through Ki and Na, as they at last approached the level of the water storms. Heavy scud clouds of drenching ammonia-saturated water raced by. Ki suddenly felt so strange, being in this special place as two solitary reys.The first drops of liquid water, rapidly evaporating as they fell as virga in tapering sheets from the main cloud deck, massaged their skins. It wasn't long before the base of the water clouds appeared. A wet, boiling mass greeted the two reys, reaching down and sucking them upwards, into itself.
          There was no time for fear. All thoughts of purpose left them. Na and Ki rose as one with the storm, and they became the storm. Lightning lit the way. Ki held course for the tempest's violent core, for what reason she no longer knew or cared. Uncertainty and desperation beckoned and compelled her. But the elders taught that a rey who would become the storm must cease to be a rey. For a storm is made of wind, rain and fire, while a rey is made of softer stuff.

A tangle of tornadoes, dropping from turbulent dark grey clouds

          A piece detached from the pulse of the maelstrom's heart, and approached. A nightmarish form materialized out of the driving rain and clouds – a sinuous tornado, snaking toward them seemingly from every direction at once. Ki and her father pushed against the gale, and slipped through its grip. But turnes later a second funnel reared up from below. This they also somehow avoided, only to be immediately confronted by a pair of new twisters sweeping across their path. Soon they found themselves swept into a jungle of the serpentine whirlwinds, every one twisting forward and upward in the general direction of the overall torrent.
          All the time the distant background roar grew louder and more ominous. Until at last the source appeared, through gaps in the tortured clouds. A seething wall of white sound, whirling inexorably right to left, surged straight out of unknown depths and soared toward heaven. The myriad tornadoes fed tangentially into it, writhing inward and upward like tortured devils from the underworld, unable to satisfy the giant's insatiable appetite. "The pillar of God!" gasped Na toward Ki, who could not hear. "The very hide of the Father." To pierce it was to enter the peace and tranquillity of the Mother's mind. Or, so legend claimed. To Na it appeared a living hell.
          The great vortex loomed before Ki through pelting rain, rising up through the fulcrum of this storm of storms. Ki was transfixed by its awesome power, frozen in time. This vortex appeared somehow different from every tornado she had ever encountered before. Composed of raw fury, the storm wall stretched interminably upward and downward, right and left, disappearing into the night. Ki gasped to herself. It must be a thousand wingspans wide! At last she tried to turn away, but now it was too late. The storm had them. Retracting their wings completely, the pair was dragged inexorably upward and into the maelstrom, two mere puppets, powerless before the storm's might.
          Ki was swept far ahead of Na, and approached the vortex wall well before her father. Na at last realized that the unthinkable might happen – he could lose his beloved daughter. He struggled insanely not to fall further behind, to lose the sight, the smell of her, but there was nothing he could do. Na watched helplessly as the very Powers he worshipped wrenched Ki away from him. Delirious, he strained to see Ki one last time. There! She is trying to turn away. Maybe there was still hope! She is so strong, so resourceful. Then he shrieked as a phantom form – Que?! – scudded past, slamming Ki back. The boiling clouds devoured her.
          Desperate to follow, Na recklessly thrust out with his right wing. Before its tip felt open air, the turbulent gale seized the wing, whipped it fully open, then tore it from his body. Almost immediately a veering downdraft grabbed Na, throwing him viciously downward and away, even as a massive lightning bolt split the air around him. A strange and acrid smell filled his failing senses. An infant Na watched a torn right wing tumble dreamlike away from his body, into gathering darkness. Why had his mother abandoned him?
          Ki continued on in stunned concentration, into the inferno. She knew she was alone. Her father was gone, but there was nothing she could do. As she approached the vortex wall, Ki had begun a last ditch attempt to turn away, but on sudden and irrational impulse changed her mind, and slammed through a transient opening in the twisting hell. Helpless and desperate, she now instinctively curled into a small ball as she hurled through the melee, tossed about like a hailstone. Coiles must have passed.
          The winds miraculously vanished, as Ki emerged without warning into an eerie calm. Was she still alive? Struggling to orient herself, Ki screeched sound pulses in every direction. The returning echoes only heightened her terror. To the left, behind, in front – all the same, an undulating wall of impenetrability. But her mind froze when Ki sent pulses down or up and to her right. For nothing – absolutely nothing – returned. An abyss of utter nothingness, of a type with which she had no prior experience, gaped beside her.
          Flow, flow, her mind ached. I must face my fear. I must face my fear. From the echo shifts, she knew she was careening toward the churning wall on her left. What to do when she struck it? Her emotions impelled her to try to break through, even if to a certain death – anything but face the void. Yet somewhere in her mind she knew her only hope now lay in uncertainty, the same uncertainty that had brought her here. Ki impulsively banked hard to the right, and – her forward momentum spent – plunged into the shaft of night.

          The clouds of the giant planet rolled on, just as they had for two hundred billion cycles, and would no doubt continue for billions more. The currents rose, passed over, and sank, only to rise again. The monster hurricane raged and roared, seemingly oblivious to the cries of the transitory creatures caught within it. Its mighty storm wall revolved in relentless reverence around a tranquil central eye, as wide as Jopitar's utmost storm towers are tall, responding to a more ancient song. Lightning pierced the darkness, filling it with an almost holy light.

Overhead view of the mighty hurricane that swept up Na and Ki, with the horizon and a golden haze layer visible in the distance