The world I know is flooded.
The water’s black. You don’t go in the water. You don’t touch it. If you do, it will get you, drag you down, and you’re gone. You’re only safe from the black water in boats or on land, at least if you’re a human. The Sundered can do anything they want in the water. Who knows why?
I believe the world wasn’t always this way—that once there was land that stretched forever and water that held no danger—but that doesn’t set me apart. What sets me apart, makes me different, is I believe it can go back to that.
“Hey, Harry!” Toddy, one of my younger Travelers, points at something. He straddles the black water, each boot on a different tuft, standing with the easy balance we all must learn or else we die. “There’s something over there!”
I hate the tufts—knobs of land sticking out of the water, covered with limp grass like dirty hair. If there are a lot of them, we have to carry the boats. “Coming! Hold on!” Balancing my skiff on my back, I hop toward him, nodding at my Travelers who move to other tufts so there’s room for me to leap past.
I don’t really give a damn what Toddy wants. Whatever he has to show me, it’s not the Hope, the reason I’m out here in this screwed-up place. But I’m young. I can fake interest.
The last space between us is water. I put the skiff in, untie the paddles, and skim toward him.
“There are eyes,” Tod says, crouching now as I float near. “Over there, in the water. It’s a Sundered One, I’m sure of it.”
Sundered? Here? “That’s weird. We’re not near any cities or catching grounds.”
“Think he’s unclaimed? He must be!” Tod whispers excitedly. “Can I claim him? If he’s unattached, I mean? Can I?”
“No.” Damn, I said it too sharply—there’s hurt in his eyes. “No,” I say again, more gently. “We don’t know what tier he is. What if he pulls a reversal on you?” I give myself points for not mentioning he flunked out of Sundered training.
Toddy nods, trying to be grown-up about this, but I’ve hurt him.
Later. I’ll fix it later. Now, I skim where he pointed.
I see more tufts. I see black water, still and dark as far as the horizon in all directions, swallowing my world. I see—there it is. Round eyes bulge out of water, over a hint of skin that looks freakishly orange.
This thing isn’t even close to high-tier. I just feel it, the way I’d know what kind of pie it was by putting it in my mouth. The Sundered One realizes I’m staring at it seconds too late, and ducks under as if it thinks it can hide.
Why is it out here? Sundered only run wild in the southern tip of the world. I can feel it’s unclaimed—that slick-slime mind, ugly and incomplete, parts of its psyche frozen and alive but not really functional, not really there. It’s so low-tier there’s no point categorizing it. Toddy might be able to handle it, but I already said no, and to go back on my word is to regress as a leader.
It’s free and unclaimed, and Sundered are worth money, so that means it’s mine.
I half-close my eyes, focus my will, and tighten my grip around that worn mind.
It reacts to me and tries to run away, but this one has been claimed before. It—his—mental spaces almost fit me, edges dulled, and it’s no effort at all to hold him tight. Into that mind, into those ruined Sundered thoughts, I plunge—and then I pull.
Pull with will and thought and purpose, like lifting a weakly struggling thing out of thick, sucking mud. The mind suddenly comes free as easily as lifting my own head, and I know he’s mine.
That was too easy. He won’t be worth much. “Come up and let me see you.”
He hears the words. Sundered have different ears than we do. Any vibrations seem to get through. He obeys and clambers onto the tufts.
He looks like a frog. An orange frog-man, with bumps all over, with a wide, flat mouth and big googly eyes too far apart for a man’s but not wide enough for an animal’s. His spine curves so much he almost seems meant to go on all fours.
Toddy gasps, my Travelers paddle closer to see, but I don’t look at them right now. I’m fitting my brain to this little guy’s. “Ugly, aren’t you?”
He sort of ducks twice, acknowledging what I said with a humility so low it’s self-hate, and I realize he’s got suction-cups on each fingertip and webs between his fingers. Wow. Really low-tier, then.
“What’s your name, Sundered One?”
“Gorish,” he says.
Toddy tells the others how he spotted this one, so it’s sort of his even though it’s not. I want to find that endearing. I want to. I can’t. I’ve been out here too long. “Hello, Gorish. You know you’re mine now, right?”
“Oh, yes, master,” he says, doing that ducking thing again and again and again.
An unclaimed Sundered in the middle of nowhere. This is really weird.
My mind goes in all the usual directions. Why is he here? Could this have something to do with the Hope? Am I missing some important clue because I’m messing around with him instead of watching?
Maybe there’s no Hope involved, and he just pulled a reversal on his former owner and got away.
Yeah, right. Not this little guy. He couldn’t fight his way out of a wash bucket. Maybe his owner died. That would explain his condition.
I can’t question him now, anyway. If I do it wrong, if I sound stupid in the eyes of my Travelers, I could lose them. “I need a place to make landfall, Gorish. You know anywhere around here like that?”
“Oooh, yes, master!” the orange guy says, and he starts to caper. He dives in and out of the water, back up onto the tufts, showing off, or—no, he’s just playing because it’s something he knows how to do.
This guy’s head is shattered. Whoever claimed him last was rougher on his mind than I am. “Lead the way, Gorish. It’s getting dark, and we have to set up camp by then.”
I say nothing as we paddle, my single-person skiff cutting through the black water. This wasn’t the direction I was going. Gorish is leading us completely away from the tufts, further west than I’d planned.
I see some land, tiny islands, nothing but bald mounds of mud. What we need is a simple matter of size: what can handle eight people and all their gear, their tents, and a fire, but has a slope gentle enough that nobody rolls into the water in the middle of the night and vanishes forever?
Like all Sundered Ones, Gorish just knows where proper landfall is.
This one is almost flat, a mass of mess rising from the water. I whirl my hook-and-rope over my head and send it hard into the mud, anchoring myself so I can pull my boat to shore. My boots make sucking noses. This is one messy landfall.
Messy is worth solid land, worth the relief of space between us and the water. Tents and voices rise, and our boats line the shore like silent guardians.
We’ll rest well tonight. We’re going to need it.
I’m more tired than I thought, but I shouldn’t be surprised. Claiming a Sundered One is never easy, even one as broken as this. “Demos.”
My right-hand man stops and looks at me, his shaved head glinting with the barest hint of blond stubble. “Yeah?”
“Get the buckets to Gorish. He’ll fetch the water.”
Demos nods, pleased with me. I sit a little straighter. If Demos approves, it was a good decision.
Gorish bounds around camp, splashing like crazy in the shallows and scooping up water in the buckets we give him. He can do that safely. We can’t.
Black water is dangerous when it’s part of the sea that covers our world, but separate it—in a bowl, a cup, a bucket—and suddenly it’s just water, safe to drink, safe to cook with, safe for bathing. Nobody knows why.
Will the Hope have the answer? I was taught it does. I want to believe it does. The alternative is ignorance and extinction. Doom.
Kaia, one of only two females in my group, whoops suddenly, and when I look over, I see her biting into an apple, crunching through the skin.
What? What? Whose idea was this? “Hey!”
Everybody freezes, guilty, but not guilty enough. Tomas has his hand in the apple bag, and he has the gall to grin at me.
“What the hell are you doing?” I demand.
“Hey, Harry,” says Tomas, drawing the words out as if to give himself more time to come up with a crap excuse. “You want an apple?” He holds out the bag, challenging me, daring me to argue.
This is one of those tests again.
I’ve led these people for two years. I shouldn’t be tested anymore. Yes, I got the post from my father, but I can do this, and I’ve proven it, dammit all. “Tomas. Put them back.”
He takes another bite, watching me lazily.
Hard to believe this ass is Demos’ younger brother. “Put it back. That one you’re eating gets detracted from your next meal. You’ve cost Kaia her next apple, too.” I close the distance between us and take back the bag.
We have limited resources. We travel for weeks sometimes without seeing another human being. This was nothing more than stupid arrogance.
Tomas shrugs and turns away, like none of it matters at all.
My heart beats too hard. What did he think I was going to do, let him have the bag?
Maybe he did think that. Demos lets him get away with anything.
“You okay, Harry?” says Sandra quietly.
“Yeah, I’m okay.” I tie the bag again. Hopefully, the Sundered power that keeps these apples from going bad wasn’t borked by this.
Kaia rolls her eyes and licks her lips at me, like she thinks she’s being sexy. Um, no.
Sandra smiles. “Good. Don’t let him get to you. He’s a dumb-ass.”
I’m surprised into laughing. She walks off to do something with her tent.
I calm down. I haven’t lost them. My Travelers are still here.
I need them. They’re my backbone, my help. Father taught me this. But Tomas pushes the limits sometimes.
I tie the bag up and put it back, and after a few minutes, things go back to normal. Demos and Jax place small stakes tied with string in a circle around our tiny camp, making a minimal barrier—just something to remind us not to wander too far at night.
I feel so weary now. “Hey. Gorish.”
My new little orange guy comes bouncing up to me, crouching over like a misshapen frog. “Yes, master!”
“Are there any other people close by?”
“Oh, yes, master!” He holds his hands out wide and spins in a circle, encompassing the world.
I forgot I’m talking to an idiot. “Close by human standards?”
“Oooh.” His eyes go all big. “No, master. Not for days that way, or that way, or that way, or that way.”
North, South, East, West. Oh, yeah, this one’s a winner. Maybe he’s so dumb his old master just let him go. Low-tier don’t live all that long, anyway. If I over-use him, there’ll be nothing left to sell. “All right. Relax. Take it easy. We won’t need you for a while.”
He stares at me, mouth hanging open. Okay. Don’t know what I said that was so shocking.
“Harry.” Demos walks up, carrying a pot filled with ingredients for tonight’s dinner.
Boiled things. Bleh. “Yeah, good choices. Wait—take out a few of the carrots. According to the Sundered One, we’re a long way from any city. I don’t want to run out.”
“Ooh, carrots,” says Gorish.
I look at him. I swear he’s pleading like a puppy.
Eh, why not? “Demos? Give me a carrot.”
Demos hands me one without arguing. He’s the reason I haven’t kicked Tomas out. If I do, I might lose him. If I do, I might lose them all.
The carrot makes Gorish so happy he trills like a bird.
Enjoy it now, Sundered. Tomorrow won’t be an easy day.
My map is the most priceless thing I own.
My father, grandfather, his father and his father before him all wrote on it, marked it. It lists known cities, predator-rife areas, places with tufts too numerous to paddle through. There’s no mark for how many weeks it takes to go from one city to another, but you learn that as you go. This map is the real inheritance of an Iskinder. There’s no other like it, anywhere in the world.
By my calculation, we have eight days of full food portions, and we’re eight days from any city I know of, if we’re careful.
Easy. Easy. Deep breath. We’ll be all right.
Old, familiar fear settles in my belly, keeping me quiet. I fear that rushing to find civilization means I’ll miss the Hope, fear that the immediate need for survival will eclipse the long-term, and I’ll fail.
I won’t miss it. I can’t. Calm down, Harry.
Dinner is done and the sun sets. The guys laugh, crouching nude around their bucket on one side of the fire, washing the sweat and travel-nastiness from their bodies. The ladies crouch on the other side, separated only by the flames.
Sometime in the past, we used to have showers and baths. We used to be able to swim—a terrifying concept. We used to be able to hook up plumbing with ease, on our own, without high-tier Sundered help. That was before the water turned bad.
These days, most cities can’t afford it. We’re used to bathing semi-publicly, using buckets.
I have to believe it can go back to the way it was, or I’m wasting my life. Or there’s no hope for anyone at all.
I can’t sleep. Out here, that matters. Sure, I could stay up all night in a city. Always lit, always open, shops and bars provide something to do. But here, in the dark, there’s nothing to stay up for besides the stars.
My Travelers sleep, clean and full of boiled fish, unmoving in the light of flickering fire. Beyond them, there’s nothing. Just black water, black sky, black night-sounds.
That sound, though, was all wrong.
I know this world and how it feels. I know the tiny, cruel lapping of water on the shore, and the sound of my Travelers sleeping before tomorrow’s hike.
I also know the sound of Sundered feet landing on a nearby tuft.
It wasn’t Gorish. He’s sitting next to me, staring at his hands.
My heart beats faster. I concentrate, feeling for this new intruder.
It’s free. Unclaimed.
Two free ones in the same area? That never happens. Never. This has to be some kind of a trick, or a trap. But what kind could this possibly be?
Gorish starts to hum.
It’s a tune I know, familiar from early school. Fifth-tier’s strong and lifts big blocks, not too bright but strong as ox. Fourth-tier’s fine with clever fingers, painting, sculptures, make good singers.… It’s catchy. Kids’ tunes are.
Tiers indicate intelligence and power. It’s a simple system, but Gorish isn’t even fifth-tier. Nobody numbers Sundered Ones that low. There’s no point. He has power, yeah, but not a lot—I doubt he could levitate anything heavy, or turn things into other, more useful things. He doesn’t have the physical strength of fifth-tier, the delicate dexterity of fourth. The gentleness of third, or the feral viciousness of second. Or… whatever it is first-tiers have. I don’t know. They weren’t in the rhyme.
Gorish keeps humming. Third-tier’s quiet, good for play, safe for children every day. Second-tier’s wild, feral, free, eats everyone, but works for me. Claim the rest with little work, but they die soon, so best not shirk.
The fire crackles. Thup-thup go Sundered feet on a nearby tuft. Sundered Ones leap like fleas, and they never miss coming down, not even the stupid ones. I lick my lips. “Gorish.”
Gorish looks up from the little suction cups on the ends of his fingers. “Yes, master?”
I feel my mind-fingers deep in his skull, filling those holes never meant for my thoughts. He has to answer me honestly. “Is there another Sundered One out there?”
His gaze is steady. “Always, master.”
Yeah, not what I was asking, but okay. I might argue with it, honestly. There aren’t enough Sundered by far—the best estimate puts their number at a few thousand, about the same as us, but shorter lifespans. “There’s one very close now. Are there any people with him?” That’s not specific enough. I need to be sure. “Is he claimed?”
“No, master! He is not!” Still crouched, he does a weird little shuffle, like he’s celebrating that he gave me the right answer.
So the new Sundered is free. I’m not letting this chance pass me by. “Can he see us?”
Gorish sort of sniffs. “Oh, yes, master. He’s quite close. He’s superior!”
Oh, wow. Third-tier, I can claim, and he’d be worth the risk. A hundred Gorishes wouldn’t fetch the kind of money a third-tier would—but if he’s second-tier, I’ll have a struggle on my hands. They’re violent, hard to claim. He could pull a reversal, kill me, and get away. Is it worth it? Is he worth the risk?
I’ll hate myself if I don’t try. “Which way is he, Gorish?”
“He’s—” Gorish stops and blinks. Thup-thup sounds to my left, and Gorish points and whispers. “He’s looking at us, master.”
I bet he is. Well, little guy, your curiosity just cost you your freedom. I reach out with my mind and my will, trying to find that oddly incomplete sense of a Sundered One in the dark. Emptiness, heat, everything moist and muddy and alone—
Light jolts through my eyes, and everything spins.
Gorish stops me from falling, catching my waist with his suction-cup hands, but my head is coming off, I swear my head is coming off, and if he lets go I’ll fall in the water, but if I don’t let go of him I can’t hold on to this new huge mind.
And it’s huge, holes big enough to swallow and lose me, angles too sharp to touch without cutting, taste too foreign to fully know. First-tier? Has to be first-tier because he’s too different from third to be second, and I cry out, shouting, screaming, twisting in Gorish’s grip—
More shouts join mine, and more people grip me to pull me backwards because I am trying to hurl myself into the water to get closer to that mind.
No, no, he’s made me insane! “NO!” Can’t hold them both—”Somebody claim him!” I scream and loose Gorish with a flick of my mental wrist, and he makes all of one hop on his own before someone else claims him.
This new huge mind and I wrestle, but now, without distraction, he’s mine.
I am whole. He is not.
Gripping where there is no grip, fighting where my will batters his, and he’s losing now, losing. I fly up out of the dark as his empty spaces conform to me.
Mine. You are mine!
Suddenly, I’m back in my skin, kneeling in the mud, dripping with sweat and blinking white spots away from my eyes. It seems so much quieter, even though people are still shouting.
Come to me, Sundered One.
Come to me.
He lands in front of me with grace like gravity doesn’t matter and a shape I’ve never seen, so human that if he weren’t flawless ebony black and eerily lovely I might be fooled. His hair is long and straight, the same black as his skin, and his irises burn bright orange. Sundered always go naked unless we force them clothed, but not him: he wears a short white kilt slung low and loose on his hips. “My lord.” His voice is young like mine, barely into adulthood. Like a human servant, he kneels.
First-tier. I caught a first-tier. Ung—my head is so heavy it’s going to fall off my neck.
Gorish makes worried noises. My Travelers demand answers, shouting in the confusion. I can’t answer yet. I can’t take my eyes off him. I’ve bagged a first-tier Sundered. From now on, everything in my world is changed.