A truce between Simkada and Valyna on the planet of Urshan Dai remains fragile and tense. Travelers rarely venture beyond their homeland cities for fear of ostracization and safety. War breaks out shortly after an incursion of Valynan soldiers into Simkada's territory, shattering the delicate peace between the two cities. Against this tense political backdrop, Nadan, with his friends, Ranum and Naria, who are all part of an ancient mystical order called the ajnir, travel across the planet in a quest to unravel the riddles of a strange apparition known as a uriel. In a far away mystical city across the vast desert that encompasses most of Urshan Dai, the three companions learn a strange truth about the history of their planet.
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About the Author
Matt Gunderson graduated from Middlebury College in 1999 with a degree in Classics. Since that time, he has worked as a reporter for a variety of newspapers in New England, including The Community Newspaper Co., The New Hampshire Union Leader, The New England Center for Investigative Reporting, and The Boston Globe. He also writes poetry and studies metaphysics in his spare time. He began work on The Ajnir in 2003 under the working title of The Half Planet.
Read an Excerpt
By M.P. GUNDERSON
Red Wheel/Weiser, LLCCopyright © 2012 M. P. Gunderson
All rights reserved.
Like a sleeping animal, Simkada lay quiet. Wind had blown up from the east on this evening, sometimes tearing the pavilions and tents of nomads camped out on the Kiopic Desert outside the city. But the towering white walls that protected the city from ancient marauders retained the wind to a lull, despite the maelstrom outside its edges. On a quiet lane within the city, inside a kaaraadruun hut, a man named Manalk, an oracle from Kira Mandi, and a boy named Nadan sat across each other around a stone, knee high table. On the table in front of them, a small lumin-spire, a glass lighting device, had begun to run low on fuel, its fractured light ebbing into patterns of faint amber. The old man's eyes beamed sadly but calmly in the low light, as he pulled a glass box from a piece of linen cloth at his feet. The box contained a small silver moth, the size of a coin, with three red spots on its wing and a small green, faceted gem.
"Is that a pet?" asked the boy.
"An aid in what we are doing here. So you have consulted the oracles here?"
The boy fidgeted in his seat, still staring at the moth, flexing its wings within the glass box in quiet precision.
"Yes. They had nothing to say strangely. My family doesn't trust oracles from Kira Mandi such as yourself generally speaking. You said this oracle originates out of Time earlier. What do you mean by that?"
"In a sense, but rather I should say that it relates to another universe all together. That may be its advantage."
The man dipped his index finger into the glass box, stared at the moth as if he was having a conversation with it, then touched his marble white finger to the green gem in the container.
"Trees, trees" the man murmured to himself.
"Trees?" asked Nadan.
And, then the man appeared into go in a sort of trance. His eyebrows limped shut quietly for a minute, and for almost a minute his head rocked slowly, gently, from side to side in a very methodical rhythm, his bald head with a lightning bolt tattoo drowsing deeply into his chest. Nadan felt more nervous but also more awkward, and he wondered if this would answer the very dreadful question the man had come to his kaarraardruun hut to answer.
After almost a minute of this unusual behavior, the man re-opened his brownish black eyes widely, shuddered, and glanced around his room, as if he was bewildered where he was.
* * *
"The Speaker has unfortunate news for you," said Kira Mandi oracle, after he seemed to come to his senses. "Your brother is no longer alive. But in the Ethereal Realm of Dinjin, the place where the oracles known as Speakers dwell, they don't really speak of the living and dead, as you might say. Rather, they would say transferred. I use the gem on my finger to speak with them. It's known as an arthanti."
"Dead?" said Nadan, coughing. For some reason, he took this statement more calmly than he would have expected.
"He's in the After-World, as they say here. He was running in a field, even as we speak, which should bring some comfort to you."
For a moment, Nadan lost his composure, but as if some force was compressing mind back into focus, he became calm again. He pondered this reading a while before answering.
"You are certain of this?" he asked finally.
"Yes. Isn't it true your brother had a cresecent scar on his shoulder? That would prove the accuracy of the reading, I'm sorry to say. There is more going on here, though the Speakers weren't able to tell me all."
"I see," said Nadan, with a tear running down his eyelid, as he glanced out the window at the bright light of afternoon, for he had seen his brother, Karam, get that scar when he was young from falling on a piece of shattered glass on the cobble stone streets of Simkada.
The old man placed the moth back in the bag at his feet, then stared at the ground despondently, before murmuring to himself something in Mandian, the language of Kira Mandi.
"How did he die?" asked Nadan, finally.
The old man drummed his hands on the table in front of them for a second.
"He was murdered," he said, after a long pause, "but by no entity of this world we live in."
* * *
Two days later, Karam's body lay out on a barrow outside the eastern city walls, where the tombs and ashes of millions of Simkadans now lay, some dating back thousands of years. For miles, the beige, earthen mounded graves stretched eastward into the dust-blown, time-beaten desert that bordered Simkada. Twirls of smoke and incense, tabaci and vanil, curled around his brother's form, sheltered by an open-sided ivory-colored pavilion. Nadan and his family offered prayers and burnt offerings of kuireme leaves to Urum, the great solar deity most venerated in Simkada. They sang and reflected on Karam's life. But Nadan felt no relief and privately he sensed the disturbance of his close relatives. Both of his parents had died in an anti-gravity vehicle accident when he was only four years of age. And now Karam had passed under equally peculiar circumstances (few deaths resulted from the silently levitating vehicles). This was more tragedy than had been visited on any other family around, and everyone knew it, but no one mentioned this fact at the funerary rites because it was considered impolite in Simkadan society to even mention such a calamity to a family.
As for the cause of Karam's death, it was still not clear, but the coroners had reported a small hole in his heart, which was probably the reason. It was a strange, rare health disorder which would have caused such a problem, but even stranger was how the boy's body was discovered. Nadan's uncle Gizal had found the body with no note on a steel litter outside his kaaraadruun hut the morning before. Gizal was suspicious that Karam had been accidentally or intentionally killed, and that the killers, whoever they were, became guilty over what they had done and decided to leave the body with his family. Gizal, who had been through the war with the northern city of Valyna and had seen many deaths, had called the Port Authority immediately about his suspicions. The Port Authority, however, pointed to the coroner's report, which claimed the death was of natural causes, and decided not to pursue the incident as a murder.
At the funeral rites, as he spoke, Gizal broke the usually formal and reserved funeral tradition in Simkada and noted that he did not believe that the death was natural.
"While we can only conjecture about what happened, I knew Karam's health was known for being impeccable," the brusque, sometimes tactless man mentioned as he was speaking, losing some of his typical composure. But he stopped there, even as his wife next to him made a sudden hiss of disapproval.
For most of the funeral rites, Nadan stayed quiet, feeling lifeless inside and staring at the ground with his brown hood tucked way down over his face, not wanting to look at his brother's pale, wan face.
* * *
The realms beneath have struck a terrible chord. The links are meeting once again, but both the worlds on each side of us are threading what they are, or want to be, into us, and making us what they are. The lower wants the higher to be pulled down. The higher wants to be higher than itself. In this way, we live in a partial portion.
Nadan heard these words running through his mind later that night, when the birds of Simkada lay quiet and he was writing his thoughts out about the whole ordeal. He felt as if he was being partially pulled into a dream state. He set his pen down and walked to the window, staring at the flame-red graffiti on the wall next door which said: "Bravery is nothing until you show it."
The subtle voice continued: The gates and also the keys are invisible. Everything is a gateway and not an end itself. Time is slowing at the lower, and running quicker and more silently at the upper. I heard a river in each and every context, and it went and stopped, the thoughts of all beings in all their contexts.
Nadan returned to his seat, a bed of cushions, and ran his hands along his shaven scalp, and then, he heard the whispering voice say, as if more directly to him: You can hear me? Nadan felt alarmed at this point, and his hand trembled a bit.
I am listening. You heard my conversation. You can reply.
Nadan felt he didn't know how to reply. Still, he remained a bit quiet, thinking what to say when he did make a reply.
Project your thought, the voice said.
Project my thought?
The voice seemed to laugh, in this low golden whisper.
You see. You did it.
* * *
The next night, around the same time, the voice returned. But this time it was clearer and more palpable.
The grief is difficult but you are letting it go well. There is not necessarily any virtue in grieving too much.
Nadan waited hesitantly, listening to the quiet air of the night, near the door leading into the garden behind his hut.
Who is this? he asked.
Who do you think?
Not too hard, is it?
Nadan almost gave himself a sly grin, and for a moment, he felt a great relief flood through his being. He listened for almost a minute, and after that time, he got the picture in his mind of the man, sitting at a table, a stone table somewhere, but the picture was vague and not crisp. It took him almost a minute to assimilate what was happening, but when he did, he said:
I had no idea you could speak this way.
Manalk's mind seemed to quiver for a second, but already Nadan was getting a grasp of his own psychic sensibility. Manalk's mind was like philosophical clouds, floating in his mind, cool and steady, distantly proximate.
It was as I feared: your brother was killed by a Kaitone, a ghastly creature from the Mazag, a dark universe that suspends like a balloon around this world, like Dinjin, telepathed Manalk, after a moment, during which he seemed busy with something else happening in his room. They were afraid of your brother or your family, or so it seems, the Kaitone. The Port Authority of Simkada is worried: not in 400 years have they seen a Kaitone killing here, though they don't understand it.
What do you mean? For a second, Nadan thought he could see Manalk's white, round, moon-like face, bereft and taciturn, and nearby, three silver moths, playing near his ear nearby.
Four hundred years ago, there was a wave of some 48 killings in Simkada. Not unusual for those grim times perhaps, the oracle returned, but the strange thing about these murders was that there were no signs of bodily injury in the victims' bodies. The Kaitone use a special form of spellcraft, known as a meta, to transmute flesh and matter to inflict bodily harm. This is exactly what happened to your brother. The Port Authority was in possession of your brother's form for a while investigating it. They still know nothing of the Mazag or the Kaitone.
Nadan's eyes strayed to the window, where the sound of gorlon bird cries echoed along the cobble stones. He had, of course, heard already from Manalk that his brother was killed by some sort of inter-dimensional, though the oracle didn't specify a name. The horrific idea was so troubling and disturbing to him that he had found himself diverting his thoughts constantly: to regular events and actions that had nothing to do with the situation. He said nothing in reply. Instead, he thought of his brother and his family for a while, and how he had felt the entire time during this whole ordeal a sense of estrangement from them – almost like he was not in their world of customs and obligatory acts. A growing sensation that he felt out of place within his culture had been enveloping him ever since last spring, and this recent tragedy almost intensified these emotions.
You are none of those things, telepathed Manalk. But it's actually a good sign. You just don't remember who you are.
A good sign? Nadan replied, feeling a bit embarrassed.
Many of us ajnir have the same problem. We feel akin to society but not part of what it thinks. We are part of a river but not its contexts.
That sounds like that voice I was hearing last night in my mind.
It was some poetry I was reading from the Dinjin.
Nadan went to the door of his hut, opened it, and stared outside for a moment into the garden. There were a few children playing with some dice in the street beyond, but he couldn't see the old man anywhere. Outside, he could hear the bells marking the time of midnight clanging in the humid air of the summer night. The trees along the sides of the street were sighing in the night wind. Above them, the ancient vehicular tunnels that twisted and turned through the city were lighted with a crimson glow. The tunnels were built in ancient times to deal with the city's overpopulation problem. Tourists sometimes traveled across the Kiopic Desert to the north of Simkada to visit the tunnels, but locals inside the city thought they were an eyesore and walked past them with little interest. Nadan stared at the white and red lium and goli flowers that hemmed in each side of the walkway that led into the cobblestone street.
Those flowers smell nice, telepathed Manalk.
You can smell them? replied Nadan.
I can also see them quite clearly. This is actually the first time I've seen a goli flower. They don't grow in the Valyna or Kira Mandi.
Nadan bent down and picked one of the red flowers and smelled it. Some of the petals fell off the bulbous, large flower and scattered in the wind at his feet.
Kurieme trees grow in Valyna, but there aren't many. They are more plentiful in Simkada. I just wish there were more trees on our planet.
There's not enough water, answered Nadan, glumly.
Thousands of years ago, the Kiopic Desert was not a desert but a huge forest. Water was much more plentiful on Urshan Dai.
What is an ajnir? The named stirred Nadan's mind for some reason. Had he heard it somewhere before? It sounded mystical and far away, exotic.
You like the word? It's from Mandian, one of its oldest languages, the Ganir dialect. Secret is the first syllable. Nir means worker. As I was explaining to you before, there are three universes, the Mazag and Dinjin and this world, which interpolate. It has something to do with that, but I can't say more.
You can't say more?
As I said, the Kaitone use metas. Some of them restrict me from what I'm trying to tell you. All I can tell you is that you are no longer in danger because I have made them forget about you for the time being with my own metas.
Nadan crept to the edge of the curtain of his house and stared outside. Over the desert to the east, the Light-Star was beginning its sleep, descending into colors of oceanic purple and red sand as it set. The street, with the brown clay wall across the street stained with graffiti, was painted red with its color.
Still, no one was there, though he had been having this feeling someone was watching him all the time, an unfriendly man in a brown robe. He had seen the man twice now in his dreams—standing there just below the window near the graffiti with a scimitar in his anemic hand.
Nadan went back over to his seat and read a phrase from a book of poetry, an ancient Mandian poet he was reading named Sarir.
From the moment, a glare, a tortured illness.
Illuminated is the stillness; it becomes the resilience,
At least some resilience.
43 ghals. He read his timepiece, suddenly remembering that he had forgotten he was going to meet Manalk later that night at 44. He quietly shut down the lumin-globes that were keeping the temperature a little bit higher than he preferred in his kaaraadruun hut. The temperature dropped immediately, as the ducts in his wall, which had devices that determined his favored temperature, siphoned the air out of the chamber.
That is significant, said a voice like a silver reed in his mind.
Whether it was Manalk, he wasn't certain. But he felt like it was not, and when he asked the voice for further explanation, he only heard a muffled response. But he had to go soon, and, after a minute of listening to the stillness of the evening air, he decided to leave, knowing Manalk was up at his cave at the base of the Thuresce Mountains as usual. Three turns of the double moons had passed since he had met Manalk, and the man had virtually shunned the civilization of the city, living in a remote cavern near the outlying roads of Simkada, at the base of Zxe Mountain, the closest peak to the city. There was one sole Kurieme tree in that area, just at the entrance of the cave tree with two large V-shaped branches protruding up from its main stem. Save for a few hikers and skiffs, the path leading up to the mountain was isolated and almost never visited.
Taking only a canteen on one shoulder, Nadan sidled out on the street in front of his hut. The evening was now darkening, and the city's lumin-globes, red and yellow and brightly lit, had already been turned on to light the way for walkers. Kurieme trees were spaced every few hundred yards along the cobblestone road. Above him, the great tunnels over the city were gray and dimly reflecting the light of lumin-globes below.
As Nadan shuffled along the road towards the city's gates westward, a thin woman appeared around the corner of one of the streets. Black hair traced all the way to her lower back. Her eyes were moist and black, and she had the deep scent of tunivial. She immediately pulled up alongside him and eyed him probingly.
Excerpted from The Ajnir by M.P. GUNDERSON. Copyright © 2012 M. P. Gunderson. Excerpted by permission of Red Wheel/Weiser, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Chapter 1 The Kaitone
Chapter 2 The Arthanti
Chapter 3 The Departure of Manalk
Chapter 4 The Voice of The Uriel
Chapter 5 A Journey Begins
Chapter 6 Valyna
Chapter 7 The Wheel of Thought
Chapter 8 The Mazag
Chapter 9 Reunion
Chapter 10 Naria
Chapter 11 Escape from the City
Chapter 12 The Anatami
Chapter 13 Kira Mandi
Chapter 14 The Great Fault
Chapter 15 Cropaayaa
Chapter 16 Luspen
Chapter 17 Gooriom
Chapter 18 Istandria
About the Author