First Chapters – Divergent Paths by Holly Barbo

Today’s First Chapter is from Divergent Paths, book two of the Sage Seed Chronicles by my friend Holly Barbo.

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A virulent disease sweeps through the Sawblen Province. The source is unknown. As hundreds fall victim, the healers race to contain it and find a cure before it engulfs the realm, but a would-be healer complicates the situation by concocting dangerous drugs. While the officials are distracted, a counterfeiter takes advantage of the events. Credentials and money are faked, putting several lives in peril and resulting in deaths. The Great One’s council and sage population hurry to track down the sources of the trouble and right the multiple crises before anyone else falls prey to the events. Rare natives of the planet have important information to impart if the sages can decipher their cryptic message.

Chapter 1: The Assessment

There was a soft onshore breeze that brought the tang of the sea to the high bluff. The grassy knoll overlooked the valley and the high ridge separated it from the ocean. A cat-like creature emerged from the shadows and the grasses at the top of the hill as if he were an illusion of the morning light. His ear tufts twitched as another, just like him and without a whisper of sound appeared beside a nearby rock and moved to his side. Greer sat on her haunches looking out over the valley. Their coloring shifted and blended as the zephyr moved through their fur, making them almost indistinguishable from the landscape.

When at last she spoke, her words were heard only in his mind. ‘It is good to see that the place of impact has been discovered by the humans.’

Raow made an almost inaudible sound in his throat. ‘Honored elder, your ability for understatement is legendary. When the asteroid hit here, centuries ago in their years, it was not investigated by the humans. They were having too much difficulty just trying to survive the resulting climate change to do any exploring.’

She turned to glance at him before both turned and watched the activity in the valley below. The long span of years had softened the edges of the impact crater where the asteroid had broken apart with chunks of the space rock bouncing across the landscape. The area now was level grasslands, ringed by hills and pock-marked by a small lake, marsh and hot springs. There were dunes on the inland side of the valley which merged with the grassy verge at the forest edge. The two creatures studied the valley and new structures on the flat plain that bordered the mineral springs. Some of the buildings were complete, while others had just been started. The breeze played across the creatures, tickling the fur on their ears while bringing sounds from the activity on the plain.

The male spoke again. ‘When the founding colonists arrived I was pleased to see them because they quieted our planet but was concerned because the landmass is limited and can only sustain a smaller population. Too many people would result in famine and disease.’

The older cat glanced at her companion and shook her head, ‘The Ancients counseled them on that real possibility before they left their home world. It was part of the eco-sensitive culture that was written into their charter.’   She resumed her perusal of the valley. ‘The colonists have taken the caution to heart. The population grows very little, Raow.’

After another few minutes watching the activity below the younger cat nodded toward the valley, ‘I like this place. It is unique in our world.’

When he paused, Greer interjected, ‘Come on, Raow. I am curious to know why you asked me here.’

Raow made a soft, fluid sound that conveyed feline laughter. He continued as if she hadn’t spoken, wanting to express things in his own way. ‘Perhaps our world had to heal and develop the fascinating ecosystem of the mineral lake and hot springs from the impact crater. That takes time. But yes, I too am pleased that some have settled here. Let’s go into the crater.’

He stood with fluid grace and within a few steps, disappeared from the hilltop. The older enigmatic cat followed in his energy wake, her coloring shifting as she moved before she, too, was gone.

A moment later, both were on the valley floor by the mineral lake. The optically unique quality of their fur blended with the reeds and grasses at the water’s edge. Raow glanced at the cat beside him, ‘What do your senses tell you? I don’t need anything specific.’

Greer closed her eyes, focusing on all of the various stimuli that she could glean from their world and in particular, from this place. ‘In the ocean just beyond this place, there is a bad tide in the archipelago, but the ottols are aware of it and are staying clear…Mountain elk are moving and spreading out for their summer grazing…The human society here still needs to work out some difficulties, but that is the nature of the people. Fewer are living in Obsidian Island. One of the old ones just died and was buried. The sage population is in a state of change as one nears the end of his life here…’ She opened her eyes and looked at Raow for a long moment before she finished her thought. ‘And there is a young sage that will soon be coming awake to her skills.’

She paused before asking, ‘How much did you want? There are some small ripples that I sense will cause the sage population some trouble in the near future and bigger ripples, then waves, of disturbance in the centuries to come.’

Raow closed his eyes and brushed the ruff on her head with his own. ‘Thank you, Greer. I appreciate your gift — my skill in this area does not compare to your own. There were some things I sensed, but clairvoyance is difficult to decipher for me. It is stronger and more certain with you. You have given me the confirmation I was seeking. That is enough. I know how it tires you.’

They could hear voices approaching but did not move, confident in their near-invisibility. Two sets of golden eyes watched as a pair of women carrying gathering baskets walked past. They looked to be mother and daughter, judging by their resemblance to each other. Both had dark brown hair, high cheek bones and similar slender builds. When the two humans were out of sight, Raow and Greer stood and turned toward the thicker grass. Greer paused. ‘You are welcome to my inner sight anytime. May your steps be blessed.’ With a nod she turned an unseen corner and was gone.

Raow looked after her thoughtfully before he gazed over his shoulder at the settlement. What he had perceived from his clairvoyance was both unexpected and unprecedented. It would alter lives — including his own. He shook his head at his thoughts as he took a step toward the marsh and vanished.

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