The Last Toqeph<br/>

Author: Yvonne Anderson
Publisher: CreateSpace
Published: 2014-10-15
ISBN(s) 978-1502449825
Category: Fiction
Audience: Adult
Genre(s): Science Fiction, Action, Fantasy Read Excerpt >

When Adam lifted his head to survey his surroundings, rainwater spilled down his back from his hat brim. Again.

Being soaked already, he ignored the indignity as he scanned the land before him. Hovering vapor blurred every outline of the treeless scenery, and the downpour’s rhythmic song pattered across the sodden world in a soft cadence.

He squeezed water from his ponytail. Despite the damp, the air held no chill. Once the sun went down, though, it would be another story.

He strode on, boots pressing water from the fragrant loam as if from a sponge. He was grateful the mud had a solid base, thanks to what may have once been a paved highway. Who could say? The countryside bore no resemblance to the photos he’d seen of the old Yereq.

The Great Disaster six years ago had transformed this once fruitful plain into a jumble of rock-strewn hills and valleys, bogs, quicksand, and mounds of decay. A series of tremendous earthquakes—still occurring from time to time—had divided Gannah’s single landmass into three continents, breaking off Yereq along the natural boundary of the Nazal River. Now they called it the Nazal Sea, and, too broad to swim, it cut him off from the settlement of the New Gannah. If he were to ever see it again—if he were to lead it, as was his birthright—he must complete this quest.

Adam slogged on until the path vanished ahead where the ground fell away sharply. He approached the edge and peered through the sheeting rain.

Below, a tangle of uprooted trees formed a ghostly thicket of limbs, trunks, and twisted roots. These logjams were wholly impenetrable. Any man who thought he could walk across from tree to tree would soon learn otherwise. He knew, because he’d tried it earlier.

He’d emerged from that fiasco scraped and torn but with no broken bones. Soon afterward, he’d discovered this semblance of a road heading in the direction he wanted to go. For the past three days, its firm footing had allowed him to make excellent time. If he could keep that pace, he’d arrive at the pick-up point with days to spare.

He stared into the tangled abyss beneath him and sighed. So much for efficient traveling. But then, all good things come to an end. “And so do all things painful,” his mother would often add.

His emma was full of the wisdom of Old Gannah. Where her supply of adages left a gap, his abba had a Karkar homily to fill it. Adam’s multiracial gene pool gave him a galaxy of proverbs for every occasion.

The precipice he stood upon continued as far as he could see in both directions. The path of least resistance seemed to lie to the north, so he followed the ridge to the right. A few paces later, his feet sank into the muck.

He plunged onward, step by desperate, sucking step, until at last he reached firm footing on the edge of a gray slab of scarred rock. Jutting from the ground at an angle, it looked like the floor of some ancient hall, broken and tipped upward.

He slipped in the slime on its muddy shoulder and grabbed at the leaning slab. His hand smeared a swath nearly clean before he’d caught his balance. He stared.

This was no random chunk of rock. The mud concealed a polished surface. Where it wasn’t scored and cracked, it seemed to display a design of sorts. A deliberate pattern. He rubbed again.

The black mud ran in frantic rivulets before the driving rain, and the pattern grew clearer. Within a circle of gold on a green field, the letter aleph crowned with light: the royal symbol of Atarah.

Adam stared, trying to make sense of it, while the remainder of the mud he’d loosened trickled away, clearing the circle on the floor.

For that’s what this certainly was. A piece of the floor from the throne room of one of the old provincial palaces. The nearest would be Saba, the old toqeph’s residence at Yereq. But how could this be? Had he lost his bearings and wandered off course? The ancient palace had stood many leagues east of where he now journeyed.

Though shrouded in clouds, the lowering sun lit the western sky with a weak, watery glow. No, he hadn’t strayed. He’d been heading steadily west by northwest since he’d parachuted out of the topeller almost a week ago.

He reviewed his knowledge of geography, picturing maps and images in his near-photographic mind, fixing first on Saba and then his own location. He was not mistaken. This slab had traveled hundreds of kilometers.

Adam turned in a full circle, scanning the soggy terrain for anything else out of place. All he saw was scrubby brush cringing against the downpour. If any other vestige of humanity existed here, it was buried beneath a meter of mud.

He faced the slab once more, and his skin prickled as he watched the rain rinse the sign of Atarah, leaving it mud-free and gleaming. He shivered from an inner chill.

What sort of inheritance had he been born to? The throne of a dead, broken planet.

He stiffened his jaw with resolve. Old Gannah was dead, yes. Wiped out by the Plague almost half a century ago, sparing only his emma as the heir of Atarah. Sole survivor of her race, she’d been carried away on a stretcher by the rescue team sent by the League of Planets, leaving Gannah utterly desolate.

But by the Yasha’s grace, Emma and Abba had married on Earth, gathered a group of adventurers, and come here to establish the New Gannah. Now she ruled over a thriving community of two thousand people.

A small population, yes. But growing. And the people had a proud legacy. They deserved a good person to lead them.

Adam ran his hand across the symbol on the slab. No one could say he wasn’t a good man. Since childhood he’d striven for perfection in knowledge, in character, in obedience to Emma and to the Yasha. He was a strong and loving husband to Elise, a kind and supportive father to his son, and had the good of Gannah foremost in his ambitions.

But to wear the Ring of Atarah? He traced the gold circle on the floor with his finger—the third finger of six.

Something clumped in his gut like a not-quite-done Cephargian blood pudding. No ruler of Gannah should be of Karkar blood. It would be a sacrilege.

He lowered his hand and stared at the circle. He’d seen that same sign on the floor in Emma’s throne room beneath a round skylight. In Old Gannah, when a man was convicted of a capital crime, he was required to stand in that circle in a column of sunlight while the toqeph carried out the penalty: death by a swift breaking of the neck.

Adam knew how it was done. He’d been trained in the process, among other violent arts, in preparation for the Nasihood. But he’d never performed it on a man.

How many had stood on this very circle and surrendered obediently to their fates? He envisioned it—a dark, bearded, curly-haired man like the Gannahans of old, short of stature but powerful of build. Head bowed in submission, regret in his heart, but loyalty to the toqeph overriding his fear.

If Adam were justly condemned of some crime, would he have the courage to take his punishment standing in silence? Or would he bring shame to himself and all Gannah by struggling or pleading for mercy?

The ancient toqephs might consider him worthy of death for even thinking to inherit the throne. But wasn’t that the destiny to which he was born? Was he not the rightful heir of Atarah?

The rain poured harder. Another chill shook him from hat to boots, and a sick feeling spread throughout his midsection. Must be a combination of hunger, the exertion of a day-long hike through the rain, and the eeriness of stumbling upon a relic of the former civilization.

It might be wise to rest. He’d been moving almost nonstop for days on end, and even the Old Gannahans couldn’t keep that up indefinitely. With one last look at the symbol, he sidled around the upward-slanting floor. The footing was fairly firm, as if pieces of the slab had broken off and lay beneath the mud. But would he start sinking again on the other side?

The ground remained solid for the next few paces. A well-worn animal trail led from beneath the angled rock, where it appeared a family of qaran had taken up residence. Adam followed the narrow track. If the qaran didn’t sink into the mud, he wouldn’t either.

After several minutes, the meandering trail petered out in a grassy area littered with small boulders. The mother qaran and two half-grown fawns, their neck spines not yet emerged, browsed on berries growing on tall shrubs amongst the rocks.

Seeing him, they snorted and bounded away, and he made no effort to follow. He didn’t need to hunt this evening. The berries would be nice, though. He approached the shrub the deer had been nibbling from.

Chophen fruits looked like closed fists. Two centimeters in diameter, the shining yellow lumps grew here in abundance. He’d never seen them before but recognized them from photos.

The first he picked was so soft it turned to mush in his hand. The second was firmer, but when a worm stuck its head out a hole and wagged at him, he let that one go too. He gave the third a good inspection before biting it in half then discovered it was inhabited as well. He flicked the worm out and ate the rest of the berry.

It was full of gritty seeds and wasn’t very juicy. Perhaps it wasn’t quite ripe.

He spent the next several minutes exploring the berry patch, eating enough to take the edge off his hunger. The sun sank lower, the rain still poured, and the ravine still stood between him and his destination. He’d have to climb down eventually, and sooner seemed better than later.

He headed westward, relieved the mud no longer tried to suck his boots off, until he found the ridge again. The drop-off was more gradual here, and nothing blocked his way. He followed another qaran trail downward with the rain.

Yasha willing, he’d have no trouble making the rendezvous. But the feeling of ill-ease remained, and the image of that yellow circle still burned in his mind.

The Last Toqeph   by   Yvonne Anderson   |   See Bio >
Book 4 of 4 in the Gateway to Gannah Series.
Will he right an ancient wrong and lose his inheritance? Or ignore the truth and lose his integrity?

While traveling through desolate terrain, Adam stumbles upon an impossibility: a village of Old Gannahan survivors. Hard to believe. Harder yet, it seems one of them is the true heir to the throne.

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