The silver moonlight filtered through the delicate pinkish red leaves of the Warden tree as it floated above the luminous Shraddha crystals. A solitary blade stood watch from where it had been thrust in the ground during some forgotten battle. The moonlight rippled over its hilt like dripping honey.
Cool autumn air carried the scent of spices from the nut trees of the surrounding forest and seedpods of the flowering plants on the meadow valley below.
Staggered breath tortured the still night. Struggling in violent release, the breathing carried pain and sorrow with each ebb and flow. Such pain stood out against the sublime beauty of the hilltop. It stained the air, and tainted the ground.
A hand reached out from the tree line, and dug into the hallowed ground with its bloody fingers. It grabbed the earth with the intensity of a child holding onto its mother’s fur to keep from falling from the high boughs of the canopy.
The arm strained to pull its beaten and desecrated body up the hill. The poor man, a testament to the vandals art, groaned with every exertion. His injuries wept their red tears onto the ground in a shallow river. His other arm lay in ruins beside him, slashed so deep his bones glinted white in the moonlight.
Slowly, he crawled, or maybe it would be better to say he slithered up the hill. Like a moth drawn to a flame, his vacant eyes locked on the glow of the Shraddha crystals. His breathing broke into a gurgling wheeze.
As his fingers touched the warm glow of the crystal light, he smiled. His eyes fluttered like a butterfly on a spiderweb, and his body fell limp. His breath still bubbled its bloody foam onto the green grass.
The silver light of the moon embraced his broken body, cradling him in her arms like a mother.
Fog crept up the hill from the valley below. Like a soft blanket, it shrouded the broken man.
Wrapped in the gauze-like cloud, the moon light revealed the aetheric beauty of Lady Marama, holding the bleeding man across her lap. She brushed his blood soaked bangs out of his face, and sang a gentle lullaby to ease his pain and help him to sleep.
From the roots of the Warden Tree, tiny beings of light, the Aos si crawled out. They flapped their insect-like wings, and filled the air atop the hill.
“He knew I was here,” Lady Marama said, the sorrow thick in her voice, weighing down the words so they fell to then ground around her. “Despite all his pain, he knew I was here, and he came to me.”
“He was drawn to the light, mistress, nothing more,” one of the Aos si said, “Perhaps he thought it was a distant campfire.”
“I doubt it,” said another of the sprites, “I saw the look in his eyes. He fixed on your face, mistress, and came to you as you said.”
Marama kissed his bloody forehead. His breathing eased.
“Do you think he is the one, mistress?” An Aos si said, landing on his shoulder and admiring his face, which to her was like a large sculpture of a fallen hero.
“It is not for me to say.” Marama sighed. She shook her head, “That is for the priests of Unmei to choose.”
“But all the priests are dead.”
One of the faeries laughed, “What good is the gift of foresight, when it cannot save you from destruction?”
“They are not all dead,” Marama said, “A few survive in the mountains. One is watching us now.”
The Aos si scattered like a flock of songbirds under the shadow of a hawk. They flitted about looking for the hiding priest, but saw nothing.
At the tree line, a white fox peered out from behind an old oak.
Marama’s eyes went right to it, and she smiled. “Don’t hide. We are all friends here. Come closer.”
The fox took a few furtive steps out from his cover, then ran up to the hill to the foot of the broken man. The spirit fox, or atmanari, sniffed the man’s booted foot and looked up at the celestial maiden.
“I know your master uses your eyes tonight little one,” Marama said.
“I have no master,” the atmanari said, crinkling his nose in disgust, “But yes, a friend borrows my eyes. She is most curious about this man you show such compassion for. Why, mistress, of all the sick, injured, and dying this night, are you lingering over this one?”
Marama looked into the fox’s eyes so deeply she could see the wizened face of the priest who shared them, “Because his spirit called out to me, and knew I was here.”
“You think he is special?” the atmanari asked, “You think he is chosen?”
“No,” Marama brushed the broken man’s cheek, “I think he may be called. Only time will tell if he is chosen.”
Ema Sar waddled around the kitchen in her small cabin, grabbing jars of dried herbs, seeds, and larger nuts. As she hummed an old song her mother taught her about the war of the birds, she opened each jar in turn and tossed a pinch of eruul mend, a dried pointed leaf with a sweet peppery smell, and a dash of tervis leaves, small blue leaves that looked like they came from a tiny oak tree into the pot on her stove. The golden broth bubbled. The rich, herby aroma filled the small house.
Picking up a rasp, Ema continued to hum as she grated some of the brown tena and greenish utano nuts into the soup. She stirred it gently. She hadn’t made this soup since the end of the Sawyer war of “Independence.” What a farce, she thought, Independence for them and slavery for everyone else.
Ema sighed and shook the memories out of her head. She didn’t like to remember the war or the state that emerged from it. An entire nation driven by nothing but profit. These are dark times indeed.
Someone moaned on the other side of the cabin.
A bandaged stranger laid on her old tattered couch. For a couple day now, the little dragonfly winged Aos si still tended his wounds. They stopped bleeding yesterday, and throughout the early morning, he started showing signs he would awaken soon. If Lady Marama hadn’t shown him such extraordinary mercy, and instructed her faeries to nurse him back to health, he would be dead.
Why are you so interesting? Ema watched him as she stirred the soup. As far as I can see, you are nothing but an ordinary man. Someone definitely tried to kill you, but I don’t see anything special about you at all. Three days he’s been in my house, and not a single vision. The moon maiden may have seen something in you, but the fates don’t. Something huffed at her feet.
A silver white atmanari sat at her ankle smiling up at her sniffing the air.
“The soup isn’t ready yet, Yujin.” Ema said to the fox. “Besides, I would have thought you would want to hunt on a beautiful day like this.”
The fox shook his head and said, “I am not leaving you alone with that stranger. For all we know, he is a bandit who tried to rob the wrong target.”
Ema smile, “If so, he won’t be a danger for quite some time. The best we can expect is for him to wake up. Even that would be a miracle.”
“Miracle,” Yujin snorted, “A moon maiden took pity on him.”
“Isn’t that a miracle in and of itself?”
Ema and Yujin chuckled.
“What does Marama think he is? He doesn’t have a white dragon, a magic sword, or anything. What is he called for and by who?”
Looking down into the simmering broth, Ema pondered the question. Marama didn’t explain her interest in the stranger. When had a moon maiden ever explained anything to a petty mortal? It was possible he had been chosen to be a Palatine of the Lunar Court. It had happened before that champions were chosen to represent the Argent Throne, but they were usually coached and instructed to ensure they spoke and acted in accord with the court. This poor bastard had none of that.
Someone or something broke him and tossed him away like a rag doll. That isn’t an auspicious start for a Palatine. No, no, there has to be something else behind all this... Or Lady Marama is acting on her own. The Argent Lord, Tsukikage, ruled the night with a light touch. The only times Ema could remember hearing about interventions were during times of war. Since the Sawyers took over, the possibility of war diminished. They quelled any sign of rebellion long before it could foment into anything dangerous.
“Why are you here, my friend?” Ema said to the unconscious stranger. She didn’t expect him to wake up and answer her. She didn’t really expect anything.
Answers would either present themselves or not. It was like the song her mother used to sing to her-
The answers float there on the wind,
Dancing where the rivers bend.
Searching for a home of their own,
With tattered flesh and broken bone.
Truth seeks help for it to mend,
All who have wavered and sinned.
She shook the sound of her mother’s voice out of her head.
Something tapped at the window. A small, winged seahorse-like creature colored orange and white with black stripes like a tiger tapped on the window pane with the tiny horn on its nose.
Ema smiled at the Seiryu, which she recognized as Min min, the courier Seiryu of her friend Raih Entail. She walked over to the window, opened it, and let the fluttering creature in.
Min min circled her head three times, and fanned her wings out. Light sparked from her like a small firework going off, and a scroll appeared in her tail.
“Thank you sweetie.” Ema said as she scratched Min min behind her small finlike ear. She took the scroll. Pointing to a jar in the cupboard, “There are some rock candies in there. I’ll get you some food and water in a second.”
Squeeing like child, Min min twirled. A broad grin covered her muzzle. She twirled and rushed off for some candy.
Ema unfurled the scroll and read-
Something has happened. I am not sure exactly what yet, but my aether scopes have registered two major incidents where a substantial force of magic rippled through. The odd thing, is they were centered in two different places. One near you, the other in Southern Sawyer.
I cannot investigate yet. I have a shipment of Sapana ore to deliver to our friends. If you know anything, please let me know. Even if you don’t, send a response with Min min, it will be good to hear from you either way.
Ema looked up from the letter to the stranger on the couch. So, you are making waves are you. We need to get you well enough to travel before the Sawyer send their goons to start looking for you.
Amhran awoke on a cold stone floor. She debated for a moment whether she had opened her eyes or not. Her head rang with a dull ache. She had hit it on… or been hit by something. Searching her memory, she struggled to find an image or sound. Nothing came to mind. Well, not exactly nothing.
She was walking down the stairs by torchlight. A group was singing or chanting in the dark recesses below. The next thing she knew, she was in this pitch black, cold void with knobby stones poking into the skin her of her back.
Reaching up, she ran her fingers over her small nose up to her hairline. A wet sticky patch of matted hair above her left eye. Something caused her to bleed, but she couldn’t recall what. It hadn’t stung until she touched it. It should have though. It felt bad enough. Maybe it was an old wound, but if so, how old?
The blackness leered at her, silent and endless. She wondered if this was all there was, or maybe even all that ever would be. No light indicated an escape route.
The air was fresh with a lingering hint of incense and fire. It wasn’t dank and rancid like she imagined a dungeon would be. It seemed to circulate, but she couldn’t feel a direction the fresh air came from. There wasn’t really a breeze, the air just wasn’t still.
She considered which way to go in hopes of finding a wall. She sat on a floor of some sort. Sliding her feet back and forth as she extended them forward, she focused on the air. Nothing. Not a hint of a draft.
Feeling her way across the floor, she slid herself to the right. The stones were smoothed, but were more like textured river stones than a hewn and polished floor. The more she thought about it, they felt like they had grooves, hills and valleys carved out by dripping water. Maybe she was in a cave.
Amhran shivered. She hated being alone, and though she couldn’t remember much about what happened before or after she walked down those stairs, she was sure she hated isolation.
The gaping blackness of the unlit chamber pulled at her will to be. It gnawed at her spirit with its ravenous, leonine maw, ripping and tearing her hope and security from her. This darkness was more than absence of life- it was prison and executioner.
Running her hands on the stone floor and wall, she committed the pattern to memory. Three cracks about the size of her pinky branched out as they neared a deep well in the floor. Seven ridges surrounded the well: high, low, low, high, low, high, and low.
She scooted around the room. The wall curved ever so slightly. Each stone felt different- some were rougher than others. Every few feet she felt a course groove that reminded her of a grout line. Maybe hands had hewn these stones from their place and moved them here for some reason. If this was not a natural cave, then maybe she was a prisoner.
Amhran tried to remember any enemies or strangers that would want to trap her like this, but her memory failed her. However she ended up in this darkness, she redoubled her effort to get out.
…three cracks branching down the wall toward the floor…
She finished her circle around the pit. It had to be a pit, what else has no entrance. Somehow she had gotten trapped in an oubliette. How? Whose dungeon was it? Where in the ceiling was the trap door to get out?
Standing up on her shaky legs, she steadied herself against the wall. Her lithe weight pressed on her bones. They ached under her. She wondered how long it had been since she used them. How long had she been down in a hole?
Amhran focused on the air. There had to be a vent somewhere or the air would be stale, but if there was an opening, she thought she should be able to feel the air moving from somewhere. Nothing. There wasn’t even the faintest hint of a breeze.
She raised her arms high above her head. Again, nothing — no ceiling, no stone, not even the softest caress of wind.
Shaking, she fought off the urge to cry. She jumped. Nothing. She jumped again, and again. With each leap, she reached higher, desperate to hit the ceiling. Each thrust into the air wore on her, but not only on her muscles, straining beyond the limits to reach a way out, but on her soul. Hope stretched it as her feet left the cold stone floor, pulling her thin as she reached for the sky beyond the darkness. As gravity took hold of her, it pushed her not only back to the floor, but it compressed her spirits.
Her feet hit the ground. Her knees buckled. She collapsed into her self, weeping and wailing in defeat. For the first time, she knew she was trapped. Her hope for escape found the exit she could not and fluttered away. Aching from overexertion, she screeched at the darkness. Her howls of pain and loss resonated in the pit. They filled the gaping void, swallowing the blackness that had already enveloped her.
Amhran stared into the darkness. She could have sworn she saw black shapes moving against the void. Black on black. Shadows on darkness.
She shook her head. Her eyes were playing tricks on her. She wanted to find a way out so bad, she allowed herself to imagine something in the void. That had to be it, right?
Nothing made a sound but her breath and her heart. If something was moving, it would have to make a sound.
Forcing herself to her feet, she searched the emptiness for the motion.
There it was again.
With a sigh, she stretched her arms out to either side of her body, and pressed her back against the wall. She sighed again and let herself fall forward.
The air brushed her hair back. She tensed up waiting to hit the floor. Tipping forward, she fell. Nothing stopped her. Nothing caught her. Down, down, down, why didn’t she hit the floor? Where was the cold stone she had felt under her feet? Where were the rocks that should have bruised her face.
The cold thrill of falling trilled through her body from her chest to to the icy tips of her fingers and the sore soles of her feet. She dropped through the air for so long, she felt like she was flying. She wondered if she imagined feathered wings catching the air as she descended. She would have flapped them, if she knew how to control the muscles.
Down through the darkness, deeper into the gaping blackness. The shadows still moved beneath her. Their blackness yielded to grays, but they were still so far away. What were they? How did they get into the cave with her? Was she ever in a cave?
Her thoughts were so jumbled as she plummeted. Exhilaration warred with fear as she plunged toward the murky grey figures that had once been shadows.
Was that green?
Amhran shook her head. There were no colors in the dark.
The air felt damp around her, like a mist. The darkness yielded to a foggy grey. Was she in a cloud?
That didn’t make any sense… then again, not much had since she woke up. It must be a cloud.
A storm cloud.
Lightning flashed closer.
Where was the thunder? She could hear the wind rushing past her as she she fell, so why couldn’t she hear the thunder. The crack followed the light, always and everywhere but not here apparently.
Lightning flashed so close to her she felt the heat.
Amhran cried out in her best imitation of the absent thunder. If it wasn’t going to sound, she was.
Her voice echoed back to her like a distant storm. She knew it didn’t sound like that when she made the noise.
Was the cloud playing with her? Clouds didn’t play games. They were mist, nothing more.
Lightening flashed, again.
This time she saw it, not just the flicker of light. A spear fell through the miasma with her.
It twisted slowly through the air. Every time the flat of the blade faced her, the blade’s inherent light flared through the doldrums, illuminating the cloud. Light doesn’t make thunder. Finally, something made sense… so what made the thunder echoing her?
Sinking through the damp air, her skin started to glisten from the... Was it rain that fell with her?
Amhran kept her eyes on the spear. Something about it called to her. She wished she remembered it, but that wasn’t it. Something about it felt familiar. She reached out, but it was too far away.
Lightning flashed. This time, the thunder broke through her like she was a tolling bell. Her whole body vibrated and cracked with its energy. Power surged through her. Nothing felt right. She resolved that this was the strangest dream she had ever had. Even though she couldn’t remember any others, it had to be the strangest. What could compare to this? Shouldn’t she have hit the ground by now? Was there any ground at all?
Diving toward the spear, she wrapped her fingers around it and felt a bizarre heat rush through her body. It was as if the cold night air, or whatever this was had faded away. No, not faded. It changed instantly.
Amhran gulped in the air. Her lungs burned like it was the first time they ever tasted the sweet sky. She cried out. All her emotions flooded into the scream. Her pain, her fear, he sense of loss, all of it rode the screech free into the dark night.
Lightning broke the sky. Rain fell in torrents beside her. Thunder cracked with the beat of her heart.
Amhran could have sworn she saw something up ahead. She tumble like an acrobat, and drove the tip of the spear into the stone peak as she rolled around it. She landed on one knee. Lightning crashed all around her, and thunder shattered the stone.
She looked through the rain down the mountain at the dense forest below.