“It true began in the time of sorrows, the period of mourning in the aftermath of the all-gods war. As the Sumai’a tell it, the blood soaked soil gave them birth. From the essence of god-death and the power of Ahki’i they were born, godless and fierce, a reminder of the ceaseless hunger for power and lawlessness.”
“The Suma’ia wear this tale like a second, impenetrable skin that serves as both boon and talisman. It was the moon blood that made the males’ unquestioned rule over Sumai’an women possible of course. The curse of the one God was, in their minds, placed on all Sumai’an women to punish them for their rebirth of men from the blood of His enemies. The inherent weakness of their female bodies and spirits made it not only possible for them to be subjugated, but right. Thus the skin trades were birthed, and ruthless men made deals to fatten their purses with gold and give them the power to influence. “
Kellion coughed then, pausing his story to take a drink from the water skein at his feet. He looked around the fire knowing that in the surrounding darkness, his coal black skin would be almost invisible as his tawny eyes flickered, their catlike glow enhanced by the flames, doubtless giving gooseflesh to the 20 or so men seated around him. He flicked his long white braids and the rune covered beads sparked blue, weaving the tale in the air above him in brief flashes. The collective gasp at seeing the story retold in images inspired awe, and not a little envy. Because there were few Telliac living on the southern portion of Ahki’i, these men had likely not seen one such as him since their forefathers’ lifetimes. The Berein war 500 years prior had resulted in Telliac priests fleeing to the North in droves, but the stories remained. Tales of Telliac priests were passed from generation to generation across Ahki’i, and with each telling the illusion of power was strengthened. Kellion gave a grim smile, the Bereins would not be interested in the truth, and good it was, for their centuries’ old lies kept his kind safe. Had they known the truth, the temptation to kill or enslave may have been too great for many to resist.
Kellion shifted positions, his long dark limbs largely hidden in the dark, yet still he felt the attention of his followers shift with his movements. He continued, runes spinning tales of people and places forgone interspersed with future events, a conglomeration that only a Telliac priest could unravel. He paused his telling when the runes revealed the girl…the child queen, seated on the throne of Berei. The blue tones shifted, darkening the shadows around the figure, and illuminating the child-queen in the palest blue, white sparks surrounding her heart space as she sat, one arm outstretched, beseeching. The image was so real for a moment that a few of the proselytes stretched their hands toward her. Be sure they were grateful for the dark surrounding them as they realized that the shadows cloaked their embarrassed cheek reddening. Kellion gave a rueful grin, of course his cat-like eyes imparted more than just the look of a great cat, they also allowed him to see at night as if it were day, a distinct advantage.
“The destiny of the child-queen is linked to that of a Sumai’an welp. “ He waited for the horrified gasp to subside before continuing. “A girl-child …” he said pointedly… feeling the energy pique with interest and for a few, dark ambition…He frowned slightly. It was always the way. Some bought into the dark energy of the skin trades even as they feigned allegiance to the one God. It could not be helped, but he was the Awkiks’ii, the vessel of the one God, and would mete out God’s judgement when required. He shivered, glad of the darkness that covered him to their prying eyes, and paused, allowing the terror of his part in that judgement to weigh on him for a brief moment. He sighed, swinging his braids so that the runes re-awakened, illuminating the figure of an infant being sold into the slaving houses by a ruthless man, an emaciated woman crying as the child was pried from her grasp. As the glowing image faded, Kellion extended his senses, testing the men before him and reading their energy before he spoke the fated words. “The child is mage born.” He felt the stunned silence as needles of their disbelief, anger, fear and cold calculation pushed against his consciousness. He pushed them away to focus on the task at hand. “One of the most powerful mage talents I have encountered in my 187 summers.” He let the words sink in, and pinpointed which of his followers flushed with awe or envy, and which had envy that contained an undercurrent of hatred, which could foretell an intent to harm. He checked the men off in his mind’s eye, making a note of who would be kept to strengthen their number, and whose service to this life would end that night.
In the stillness of the moment, the gold bright eyes of the Telliac glowed blue, the mild voice bursting with strength, and shattering the silence with such ferocity that the bright flames of the fire were extinguished, and many of the proselytes dropped their faces to the ground and covered their ears for fear they would rupture. “Your calling is to save this girl-child of Suma’ia, and to ensure she has the opportunity to fulfill her destiny. At all cost!” The man that was Kellion dropped to the ground in a dead faint, his two most devoted followers flanking him, eyes closed as they sought out the energy signatures in each man present. They stood still as statues in the darkness, weapons at the ready. It was the most vulnerable moment for an Awkiks’ii. Having been used as a vessel, his body failed, losing consciousness and leaving him vulnerable to those who may have wanted to do him harm. Some men were bound to think, however mistakenly, that they could somehow gain the God’s power for themselves. It was why the God-talking occurred in the dark, so that fools and thieves would not try to take a life that would immediately spawn divine retribution, and more importantly did not contain the power they sought. It was why Telliac priests had left Berei in the first place, but Kellion had felt the God’s compelling, and had been led to return, the child-queen must live, for all Ahki’i.
Argolis stood in the kitchens, looking for all the world like a lost and hungry pup, and as was her norm, Bette, the kitchen maid of the guild house took pity on the hungry urchin and with a cluck of her teeth and a slightly bemused shake of the head, tossed her a loaf of fresh baked bread. The gift lit the child’s face with joy. As a thank you, the child gave an awkward curtsy and allowed her brown eyes to lower, hiding the flecks of silver that would have revealed what she was. Let the kitchen maid think she was gifted, a small gift. Argolis allowed a bit of blue light to coalesce around her fingers, the blue a telltale sign of the gift. She allowed the blue to cast a low glow suggestive of a light sprinkling of power before speaking, her high pitched voice oddly incongruent with the precocious content of her words. “The vegetable merchant will be here when the sun is high, he will bring the finest pieces of his harvest to endear himself to you. Give him what he wants and you’ll get a discount from now till the spring flowers bloom.” She gave an impish smile, and walked to the open doorway, before turning again “Which is when his wife finds out and sends her youngest son to trade from then on.” She winked at the blushing kitchen maid and walked with single minded purpose to the home for children, slipping inside through a window at the lower level. She aimed for the sitting room, hoping none of the caretakers had made note of her sudden appearance at morning breakfast, she gave a cynical roll of the eyes, if one could call the small bowl of gruel and cup of brackish water, breakfast.
Argolis slid into an empty seat near the toddlers, hiding the bread beneath her oversized tunic and pulling off pieces as one by one the children wandered over. It was eerie, and a testament to the conditions in which these children lived that they were orderly, and discrete. Each child made the exchange appear random, and ate the morsel only when they knew that they were not watched by their less than attentive caretakers. Caretakers who, if they did pay attention were sure to mete out an illogical and irrational punishment. These tiny children did not even fight each other, having already established that they were stronger together.
Argolis shook her head, her ancient eyes flashing an iridescent silver, its meaning lost on the toddlers surrounding her. Compassion was not usual for her kind, cruelty came easier, and truly, it was not really compassion that guided her actions. Argolis had seen the future, and understood the importance of this child, the importance to her. She looked at the girl closely, and holding out a hunk of bread, gestured her over. “Touch me.” She said, and opened her hand to pass the bread, allowing the girl’s hand, immediately surrounded by iridescent blue at her request, to brush hers. Immediately, Argolis was flooded with the gift. Her eyes widened at the size of it, the depth, and she almost pulled away, startled, as she was each time she had asked the girl to touch her. The child’s body that she inhabited bucked on the chair, and Argolis jerked her hand away, blinking slowly, her eyes glowing intensely and fully silver and her nostrils flared as she tried to take in the sheer force of the power that had touched her. She let out her breath slowly, glancing around at the incurious toddlers and caretakers. She flushed, grabbing control of herself, muttering a mantra beneath her breath, magically willing the caretakers to see nothing unusual. She stared at the child, and a name, writ in flaming blue runic symbols, appeared above her head. “Sonai” she said softly, and the grimy toddler smiled, her eyes slipping from midnight to iridescent blue as she laughed and clapped happily. Apparently the child knew who she was. Argolis gazed at the babe, head tilted as her thoughts swam. Who, yes, but she doubted that the babe knew just what she was. The toddler knew that she was Sonai, though she doubted anyone in the children’s home knew, or had ever called her by her true name.
The caretakers, being former inhabitants of the orphan guild themselves, relegated to child rearing no doubt as punishment for some small infraction, had little compassion and much power, an often deadly combination. Whatever the reason, they called each child by a nickname, usually given during the toddler years and designed to remain with and humiliate the children as much as possible. She tilted her head, thinking of the girl’s nickname, a name she would not have to live up to if Argolis had anything to do with it, which, gods willing, she did. She repeated the girl’s nickname in her head, not wanting to say it aloud for its filth as well as for its power to wake the caretakers from their stupor. Even ancient as she was, the thought of what this babe would become at age 7, without intervention, made her growl in outrage, the body she wore blushing at the connotation. Yes, the cruel and perverse slave guild had a plan for Sonai, but it was not to be. As a Pata’i, an ancient skin walker, Argolis could see the future in snippets, and she had seen enough to know that this child was needed if Ahki’i, and all within it would remain. Compassion or not, Argolis had a unique understanding about the forces at work beyond the veil of humanity, and to keep Ahki’I alive, this poor girl needed to be saved.
Argolis smiled ruefully, shaking her head at the sheer audacity of her plan. Leave it to the God to pair the fate of the world with that of a Sumai’an welp, a female no less, and to give knowledge of her existence to a Pata’i. She shook her head, watching the girl bemusedly as she wove the spell that would perhaps save her from her less than desirous fate, and remove all trace of her power from her until the allotted time. Argolis finished the spell, releasing the girl from any knowledge of her visit, and slipped out the same way she had come She would not visit again for at least 5 years, when it would be necessary for her to take the child to the royal palace. Argolis chuckled as she changed from the slave smock to her own more noble attire, that of a Ne’e child. She smirked, shaking her head as she started on her long journey to the palace, eyes glowing fully silver as she walked past the villagers, who gawked, and hastily bowed their heads in respect as she passed. For true, her blue gray dress was typical of the merchant class, and the purple sash across the middle with the royal insignia blazing across it would normally make for an interesting sight as she traipsed through the poor villages on her way, but those were not the reason for their attentions. She smiled and continued on her way as one after the other, the inhabitants of the villages she passed bowed their heads at her approach, offering gifts of food, company or shelter, in hopes that when the time came for them, or their loved ones to die, they would have earned enough favor to encourage a skin walker to inhabit their flesh and make them live again. Argolis smiled softly to herself, allowing the silver flames of her eyes to encourage such acts. In true, a Pata’i chose the body that they wanted based on nothing more than their own desires. The poor soulless bodies were inhabited by the skin walker at the moment their soul departed… and was used by the Pata’i for as long as they needed them. The families of course had no idea what the walkers’ plans were, only that they got to see and speak with their loved ones again, or perhaps had hopes for themselves to live again, for as long as the Pata’i had interest. This alone was worth the bargain.
After traveling for three days, Argolis finally reached the castle gates, and approached, walking past the crowds of people and livestock crowding the entrance. She slipped up to one of the front guards, giving a large snaggle-toothed smile at the tall curly haired boy-man before tugging on his tunic. He looked down and beamed with sudden joy, scooping her up into his arms and hugging her close. She closed her eyes and allowed the silver to recede to tiny pinpoints of light within her pupils as he gazed into her eyes. “L’ena you’ve returned!” he says, openly elated and oblivious to the curious stares of those around him. As he stepped away from his post, another guard raced up from the guard house and seamlessly took his place, a detail that Argolis noted, counting the seconds until his arrival. Her mind working in the way of the ancient, always looking for and taking note of any weakness, as exploitation was the key to Pata’i survival. She turned to place her hands on either side of the guard’s face, gazing at him as his sister had when she was alive. She kissed him quickly on the forehead and wriggled from his grasp, skipping ahead of him to enter the home that they approached.
“I’m here Momma!” she yelled out, allowing her voice to take on the sing-song cadence of the girl L’ena’s, a trick only, as all of her actions around the family were, for L’ena no longer resided in this body. It always worked for a Pata’i to endear themselves to the family in this way, and indeed there was talk of some Pata’i living full lives as the person whose soul had left the body that they possessed. Argolis smiled softly to herself. Perhaps this child was one such body for her. If her plans and predictions were to turn out right, she would need to be close to Sonai, and this disguise was better for that than most. She snuggled close to the woman in front of her, spinning tales of her travels, though not their purpose, to the woman who held her lovingly and called her L’ena. She eventually closed her eyes and pretended to sleep, allowing the mother to smooth her hair and caress her arms lovingly. She could feel the intensity of that gaze, the intensity of the woman’s love for her child and in some ways it made her ache to be what she pretended. This human thing, love, was indeed intoxicating, and she could see why other Pata’i had fallen into its trappings, at least for a time. She mentally rolled her eyes and taking a deep breath, shook herself. She had never entertained such thoughts before, and she wasn’t about to start now, but she would attempt to enjoy the next 5 years as she waited for Sonai to arrive. She smiled to herself, perhaps there would be hope after all.
The Berein royal city was extremely busy when Dese’ir arrived, carrying his large leather bag over one heavily muscled shoulder, eyes squinting against the bright sunlight. The purple sashes worn over the tunics of those around him all bearing the shimmering seal of the current royal family would clue any stranger in to their whereabouts, and indeed Dese’ir was not in fact a stranger. He smirked wryly at the gaping maws of the passersby as they noticed him standing stock still in the center of the busiest street in the city, the marketplace. He shook his head, an amused, but silent grunt lifting his chest as he raised cold hazel green eyes and watched, with calculating intensity, the scurrying of the crowd from one place to the next, their minds on the menial tasks that filled their days. With a sigh, he unwrapped the stone that Kellion had handed him on his departure from the cliff dwellings that housed the members of the order. In his palm, the white frosted stone seemed innocent enough, cold to the touch and shaped like a small egg. As the crowd moved around him, he spun slowly in a tight circle until at last, the center sparked briefly and powerfully blue. He nodded almost imperceptibly, and began to move, the crowd inexplicably parting as he silently made his way to the place where he was to meet the Agrass’e. Dese’ir followed the narrow, winding cobblestone streets until the blue tinge within the cool depths of the stone flared a steady, iridescent blue, and was surprised to find himself standing in front of a neatly kept bookbinder’s shop. In his imaginings, the Agrass’e lived in a hovel, a sort of witching hut. He chuckled to himself as he raised a large fist to the door and attempted to rap on it lightly, a brow raising as the door swung open before he could touch it, and a small curly haired child stood looking at him with an amused expression. “I seek the Agrass’e.” He said simply, lips quirking in a smile as the young girl quipped “I know,” and skipped off into the shadows. He stepped inside, and closed the door behind him, hand on the hilt of his sword in habit as the darkness dissipated, revealing a small, warm room lined with bookshelves, a fire crackling in the stone fireplace.
“Sit down warrior” a warm voice spoke from his left, and he turned, startled to see a woman of about 40 summers, seated in one of two plump chairs. Her voice sent prickles of warmth through him, and he silently puzzled over it for a moment as she smirked, eyes smiling knowingly, and patted the chair next to her. “I don’t bite…hard” she chuckled aloud as an uncomfortable blush burned his cheeks, confounding him further. He grumbled a low “thanks” and sat, plopping the bag next to his chair and holding the sword hilt tightly. Her deep throated laugh startled him, catching him off guard, and deepening his mortification as he forced himself to relax, or at least appear relaxed. The Agrass’e was not at all what he had expected. An old grizzled woman perhaps, even a blind wretch, but not the dark haired beauty before him, with the look of a queen and the grace of one raised in the pleasure guilds. He braced himself as the woman stood, and came close, sliding a finger against the portion of his cheek not covered in course red hair. “You are here to see…” she said softly, her hand moving to his shoulder and gazing into his eyes. He nodded slowly, his mouth dry as he stood confused by the immediacy, the urgency with which his body responded to her presence. She rested cool, dark eyes on him a moment, muttering gently “Their deaths were not your doing, yet you carry the guilt of it unto your very blood.” He stiffened, curling away from her, his blood chilling with the intimacy of that pronouncement, a declaration that he could not bear to think on. His hand returned consciously to the hilt of his sword, grounding him in the moment as thoughts of his wife, and his queen and their brutal end whipped through his consciousness.
“I have not come here to see THAT!” he growled, leaning back in the chair so that the hand that had once been on his cheek remained poised in the air that was suddenly crackling with emotion. The woman did not so much move as glide away from him, and he gritted his teeth against the sight of her smooth mahogany skin as one shapely thigh slipped from within the folds of her garments to torment him as she settled herself into her own seat. “I have come at the will of the Awkiks’ii…” he began, only to have her wave him off.
“What kind of Agrass’e would I be if I could not even see your mission swirling around you? It is the future that requires effort to see, warrior, not the present, and certainly not the past.” He glanced at her, noting the intensity of her gaze before looking away, annoyed with himself for his response to her, a response that he had learned to quell for at least a dozen years, and one moment in this disturbing woman’s presence had him sweating like a schoolboy. Her warm chuckle startled him anew, and he was again embarrassed to note that he was staring at her, his thoughts likely on display to her gift. She smiled at him, softly, and leaned forward, raising her hand, allowing it hover above his tensed forearm for a heartbeat before pulling away, looking slightly flushed. She cleared her throat, lifted dark eyes to his and settled more comfortably in her seat, body languid, looking completely at rest. He envied her composure for a moment as he watched her fall into a trance-like state. His eyes locked with hers, drawn like a moth to flame as her deep brown skin began to glow, blue-white light pulsing from within, tiny blue sparks rising from the depths of her eyes as she spoke.
“The girl will not arrive to auction as planned.” She spoke in a low seductive rasp as she gave herself over to the gift. “You will not win her purchase with coin, but with blood.” She frowns “you must not use the seal of the child-queen. This child is in danger, and her enemies care not what seal you carry. They are pulled by the lusts of the Dark One, and know not what they seek to destroy, only that they are drawn to her by a power greater than themselves. Seek the guardian, for he knows of your arrival, but avoid the Royal Mother, do not let her see your intent, for she loves selfishly, and would stop you from getting the girl close to her grandchild” She sighed heavily, dreading the last words. “The fated child’s path to her destiny will be paved in blood.”
Dese’ir left the bookbinder’s shop in a hurry, his cloak flying behind him as he half ran to the royal gates. It had been five long years of waiting, training for this moment, and the fact that it was finally here weighed heavily on his heart. What if he failed…again? He grit his teeth against the thought and hurried on, mindful of the watching eyes of the townsfolk as his hulking form pressed relentlessly towards the castle, his purple sash glinting with import as he made his way through the throng of people, goods and livestock to ensure that he was at the front of the crowd. He seemed not to notice the glances that came his way, and yet he registered those who were annoyed, and those who were hateful, left hand ready on the hilt of his sword, his other hand resting on the dagger hidden at his waist. He was nothing if not prepared, and if the Agrass’e was right, the Dark One’s forces were here also, and the burgeoning crowd seemed all the more sinister for it. For the second time in his 35 years, Dese’ir wished he had been born mage-gifted himself. He would give his arm to be able to mage-see these enemies and dispatch them, simplifying his task; but alas,as he had learned, the one God was not one to make things easy.
The crowd thinned as he got closer to the palace gates, and Dese’ir strode towards the guards boldly, raising the purple sash with its luminescent insignia as he approached.
“Open the gate” His voice was confident and harboring steel. “I am on official business.” The guard nearest him raised his eyes, his expression bored, but beneath it, a maliciousness that rankled. Dese’ir made note of the tiny pinpoints of reddish light within the murky gray eyes of the Botani guard, and frowned, puzzling over it for a beat, then putting it firmly out of the forefront of his mind so that he could concentrate on the more pressing matter of getting inside. He lowered his voice, not wanting to draw the attention of the crowd “The King’s business.”
The guard shrugged then, a small smile playing on his lips “they are ALL here about the king’s business,” he said it loudly, his hand sweeping out in an arc, gesturing to the crowd and drawing a few chuckles as the people around him attempted to gain the guard’s pleasure… whether or not they agreed with his words. “What makes you special?” The guard smirked at him, cold eyes raking over the insignia before he snorted and spit on the ground at Dese’ir’s feet.
In one heartbeat, Dese’ir stepped smoothly forward, fluidly pulling the dagger from his hip and resting it against the man’s neck, balancing his heavy pack across his broad shoulders in such a way that it covered his flank, and left his sword hand open.
“Surely you mean no disrespect to the crown…guard.” he muttered through gritted teeth, calling out the man’s low rank, and undoubtedly reminding him of the fact that his life was expendable, as there were a thousand young gate men eager to take the guard’s place and prove their worth if he indeed needed to take this man’s life. The swiftness of his movements drew the attention of a few Sumai’an women in the front row of the throng, who recoiled and pushed back into the crowd, leaving the young children with them as a thin shield. It was the Sumai’an way for children to fend for themselves, and they stayed where they were, their dark eyes impassive and disinterested in the low level of personal threat. Few even watched the exchange, accustomed as they were to senseless violence. Dese’ir growled a low warning as the guard chuckled, rocking back on his heels and lifting his hands in a pose of surrender.
“All hail the king.” He muttered mockingly through smirking lips, then moved aside slightly. “…And now you owe me.” He did not bother to hide the note of greed that rang out from his voice, its reedy quality grating against Dese’ir’s nerves and making his palms itch with the desire to slide his blade along the man’s jugular.
“I owe nothing.” He grated, his voice a low threat. He slipped the blade away, and it disappeared as quickly as it had arrived before pushing past the now laughing guard.
“We shall meet again,” the man said, a promise in his voice.
Dese’ir did not bother to turn around, but committed the man’s face to memory. Yellow hair curling from beneath his helmet, tanned skin, gray, murky eyes, and an old scar running from the edge of his left eye towards his ear. He nodded to himself. He was sure that the man would also remember his own face, even partially covered as it was by the hood he wore, there was no hiding the shock of bright red hair, pale, freckled skin, hazel-green eyes and spiraling dark skin-writing that marked him as a Kelt and made him stand out amongst the crowds of dark haired Ne’e, dark skinned Ehli’i and sandy haired Botanai that made up the populace. As he walked towards the castle, Dese’ir ran a callused hand down his face, the import of what he was about to undertake suddenly skittering across his heart and flooding his mouth with the acrid taste of fear. He cursed his weakness, then paused, Kellion’s teachings coming to mind as he trudged across the deceptively empty cobblestone streets towards the castle. He allowed a part of his mind to focus not on his steps, but on supplication to the one God. His breathing slowed, heart beginning to beat at the desired rhythm, and he took a deep, calming breath. Looking up, he was surprised to find that he had covered the 3 miles to the castle, and now stood before its massive steel framed doors, the guards there watching him with feigned disinterest.
“I come in service to King Raffah.” He lifted the purple sash, allowing the glowing insignia to shimmer, its validity earning a grunt of approval before the guards turned, moving as one body, and began to open the door, working the levers excellently while never actually turning their backs to him. He watched them until the door was completely open and nodded his approval. As he stepped into the doorway, a lithe, golden skinned man stepped out from the darkness of the interior.
“Name and purpose” the man sputtered, seeming to flit from place to place much like a skitterfly, landing nowhere and everywhere at once. With an amused curl of his lips, he spoke to the man.
“Sinfrist.” He said simply, chuckling as the man stopped immediately at the command in his voice, yet still seemed to shimmer before him, his entire body fighting the lack of motion. “It’s me, Dese’ir.” With one hand, he removed the hood that had cast his face in shadows, smiling as Sinfrist’s eyes popped in surprise and barely concealed joy. “Take me to Raffah.”
The throne room was abuzz with activity as they entered, the atmosphere tense as waves of excitement and anxiety seemed to roll off of those lucky enough to have been given an audience with the king. Dese’ir lifted a hand to stop Sinfrist from rushing forward, and stood leaning in the shadows against the stone pillar at the entrance, eyes taking in the unfamiliar sight of Raffah on his throne, advisors at his side, offering advice as one or another citizen of the realm gave voice to his or her concerns and asked for royal adjudication. Dese’ir felt an unexpected ache at no longer being one of the advisors at a royal’s side and swallowed against the unfamiliar taste of envy in his mouth. He nodded to himself, he had returned, and thus the die was cast. Dese’ir knew that the king had not wanted him to leave, had pleaded with him, in fact, to stay, but he had gone anyway, unable to withstand the bone crushing guilt of having failed to protect his queen, as well as his own wife on that fateful day. The thought that king Raffah had not wanted him gone, did not make him any more sure of his reception, as in the dozen years since he had fled the kingdom, stories of king Raffah’s actions had followed him. Information about the king’s every action had spurred copious debate in the common lands, its mead houses overrun with men of all kinds drunkenly fighting to prove the rightness of their opinions. Dese’ir himself had chosen never to speak of his agreement or lack thereof with the king’s choices, and when his lack of response drew anger and some dull fool attempted to force him to speak of it, he’d sought solace in his blade, as if shedding blood was somehow redemptive. It was only later, after meeting Kellion, that he had spent time reflecting on his own aching heart and bitter musings, both of which he believed were reflected in the king’s attitude in the four years following the attack on his family. An attack that Dese’ir, the Royal Blade, had failed to stop.
Clenching his Jaw, Dese’ir stood erect, his focus returning to the room and its inhabitants. If that day had taught him anything, it was that he must be on his guard at all times, lest fate decide to interject. He shook his head at the way in which he had allowed his memories to steal his focus. Mentally shaking himself, Dese’ir took a deep breath and refocused his mind on the task at hand, the work that he had prepared himself these last 5 years to complete. With another calming breath, he stepped forward from the shadows, his hulking form slipping silently into line as the last few supplicants of the day made their case before the king. Dese’ir waited, hood over his bowed head, one knee bent to the ground. As the last words of the king were spoken, a hush fell on the room, and he listened to the urgent steps of the guards as they, finally, acknowledged his presence, made note of the sword at his side, and were no doubt rushing to arrest or kill him. Raising his eyes, Dese’ir quirked a smile as Sinfrist flitted anxiously about, telling the soldiers to leave him at peace, before allowing himself to look up at the throne, heart clanging as his long-time friend and leader gazed at him, his face inscrutable.
Dese’ir remained kneeling, looking up at his king, awaiting his fate. He suppressed a shudder at the thought that if Raffah ordered his death now, all of the plans set forth by the God would be moot. Dese’ir fought the urge to curse the God’s insistence on the people’s ability to exercise their own will, despite the cost; this truth meaning that if he died now, (and Raffah did indeed hold the rights to his life), before Kellion’s plan could be brought into play, Ahki’i would be lost.
The king stood and gathered his robes before taking a step forward. The advisor closest to him also stepped forward, placing a warning hand on his arm, and Dese’ir felt the air in the room get heavier, heat slowly building until there was a sheen on his brow. As the king shook off the advisor’s hand and stepped forward, drawing slowly closer to his prone form, Dese’ir again lowered his head, missing the calm look that the king flashed at his advisors, but noted that the air was suddenly cooler, more breathable.
At the soft sound of his nickname, Dese’ir looked up.
The childhood names rolled softly through the air as he stood, and the king reached forward and embraced him. He smiled broadly, nodding as the king gripped Dese’ir’s shoulders with his jewel encrusted hands and urged him to his feet. The large Kelt looked down at the man who had been his friend, mentor and leader and fought to keep back the tears that threatened to flow. He could not however, keep the emotion from thickening his voice as he spoke.
“Raffah… we need to talk…”
The king straightened, and tossing his long heavy robe to the side, turned to look at the men surrounding him.
“Be at ease.” He spoke softly, the command immediately followed by the loosening of attention and murmuring of the guards and advisors as they followed his command, their attention, suddenly focused on each other rather than the large Kelt who had dared enter the throne room with a sword.
Dese’ir followed the king as he gestured to him and began walking towards the door leading to his private chamber. It momentarily shook him as he realized that he had automatically followed behind, hand on his sword, mentally checking the space as if he was still the Royal Blade, despite his 12 year absence. He smiled as Raffah removed the heavy robes and sat on a pillowed chair, obviously waiting. Dese’ir took a deep breath, sitting nearby, his back to a wall and facing the exits, as was his custom. He blinked and took a deep breath before speaking… weighing each word as if they had the potential to start a war. “
I had to return.” He begins, “your daughter…” He paused, not sure where to begin. “She is in danger.” He felt rather than saw the king’s attention focus on him like a beam. Looking up, he was not surprised to find Raffah’s amethyst tinged irises begin to develop a ring of orange as he stared,
Dese’ir held up his hand. “It is more complex than a simple person or group.” He began, then shook his head. ‘I know that she has….spells” he started, then stood as the king rushed towards him and grabbed his arm, growling abruptly
“How could you possibly know?”
Dese’ir could have predicted this reaction, and mentally kicked himself. He was going about this the wrong way. He shook his head and sat, arranging himself in a meditative pose as he waved Raffah off.
“I need to start at the beginning.”
He was not surprised when the king sat, pulling himself closer and listening with rapt attention as Dese’ir opened himself to the telling. He told it all, his deep depression over the death of his wife and the queen, his bruised heart and soul searching, meeting Kellion, the one God, his mission, and most importantly, the girl.
After quieting, Dese’ir forced himself to look at Raffah, his gaze burning with emotion. He noted the disturbed look, the dried tear streaks on the King’s cheeks, and the warmth in the room. Dese’ir wiped the sweat from his brow idly, waiting for the king to calm, and the room to cool.
“How can this be?” Raffah breathed, his eyes suddenly searching Dese’ir’s face. “How can this…Kellion… know for sure that this bastard child of Sumai’a would not use her powers to threaten the future queen instead of help? …The Sumai’ans are not allied with this throne Des…” He stood and turned abruptly, his back to Dese’ir, an unmistakable sign of trust. “They move only for themselves, always, caring not the consequences to others…Hellfire they care not even for each other!” he was muttering now, his words barely audible as he worked through the difficulty. Dese’ir smiled to himself, recalling their schooling, when Raffah had needed to read instructions aloud, and voiced his thoughts constantly. It was an old habit, one that the schoolmasters had beaten him for on many occasions, until it had finally died, at least in public. It was further testament to the king’s trust in his old friend that he allowed the habit now. Raffah continued to mutter, his thoughts political, weighing the pros and cons of allowing such a plan to take root within his castle walls. He sighed deeply, at last turning to look at Dese’ir. “It is true that as a rule, Sumai’ans make choices based solely on their own interests, and that they do not make good allies for Berea, but it is also true that they do not make good allies for Berea’s enemies.” He chuckled low. “If as you say this child is just past her wet pants, then there is the possibility that she can yet be molded.” He paused, his eyes thoughtful,” and if not, then perhaps we can ensure that it is in her best interest to remain and do the work that we require.” He looked at Dese’ir, his lips smiling, a cold smile that did not reach his eyes. “It is an uneasy rule that we have here Des.” His orange lined eyes locked to Dese’ir’s green, the orange glowing brightly as the room heated to an uncomfortable level. “A male is forbidden this throne unless the Queen is absent and there is a minor female waiting to take her place, Des. You know this. It is a tenuous hold I have on this kingdom until Ravannah comes of age.” He clenched his fist. “Yes, I have the dragon’s gift, but as you know, Berean females are the true recipients of dragonfire, particularly those of the ruling houses. If anything were to happen to my daughter, the true heir to Berea, last of the royal line…” he paused, allowing the import of his words to settle. “All of Berea would be lost.” He sighed then, the glow surrounding his irises receding, cooling the room as he plopped gracelessly into his chair. “How can I even think to allow this? Am I mad?” His voice, by now a low growl, he again looked up and locked eyes with Dese’ir. “But if as you say, Ahki’i itself would fall…” His eyes suddenly glazed in near panic, “What choice have I?”
Dese’ir stood then, moving close to his friend, turned reluctant ruler, resting a hand on his shoulder before speaking.
Ravannah stood facing the large windows, the sunset rolling its rose red-orange tones across her pale skin, seeming to light her as it lit the stone outside her room. From her perch, she could see a crowd of young guards practicing swordcraft and sighed, seeing the curly haired Ne’e guardsman that she had seen a few times before. Ravannah felt a blush warm her cheeks as she stepped back from the window quickly, heart pounding as her servant knocked once and then entered the room. Obviously, she was not supposed to notice the beauty of some of her subjects, as her marriage had been arranged prior to her birth. The boy she was to marry was 5 years her junior, and had yet to peak her interest, as he was still a boy, barely out of wet pants. From what she had seen during a festival which she had been allowed to attend, during the endurance games many of the kingdom’s children played, he had proved a rather poor loser who had used his family’s political position to his advantage while playing with servants. That had not sat well in Ravannah’s soul, and she had determined that the boy would need to grow up a lot before she considered him a suitable mate. She sighed heavily, tossing those troubling thoughts away as she turned to face the servant girl who had just entered. She was about her age, with red tinged hair that curled around the edges of her face, the rest pulled into a neat bun atop her head. Ravannah studied her intently as she stood in the center of the room, eyes lowered to the ground as if the mere sight of Ravannah would result in a scolding. Ravannah stepped forward, silent until she was a foot from the girl, hoping that at least once, she would return her gaze. “Yes?”
“Ravannah, your presence has been requested by the Queen Mother,” the servant said, bowing as she exited the door. Ravannah sighed as she watched the young servant leave, having never made direct eye contact with her before she had skirted out the door. How she wished she could have a conversation with one of the servants, maybe even play a game or two. Her eyes lit with pleasure at the thought, the joy slowly seeping away as she got closer to the sitting room in which her grandmother spent her afternoons and insisted that Ravannah join her for afternoon tea. She paused, hand on the door fastener, and took a deep breath before stepping inside the elaborately decorated room. Her grandmother, the Queen Mother, was seated in the center of the room, propped up on large cushions. Her white hair piled atop her head in a neat twist, the opal crown glinting in the tiny strip of light that pierced the room from a small crack in the thickly curtained window. Ravannah stepped forward slowly, her posture arrow straight and her moves intentionally graceful, as her grandmother had always insisted on. Ravannah stood before the woman, head bowed, eyes lowered as the Queen Mother looked her over, scrutinizing her every move.
“Well done child. Soon you will be Queen, and you will have learned to comport yourself as a queen should…” She looked at Ravannah, a pleased smile playing on her lips. “If only your mother had shown such grace and reserve… perhaps she would be alive today.”
At the mention of her mother, Ravannah’s stomach gave an involuntary lurch, the muscles clenching as she fought to control her sadness. The room heated sharply, and the Queen mother looked at her sternly, the sharp amethyst tinged eyes narrowing to slits as the orange ring around the iris glowed faintly.
“Control yourself child!” She grated, snapping her wrist and sending a servant scurrying from the shadows to fill her water glass. A servant Ravannah had failed to notice, as her mother had failed to notice her assassin. Stricken, she dropped to one knee, the force of her emotion heating the water in her grandmother’s glass to a boil. The old woman plopped the glass gracelessly onto the marble table and stood, seemingly unbothered by the heat in the room, a faint line of perspiration on her nose the only tell. “Get up!” The Queen Mother grabbed Ravannah by the arm with surprising strength, pulling her to her feet. “You will be Queen Ravannah.” She whispered harshly as the curtains burst into flame behind her. “If you cannot control yourself, you cannot rule this realm. Think of your mother’s legacy.”
With those words, the room cooled drastically, servants came from places unseen with buckets of water to throw against the smoldering curtains, none daring to look her way as they quickly removed the evidence of her lack of restraint. She lowered her own eyes then, shame rolling suddenly over her like second skin, and placed a hand against her stuttering heart.
“There, there child.” Her grandmother said, tutting as she led Ravannah to the sofa. “No need to get yourself worked up over your mother’s failures…” Ravannah closed her eyes, sinking against the cushions with a sad sigh. The woman was relentless, but as her grandmother said, it was for her own good. The realm needed a queen, and she was a 15 year old woman-child, one prone to fits that could kill both her and, as grandmother repeatedly warned, all of Berea. As the queen mother’s voice droned on, Ravannah felt herself slipping into sleep, and fought weakly, for she was plagued with terrors at times such as this. Dreams of the rolling orange liquid-heat beneath the earth, and the dragon god spirits contained within it, all of them glaring at her with their unfathomable eyes from its depths. Her shame forced their expressions to mirror her grandmothers as she warped their reptilian features to show expressions of disappointment and disgust. Ravannah wept in her sleep, bowing low to the dragon gods who had given her people birth, cursing her weakness even as they gave her strength.
“You must be prepared for battle. Seek the girl, she will help you”
The dragon-speak roared in her head, the pain of it excruciating, the reverberating shock of the boomed words causing her heart to spasm, and she woke, crying out in pain, fist clasped over her pounding heart. Faintly, she heard her grandmother’s voice barking commands at the servants, and felt herself swiftly carried to her room, and placed on the bed, a cool cloth on her forehead and soon a vial of medicine pressed to her lips. She sipped the vile liquid, choking a bit at its foulness, and slept, dreamless until the next morning.
The sun burned red against her eyelids when she woke, mentally noting the singing of birds and the smell of toast and tea that she knew must sit on the small table beside her bed. With a sigh, she opened her eyes, and jumped back weakly at the unexpected contact of another’s eyes on hers. Her eyes widened in momentary shock at the intimate touch of hazel eyes on hers, and she cried out softly when she recognized the face they belonged to. She sat up quickly, heedless of the fact that she was in her bedclothes, a fact that would surely displease her grandmother.
“Uncle! You’ve returned!” Ravannah spoke just above a whisper, and reached out to trace the outline of his face with her hands. He was the same. Though older, his features were relatively unchanged from those in her memory. She sat on the edge of her bed, holding Deseir’s gaze, and gingerly touched the shock of red hair on his face as she rested a hand on his cheek. “You’re really here…” She smiled freely for the first time in years and watched his eyes crinkle at the corners as his lips lifted in a sad smile, before scurrying from the bed and leaping into his waiting arms.
Sonai woke up cold and wet, her bedmate having both pissed in her sleep and stolen the ratty blanket they used for cover. She sat up, yawning and rubbing her tired eyes before turning to look at the room around her. She said a curse under her breath as she realized that her window was open, letting the chilled outside air in.
“How in Ahki’i…?” she began, her voice stuttering to a halt as she suddenly noticed the man standing in the shadows, his body covered in tight black clothing, nothing but his eyes visible. He raised a finger to the space where she assumed his mouth to be just as she opened her own mouth to let out a startled yelp. Sonai cocked her head as the man nodded to her, and she, oddly, felt no threat emanating from him. A rare feeling of safety rolling from him in waves. “Who you be?” she asked him, her unschooled tongue forming the words clumsily as she made note, somehow, of his race, and spoke to him in his own language. He chuckled, nodding as she spoke, and she walked closer, still feeling no threat as she was overcome with curiosity. “Why come you here?” She puzzled further as the man bent a knee and bowed his head, then stifled a chuckle, shaking her head “Mindtouched then?” she muttered, lifting a hand to his shoulder to encourage him to get up. He had to be mindtouched, bowing to a slave girl, a Sumai’an no less “Stand fool, I no royal.” She shook her head, a light tinkle of laughter slipping through her lips, only to be replaced by an alarmed gasp as the man’s hand shot out and grasped hers. He dug into his pouch and lifted a cloudy white gem, pressing it urgently into her open palm.
“It will help you when you need it most. After you use it, it will be destroyed.”
Having delivered that cryptic message, the man nodded once, and leapt from the open window, landing graceful as a cat before racing silently down the path. Sonai blinked, somehow knowing that this man had been sent to help her, though she could not have said why, or even how. She shrugged, pressing the small stone into a hidden pocket of her tunic before resting against the windowsill for a few quiet moments, thinking for a moment of all the strange things that had happened to her in her 7 years. Her thoughts swirled mostly around the strange foreknowledge that often helped her to know things just when she needed to know them most. The talent had awakened her just then. She used the talent often, attempting to keep it a secret, using it to try to keep herself and the other young slaves safe. Not that it did much good. Still, she hid it, knowing instinctively that she could not show her caretakers, if you could call them that, her strange gift, lest they find a way to make her use it to harm herself or the others. Thoughts of the caretakers with their cruel games and obvious bias against her made her skin crawl as she shut the window and set about gathering her things to leave, knowing suddenly that it was time, this, another piece of foreknowledge that she could not explain. She didn’t have much, but she lingered over each item, waiting for it to tell her of its purpose before deciding to take it, and had just packaged her meager items into a small pouch, leaving the rest for her bedmate, when the door slammed open. Her bedmate jumped, rolling beneath the bed for protection as two pock-faced youths barged into the room, wearing their newfound power like ill-fitting clothing. One, a dark haired female frowned at Sonai, half-whispering to her companion.
“You see? She waits for us…”
She swallowed hard, reaching to grab Sonai’s arm and holding it as if she was some disgusting vermin or rotten thing that she did not wish to touch. “I am glad to be rid of this strange one. There is something wrong in that.” The male with her rolled his pale gray eyes, shaking his head as he pushed Sonai ahead of him, wordlessly commanding her to walk.
“She’s a female with good ears who heard your big feet heading here a long way off. Don’t talk stupid, you sound like a Sumai’an idiot.”
Sonai felt her ears warm as they called out the name of her people. She had no real knowledge of the races, but from the time she was old enough to understand, some of the slaves had tried to keep her low, telling her status often. Sumai’ans were the most hated people even here apparently, and the females, only good enough for the skin trade. She swallowed hard, the threat rolling off of the pair seemed to charge the very air around her.
“Happy born day Sonai.” The male said in a sinister singsong. “7 summers now, so you get to start your service, repaying the guilds for your fine upbringing.” He laughed harshly. “If I wouldn’t be beat for it I’d use you myself, but I ain’t gonna go in debt to pay for a little scrawny Sumai’an like you.” He spit the words at her back, his voice raising gooseflesh on her arms as the words rolled across her with malicious intent. Sonai had no question that he would have done exactly that if he could have, and was grateful to whatever force kept him at bay. The female rushed ahead of them, pulling open the door to the gathering house as they came upon it, and glaring at the boy.
“Well whatever her fate, I’m glad to be rid of her. I don’t like the feeling she gives me. There’s something odd in her, and I want nothing to do with it.” She shoved Sonai inside, the small child falling onto the floor with the force of it, and left, leaving Sonai alone to face whatever lurked within the dark.
Sonai stood still, listening to the darkness, and as the darkness receded, allowing her eyes to glimpse the shadows, Sonai felt no surprise at seeing the rows of children sitting on the floor in front of her with scared rabbit eyes. She was glad that she hadn’t moved from her spot as she may have stepped on a few in the front, an action that would have no doubt caused a fight that she would be blamed for starting. She shuddered, a look of disgust on her face momentarily as she recognized that a Sumai’an would always be in the wrong, thus the punishment would be hers to bear. With a sigh, she nodded slowly at the few she recognized, who had moved to a different guild house than hers as they had gotten older. Sonai made note of the fact that she was obviously the youngest there. Yes, although Sumai’ans were smaller than most of the other races, the other children were obviously older, ranging in age from about twelve to fourteen summers. Being the only Sumai’an there meant that she was the only one apprenticed early. She grit her teeth against the taunt that had followed her throughout her young life, “ Sumai’an idiots” apparently were so stupid that they had to start their apprenticeships years earlier than other children, giving their masters time to either beat the stubborn resistance out of them, or sell them to work the kildret mines and earn coins for their captors. Sonai let out a frustrated sigh and sat, awaiting her fate. She did not jump in fear when the handlers arrived, like the other children. She had known they were coming, could sense their eagerness and something else, an undercurrent of dark anger that rolled on the air around them. The men were strong, heavily muscled and heavily armed, their large curved swords bouncing on their hips as they gathered the children into appropriate groups. Sonai felt chilled as she was grabbed by the arm and shoved in with a group of children. The feeling of rapacity that whipped around like a cloud surrounding the man who touched her stole her breath in its intensity. When her arm was released, she looked the man over, noting the pinpoint of red light shining in his pupils as he glared at each child in turn, yelling out commands and unnecessary lashes while leading them to the waiting carriage.
“Move yer arses!” he grated, angrily grabbing the arms of the more frightened children and pulling them forward, leaving bruises in the shape of his fingertips. He loaded them each onto the carriage, but lingered on Sonai, who looked up at him without fear as he pulled her away from the line to stand by his side. “Not you Sumai’an.” The burly man held her arm in a grip so strong that she thought that maybe her bones would break. She got no sympathetic glances from the other slaves, only the feeling of relief rolling from them in waves, grateful that she had been chosen, and not them. Sonai had a moment of panic, her mind touching on his feeling of intense greed, the intent of which was aimed at her like starshine, momentarily stilling her breath. Why her? She shuddered, the oily feeling of “wrong” sliding over her skin before she remembered the little gift that the man in black had given her a few hours before. Perhaps the time was now. Slipping her hands into the tiny pocket in her tunic, she touched the stone lightly, feeling it cold an inert. Disappointment flared and she grit her teeth in frustration. Whatever this man intended, Sonai knew that it was something that would stick with her forever, a tiny cloud of darkness to add to the growing storm within her. She closed her eyes and allowed him to drag her to the front of the carriage, to sit near him as he drove. He hoisted her onto the boards and yanked the reigns of the attached horses, yelling out a command that the horses immediately followed, moving their restless legs forward and breaking into a trot. Sonai looked back at the orphan guild lands, its stone buildings receding quickly as the horses hoisted them away. She squinted as memories of her brief life there flooded her mind, filling her with an odd sadness. The man beside her was talking, largely about the money he would receive for selling her outside of the guild, to a man that wanted her badly and had set an incredibly high price on her head. His laugh was full with pride as he drove the carriage throughout the region, dropping the other slave children off at random homes and secondary guilds. He spoke to her in a gruff whisper, detailing his plan to tell the guild that Sonai had died in transit, had indeed fallen off of the carriage and been trampled, making note of the fact that I was only a Sumai’an and therefore not worth much to the guilds anyway, as Sumai’an whores were hardly difficult to come by.
“Your own mothers don’t even want ya.” He continued, laughing “They’d sell ya off to the skin trade themselves if they could, Helikspawn! I bet if the guild would take older Sumai’ans off the street to train, they’d sell themselves. Be a lot more coin in it than sellin their babies. Think they only get a sixcoin or so for a girlchild.” He laughed hard and patted Sonai’s head, his mouth a grimace that was likely meant as a smile. “You probably better off where ya goin now anyway. I don’t think the boss wants ya for skinwork. He gets plenty of sqwuasun, and I never seen one in his bed as light in years as you” Sonai cringed at the touch, but noted that the man’s rage seemed to have left him, in its wake a feeling of anticipation and the acrid smell of greed that intensified with every mile they traveled away from the orphan guilds. “But helikspawn, sellin boy babies probably pays your mommas better even than sellin sqwuasun to the mine workers. I believe they get a hundredcoin for ‘em. Strong mineworkers an guild fighters ya know? They fight to the death so they always need good ones, and Helik knows there’s plenty of Sumai’an boys waitin to take the dead guy’s place, ya know?” He nodded again, his grimace/smile back as he reminisced. “Helikspawn I had me plenty of Sumai’an sqwausun when I worked the mines.” He added proudly. “Ain’t gotta to be guild trained for me.” He nodded conspiratorially at Sonai as if she shared his fondness for untrained skin-workers, and continued talking about his conquests as she closed her eyes, and let her mind drift, noting that his list now included the strong possibility that he would get away with selling her off to his boss for a small fortune. Further, his greed included persuading the guild to accept a twelvecoin, twice her current, worth as an untrained skin-worker, in recompense for the loss of his horses and vehicle. Sonai forced her limbs to relax, slowing down her heart rate intentionally, and dropping the veil on her mind so that no errant thoughts disturbed her as she mentally willed herself to sleep. She had a feeling that whatever was next, she would need to be, at the least, well rested if she was to have the strength to overcome.
Sonai awoke to the loud braying of the horses, and the feel of the carriage rolling onto its side. Time seemed to stop as she was jerked from the carriage, strong arms lifting her quickly, her confusion assisting in making her hang limply in his arms as her mind tried to make sense of the movement. She has just resolved to kick and fight when the man tied a cloth over her open mouth, trapping her scream before overpowering her flailing arms and legs and tying her hands and feet. He, muttering excitedly to himself, tore a piece of her clothing before stomping off, leaving her hidden beneath a large bush. Sonai slowed her breathing, ears perked to the wild neighing and dull thumps of the horses as they thrashed and struggled to their feet. Within moments, the man returned, his hands bloody as he picked her up, and slung her over his shoulder like a sack. She looked around frantically, searching the shadowy woods for someone, or something that could help her escape, but there was nothing save a few small scurrying things, beasts that posed no threat of harm to him and offered no help for her.
She held still, listening to the man as he murmured, her body bouncing a he jogged, the uneven ground making for an uncomfortable ride as her abdomen thrust repeatedly against his shoulder, periodically forcing the air from her lungs. She grimaced and fought to hold on to the impressions her mind thrust at her, warning her of both imminent danger and possible paths to freedom, both of which seemed to change with the man’s every step. Sonai caught her breath as they came to an abrupt halt, and she immediately cast about for a sense of her surroundings. She blinked rapidly, trying to clear her eyes from the shadows, but the darkness was complete, leaving her with the feeling of being completely encased within the shadow itself. Her mind did not warn her, did not seem to be awake as she swiveled her head about, her senses reeling with the vast nothingness it encountered. It was the most complete stillness she had ever experienced, and she strained to see anything in the inky darkness. There was nothing. Even the man’s excited breathing sounded as if it came through layers of cloth, muffled and slow as it was. She felt herself dropped to the ground and was surprised to feel cloth, stuffed to a pillowy firmness beneath her. She shuddered internally, her mind finally sending a white-hot bolt into her mind, as if suddenly aware that there was something or someone there with them.
“B-brought you the girl,” The large man stuttered out, in his excitement, sounding almost like a small child seeking the approval of his guildkeepers. “Ain’t hurt her none neither,” he added rapidly, as if he had done something unusual in this. “She ain’t much ta look at, ya know, tiny. Her bein Suma’ian an all…”he said apologetically. “But she the one ya asked for… an ain’t nobody gonna come lookin for her neither.” He took a breath, likely to brag about his extreme cleverness in faking her death, Sonai thought, then shrank into herself, clutching the small stone to her chest in terror as the thing that was with them spoke back.
“You have completed your task, take your reward and depart from me.” At the sound of his voice, a scream began to build from deep within, as well as a sudden urgent need to sleep, and she felt the stone warming in her hand as she fought to keep herself alert. She heard the muffled jingle of a coin bag, and felt rather than saw the man who had brought her take his leave, as the darkness shifted slightly, as if parting a curtain, before enshrouding her again. She shivered, feeling the man-thing’s perusal of her mind. She was not fooled, as the large man had been, this was no man, whether or not he be housed in flesh. Her mind sought out the large man, hearing the clink of coins as he counted them happily, the sound muffled, and growing more faint as he departed, leaving her there alone, in the darkness of the man-thing. She sat motionless, eyes closed as she tried to force her mind to see past the darkness, but failing, with a feeling akin to fire snuffed beneath a wet wool blanket. She could feel the man-thing pushing at her mind with his, with growing frustration.
“This can’t be it,” He muttered, his voice resonating, the only sound to pierce the darkness.“ You are hiding it aren’t you child?” This, he said with a slightly amused snarl.
Sonai sighed, gritting her teeth at the oddly cold and slimy feel of his mind touch. She could feel it occasionally slipping into places in her mind that she herself had not sought out. As he finished, she became suddenly aware of the darkness receding, and realized she sat on a large pillowed cushion within a cave, and across from her, the man-thing revealed. She frowned at it, wondering. What was it that it had sought? She watched his face wrinkle in frustration, noting the odd circle of deep red that formed around his ice blue eyes, leaving her with the impression of a handsome man in his midlife, with straw yellow hair and piercing eyes. Slevian then. Sonai puzzled over the man-thing, silently watching him as he looked her over, probing her mind as far as it would allow, a confused expression on his face. Sonai understood he sought the wall there, a type of barrier that she had noted for as long as she could remember, and could not herself see beyond, that was now covered with his dark presence.
Sonai’s heart began to race as darkness again overcame her. She clutched the stone tightly, the warmth it gave bringing her comfort as the man-thing (for she couldn’t quite bring herself to call him simply a man), moved closer. She felt as if her mind were clanging a bell, screaming at her to run, so she stood, looking around wildly, but seeing nothing but darkness. This man-thing meant her harm, and the danger did not feel like that of a mere man, but something deeper. Again, she felt his cold, slimy pushing at the wall in her mind, and she instinctively clamped down on a feeling of holding. With a growl, she felt the man-thing advance, until her was there, breathing her air, his slim fingers holding her shoulders in a painful grip as he tried to break through the barrier of her mind. The cold feeling growing until it felt like frost, painful in its coldness. Sonai fought, standing stock still as she fought to hold, to keep him out, for she knew instinctually that his breaking through would mean her death. As if in slow motion, she felt the wall give a slight shudder, and everything in her screamed in panic. Before she could move, the small stone in her hand leapt to life and she gripped it tightly, her eyes squeezed shut as white-hot light cut through the darkness around her. She heard the man-thing yell, a sound like the scraping of metal against glass, and the world froze.
For a moment she knew nothing, and stood still, her body still clenched against the threat of the man-thing as she gradually became aware of her surroundings. The air hit her first, warm on top, but cooler underneath as a breeze brushed past her skin like a kiss. Birds sang and flew nearby, their wings whistling in the air as they flew from tree to tree. She marveled that they were not sounding an alarm but chirping in greeting. She could hear the gentle bubbling of water nearby and see the brightness of the sun behind her eyelids, and puzzled over it. The man-thing was gone. She frowned, opening her eyes slowly, and spun around in alarm as she found herself in the midst of a pleasant wood, nothing around her but the curious eyes of the small animals and birds who called the area home. She looked down at the small stone she carried, and was surprised to find it gray, seeming like any old pebble lying in the dust. But could an ordinary pebble have done this? Sonai tilted her head, as her mind suddenly attuned to a presence, one that was seeking her and growing nearer. She paused, slowing her heart and mind and listened, but felt no warning, no fear, only a deep curiosity as she set off in the direction of the one who sought her, her footfalls silent on the pine covered forest floor.
Kai Qualls is a writer and therapist who lives in the Greater Philadelphia area surrounded by the love of furry, scaled and human creatures that make up her world. She spends her free time dreaming and writing of the world of Ahki’i. And the many dimensional spaces between there and here.