Author: E Thorne PM
Shiri, orphaned, and recently made homeless by an attack on her temple home, must find a way to master her unique magical Talent and protect her world from an ancient evil and a looming threat before it's too late. Please read and review! Undergoing revisionRated: Fiction T - English - Fantasy/Adventure - Chapters: 28 - Words: 113,136 - Reviews: 28 - Favs: 12 - Follows: 8 - Updated: 04-17-12 - Published: 04-09-11 - Status: Complete - id: 2906438
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
I couldn't sleep. The rain pounded on the roofs and shutters, calling me, inviting me to come out and dance. I rolled over and pulled my pillow over my head, trying to drown out its voice and trying to fall asleep so that I wasn't yawning embarrassingly through Morning Invocation again. Sister Veral had pulled me aside only this morning and had scolded me for "showing an utter lack of respect for our Mother the Sea." I tried to explain that it was the Sea's voice that kept me awake at night, singing to me and whispering secrets, but she gave my ear a painful twist and gave me extra work in the weaving shed as punishment, locked away from the sky and even the voice of the sea. At least my spinning was good enough now that I wasn't getting punished for doing it poorly any more.
I groaned. I couldn't go out tonight; I was in trouble as it was. But I had to. My blood flowed with the tides and I breathed with the winds. The call was too strong for me to resist. I pulled on my robes and silently unfastened the shutters, willing them not to crash open and give me away. I thought I sensed them listening, which was odd; my Talent, whatever it is, is more tied to the sea and the winds—I always know when a storm is coming—than to things like wood and metal. I can make stone do what I want, sometimes, and I always have a headache after, I'm decent with plants, and I've held fire without burning myself, but none of those compare to the thrill of being up on the temple wall with the wind tearing through my hair and the rain soaking my face. Still, I made it out undetected. No one else, not even Katri, who was a light sleeper, in the dorm woke up as I left. The novices live in the oldest building on Gift, which is cramped and drafty (I don't mind the drafts; they're always really lively and fun to play with), and the senior girl novices' dorm window opens onto a really uneven wall, with lots of handholds for a tall, gangly thirteen-year-old. I'm surprised that they haven't fixed it if they don't want any of us out after Moonrise Blessing, but maybe they don't know that's how I get out.
I snuck to the wicket that's back behind the vegetable garden. It's very rusted over and no one seems to use it. I unlatched the tiny door (I had oiled the latch and the hinges for this purpose, but cleaning off the rest of the door never seemed worth it). Within a few seconds I was out on the beach, letting the rain fall on my face in greeting and getting sand in between my toes. I felt so much happier being out in the rain storm, although I knew that it would turn into a thunderstorm later. The wind caressed my face, and I began to dance, letting the weather guide my steps. I usually do a lot of jumping and spinning when I dance in storms, for some reason. Maybe it's because storms spin? I almost never trip or fall.
I did tonight, though. The wind shifted, the sea's song changed, and I felt a sour taste in the back of my head. Something was not right. Something was coming. What is it? I asked as I lay sprawled on the wet sand. It was like my nightmares all over again.
Something old. Something bad, the Sea replied, and I had a sudden impression of teeth, thousands of sharp teeth, an old wily mind, and a hatred so intense it made me want to vomit. Warn my children that something comes to destroy them. It should not be here, not after all these years, but it is, and it seeks them. I will do what I can to stop it, but it may be a while. Hurry! I got to my feet, slowly. I was still stunned by the fall. GO! the sea commanded, and I went. I ran, back through the wicket and through the rows of vegetables. I almost slipped several times, but somehow managed to keep my footing. As I sprinted down the streets that ran between the living quarters and the other buildings of Gift, I heard the bells sound the call for midnight services. Dedicates and priests began pouring out of the quarters. I glanced around; I had to find either the priestess charged with our temple's defense or the Mother Superior. I wasn't sure if either would listen to me, a mere novice (and one with a reputation for trouble at that), but I had to try.
I pelted around corners, trying to find the stern figure of Mother Jerlwa in her armor or the vestments of Mother Superior Mara. I had to deliver my message before services started. I couldn't interrupt services, and there were some services that novices weren't allowed to witness. I had to find either of them.
My luck was in, as I spotted them together. As I sprinted up, I heard Mother Superior say, "-omens are better than they were yesterday, Jerlwa."
"I do, too, madam," the warrior replied, her voice unusually worried. Whenever I had seen Mother Jerlwa before, she had always been the toughest, fiercest person I had ever seen. She had been a warrior out in Mayyakeram before taking vows, and I would have sworn on the Sea herself that nothing could worry her. Yet there were unmistakable tones of concern and almost fear in her voice. That was bad.
"Mother-" I panted, as I got close enough. Both of them turned, and I gulped and bowed deeply, suddenly nervous.
"Shiri, shouldn't you be in bed?" Mother Superior asked. I didn't know how she knew my name, but I didn't question that.
"Yes, madam, I should," I replied, flushing, "but, I have a, message from, the Sea." I took a breath, so that I wouldn't be talking in jerks, and continued as Mother Jerlwa raised an eyebrow skeptically. "I couldn't sleep—the storm was calling to me—so I snuck out, and I was out on the beach when everything went sour, not quite in the same way as it does before a bad storm, but close. And I asked the Sea what was wrong, and she told me that 'something old, something bad' was coming. And she showed me, just an impression. It had lots of teeth, and it was thousands of years old and wily and so full of hate that it made me want to vomit. And then she said, 'Warn my children that something comes to destroy them. It should not be here, not after all these years, but it is, and it seeks them. I will do what I can to stop it, but it may be a while.' And then she told me to hurry."
Mother Superior and Mother Jerlwa exchanged a momentary, horrified glance before Mother Superior snapped at me, "Run to the bell tower! Have the carillonneurs sound the signal for evacuation, the signal for evacuating on the sides it isn't coming from!" I gaped at her. "Now!" The people around us heard her and turned to stare at her, horrified, as I gulped down a lungful of air and dashed off again, feeling fire shoot up my sides from too much running. The sour feeling was intensifying, and I judged that we had maybe half an hour before it struck. Whatever "it" was. Mother Superior and Mother Jerlwa seemed to know, and the fact that they were terrified made the approaching threat much worse. Plus, Gift had never been evacuated in its long history, although we practiced regularly (and reluctantly). I almost flew through the streets, approaching the bell tower near the center of the compound. I made my way inside the Sky's Temple, found the entrance to the tower, and began pelting up the steps, around and around. There were over 300 steps in the tower, and I was getting dizzy before I was even halfway up. I had to keep going. There was danger approaching, and if I stopped, everyone in the temple might die.
I finally reached the top and pulled open the heavy door, panting for breath. I had been up here once before, when novices were supposed to choose where they wanted to serve. I wanted to serve in the Weather Tower, but because I have a reputation for trouble, I didn't get my first choice and ended up as a message runner, with occasional stints in the Weaving Shed if Sister Veral or someone else decided that I had done something worthy of trouble. I stepped in cautiously, wondering where I was supposed to find everyone. The room I was in was lined with shelves of parchment, cloaks, and sacks that smelled like they contained bread, cheese, and fruit. There was a door open beyond that, where I heard people moving and talking. I peeked into a round room with dozens of thick ropes hanging down from a hole in the ceiling and dedicates, and a few acolytes, standing around them. There was a skinny, balding man standing in the center of the group, muscular arms upraised. Then he saw me.
"Yes?" he demanded irritably. I decided he must be in charge. I was also certain that he had noticed that I was a mere novice, that my robes were wet and sandy, and that I wasn't as presentable as I was supposed to be.
"Father, I've a message from Mother Superior," I said, having finally caught my breath. "She orders you to sound the evacuation alarm for all points except north."
"She does? Did she say why?"
"No, Father, but it was for something that had both her and Mother Jerlwa extremely worried." The priest sighed and nodded.
"Teril, Yerin," he said wearily. "You know the drill. Everyone else, you need to go to the boats. That includes you, missy whoever-you-are."
"Yes, Father," we all chorused, and as the two carrillonneurs he named began pealing out the evacuation signal, the others and I pelted down the stairs and headed for one of the coves where the boats were anchored. Twenty minutes. As the two-pitched signal rang out—DONG DONG DONG, Dong dong dong, DONG DONG DONG, DONG DONG DONG, Dong dong dong, DONG DONG DONG—streams of people flooded out of dormitories, workshops, and temples, all looking bewildered.
But there was no drill announced—Maybe it's not a drill—But we've never had to evacuate, not even during the Sorcerers' War. Snippets of conversations caught in our ears as we tried to make sure that we were heading to the right places. I followed the carrilloneurs; I didn't know where the bell tower was supposed to go for an evacuation. If I had been in my bed, I would have evacuated to one of the coves on the northern side of Gift. Instead, I was following the bell-ringers to a cove on the Southern side of the island, where, to my complete surprise, I ended up in a boat with Mother Superior, Mother Jerlwa, and most of the rest of the Temple Council. I sat at the end of one of the benches and tried to be invisible. It didn't work. Mother Jerlwa noticed me and beckoned me over. I made my way over to her, trying not to make eye contact with any of the priests on the boat.
"Shiri, do you have any idea how long before it reaches us?" she asked me, shouting over the clamor of the bells. Mother Jerlwa, asking me? But I remembered that her Talent is with Fire, and that she couldn't sense the Sea.
"Maybe fifteen minutes, if that, Mother," I replied. "Lady Vidriant is fighting, but it has some magic of its own that it's pushing with, so if She can hold it, longer. If she can't-" The bells abruptly fell silent, and I knew that the last three people on Gift were leaving.
"I'll give them five minutes, and then we have to go," Mother Jerlwa said. "Everyone else is on board the boats, so we can row out when they arrive." And in three minutes, the panting figures of the three who had stayed in the tower arrived on the docks and boarded the only boat with space remaining. Mother Jerlwa stood up in the stern of our boat and raised her sword, sending up a fountain of sparks that could be seen even on the other side of the island. The person closest to where each boat was moored cast off, and then the warriors at the oars began a steady but rapid stroke that propelled us away from the only home I had ever known.
As we moved out onto the open sea, the rain began to fall harder, and the waves picked up. The little boats began to rise and fall on the waves, and the wind drove the rain drops into our faces. I thought I smelled lightning in the clouds, which made me almost forget the stress of leaving. But the sour sensation was growing stronger. "It's getting closer," I reported. "Are the northern-most boats going to be okay? It just passed Delli Island." I named the closest island north of Gift.
"Warn them," Mother Superior commanded, and I saw Mother Jerlwa reach for an amulet in her pocket and say something into it.
"They say they don't see anything, and that they're going to move into the channel between us and the mainland in about fifteen minutes," she reported. I stared northward, memorizing the skyline of the temple as if I would never see it again. The seven towers, the domes of the temples, the crenelations of the curtain wall...all of this I wanted to absorb before...before what, I didn't know. But I had the uneasy feeling that I would never see it again. I sat against the side of the boat and absentmindedly trailed my fingers in the water.
The moment my hand touched the sea, the sour, nauseating feeling intensified. I doubled over, feeling like I might throw up.
"Shiri?" someone asked.
"It's so close, and something is driving it, faster than it should," I said in a tight voice, feeling like I was either going to choke or vomit. "And it's headed right for our boats."
Someone pulled my hand out of the water then, just as I got the first sensation of death. Pain, terrible crushing pain lanced through me, like I was being punctured by giant teeth. We heard screams drifting across the water, and I swear I smelled blood. The warriors at the oars needed no urging to increase their pace. We flew across the choppy waves, and I turned behind me again to look. I wish I hadn't. A giant serpentine head, larger than the island itself, rose out of the water, sword-like teeth gleaming in the faint light. I wished for lightning to come down and strike it, but the storm wasn't strong enough to be influenced by a mere wish, and I was too shocked to be able to gather my power and call it down. It roared, then lunged forward, crashing down open-mouthed on top of the island and the surrounding waters. Gift vanished from sight into its huge mouth, along with the boats that had left from the eastern and western sides of the island. The lunge sent huge waves rolling outwards from where the monster's head had impacted. One of them caught our boat and lifted us high into the air. We were about level with the monster's eyes, and I could see it staring at us with venomous hatred. We would be next. Fear, rage, and sorrow welled up inside me. How dare it eat my home, and how dare it eat my friends, my brothers and sisters! Screaming as the wave suddenly fell and dropped us, I thrust my pain at it, wanting it to hurt as it had hurt us.
Lightning boiled in the sky above, building pressure in my temples and between my eyes as it built up. Then suddenly, it struck in a blinding white streak that we could have read from. I screamed again and again, and lightning struck the thing twice more. It reared up, causing more giant waves, and then suddenly, it collapsed in a pile of ashy bones floating on an open sea.
Gift was gone, everyone else was gone, and we were plummeting on a descending wave to the surface of the sea. The priest at the tiller was a Water Talent, so I felt confident that he could talk to the waves and have us arrive safely. But suddenly, the second round of waves arrived, filling the boat with water and smashing the stern to bits. The boat hit the surface, causing more of the hull to shatter. I was somehow washed out of the boat as it hit, rebounded, and hit again. I grabbed onto a floating piece of wood, pulled myself to the surface, and looked around. Where was everyone else? The only sound around was the pattering of the rain on the waves, and only wreckage floated on the surface of the water. I bobbed gently, waiting for someone else to kick their way to the surface. Surely someone else had to have survived. They had to. But the storm rained on, and began adding thunder and lightning. No one else appeared, and it was long past the time that even a Water Talent could survive underwater. I was the only one who had survived. I began to weep then, crying out my grief for all the deaths around me. I was the only one who could mourn them at this point. And I was going to do it properly, to show my love for my temple family.
I took a deep breath, then another, until I felt like I had control over my voice. I straightened up on the board and began to sing the Song of Those Left Behind, changing a few words to make it fit the situation better. The wailing of the wind changed as I sang, seeming to follow the melody of the song.
"I stand behind you
As you sail the paths unseen.
May my love guide you
As you journey to peace.
Do not forget me
The one who stays behind
Holding your memories
For the world.
I take your pain
I take your sorrow
That you may never
I sing for you
To light your way
I weep for you
A river to travel
May your journey be
Swift and easy
Though I cannot know its goal
I wish you peace
When I awoke the next morning, the sun was already high, and my throat felt like paper. I didn't recognize where I was, but I did know that I was caught in a current. One of the teachers on Gift had told us of a great current that ran down the coast, starting between the Meramian Isles and the northern coast of Campalla, and continuing southwest down the coast, past Mayyakeram and all known lands. If I was in that current, I hoped someone would find me soon or that I would drift ashore. Please, I prayed, knowing that I couldn't survive for very long without water.
The day passed slowly. All the storm clouds of last night were gone, leaving a brilliantly blue sky, without a cloud in sight or even within the much depleted range of my power. The sun beat down relentlessly. The worst part, though, was that with nothing to do, my mind kept replaying the destruction of the temple and of the only family I had ever known. The eating monster, the storm, the panic, the flurry of people rushing to the boats, the terrifyingly huge jaws and teeth and head, how it had just eaten the island and everyone, and...
I shivered, even though the day was already hot and I was losing more water to sweat than I could afford. I pulled the hood of my habit over my head to shield myself from the sun's burning rays, although I wasn't really sure how much it would help. My skin already felt dry and hot, so I was probably sunburned, and it was hot, damp, and humid inside the hood. The warmth and darkness was making me sleepy, so I gripped the board even more tightly, and fell asleep.
Empty eye sockets stared hollowly at me from a face that should have been dead thousands of years ago, with its wrinkles like canyons, the skin hanging limply against the bones of the face, without any muscle to hold it in place, and even the hair rotted away. I still didn't know if the figure was male or female. It stood, scarcely more than a skeleton draped in ancient skin and rags, a huge cut through its chest, too old even to be infected, and raised a hand, pulling me toward it. I dug my feet into the ashy ground, trying to resist, but, as before, I was pulled inevitably towards it. It raised a hand and touched my face, the dry, papery skin so rough it almost scratched. I could feel the bones in its hand. I wanted to scream, but I was being held silent.
"Yes," it whispered, its voice a dry rasp that could have been mistaken for a breeze in that dead waste. "You are the one. I will meet you soon, little Priestess, but it will be a short meeting. You will be dead as soon as I see you, and after that, your whole world will be as this waste! You should have spared yourself this and died with your temple!" It released me, and I fell. The ground vanished and I was falling, falling through nothingness. Suddenly, I felt heat, and a sulfurous fog engulfed me. I couldn't breath. I was coughing, and every breath I took burned me from the inside out. And the fog was burning me from the outside in, too, eating through my clothes and skin, muscles, bones, through everything, until the only thing left of me was a scream that threatened to tear my head in two—
I awoke with a scream. The Nightmare had never gone that far before. Normally I awoke as soon as the thing touched me (the Nightmare was yet another reason to sneak out to the strand and make myself too tired to dream), but this time, it had actually spoken to me. Was I meant to hear it this time? If the dreams were real, and they felt so, then worse than the monster which had destroyed Gift—which I had destroyed, I reminded myself—was on its way, might be already on its way. I had to warn someone, so that my temple family would not have died so senselessly, so that no one else had to die in the maw of some monster out of the tales of the Sorcerer Wars. But who would listen to me, a mere novice who wasn't even a particularly good novice? Full of despair, I let my head droop down onto the board, wondering what would happen and feeling powerless to stop it. I mean, I was thirteen, I had no family, no connections, no training (because none of the teachers could decide what Element my powers fell under. I had had meditation lessons and that was it), and I was drifting helplessly along the coast! I felt like crying, but the parched roughness of my throat and mouth reminded me that I had no water to spare.
I wasn't sure how much longer I could last without water. I felt utterly drained of energy; the little I had left was devoted entirely to clinging to the plank. I had to have survived for a reason, I told myself, when my spirits sank so low that they seemed to be at the bottom of the sea and I wanted to join them there. There were times when I wanted to let go and join Teraly and Juo and Katri and the other girls from my dorm and my other friends and my teachers and Mother Superior and everyone whom I had ever known in the depths of the sea. But something kept me clinging to the plank as the day dwindled into a crimson-stained sky and night's curtain unfolded in a vast indigo ripple, spreading the constellations in their places.
As the moon rose, a huge buttery orb over the dark smear that was the mainland, I began to tell myself the stories that went along with the constellations, in homage to Master Gelbe, the astronomy teacher. I had liked astronomy class. Actually, I had just liked being up in Stargazer Tower. It was the tallest tower on Gift, so I was the closest to the sky as I ever was. There was Bahan, who had wrestled for seven days and seven nights underwater with a kraken that was attacking ancient Mayyakeram. He had defeated it, but had lost his life in the winning. He still stands guard at the mouth of the River Tiphrates, protecting Mayyakeram from attack from the open waters. There were Aula and Sor, the sorceresses who had mustered an army from all six of the Western lands and forged an alliance with the legendary Ammon the Sea King to defeat Da'artagan the Black in the Sorcerer Wars. There was Noh, the Phoenix Emperor, who had been a prince in the Nausicaa Empire but had gone into hiding when an usurper stole his father's throne. Noh had waited patiently before revealing himself, destroying the usurper and leading Nausicaa to its last burst of glory before its long decline and collapse. There was Caba, who had made friends with the first horse, Equi, and who was the reason that horses had agreed to serve humans in the first place. There was Ryia, who had sailed down the coast to see what was beyond Mayyakeram and had sailed into the stars. She was there in her skiff, facing southwest. I was traveling the same direction she had. However, I had a plank and she had had a skiff with supplies. I didn't even have a way to catch or cook fish, or a way to get water that was salt-free.
Wait. Maybe I did. Salt was part of the Earth, only washing into the sea because of rain running through the ground and carrying it with it. I cupped some seawater in my hands, pressing my fingers together and cajoling it to stay there. When I had gotten it to agree, I sent my power cautiously into the handful, feeling what was water, moist and cool, and what was salt, sharp and dry. I was amazed to find that I could feel the difference between the water and the salt in the water. Unsure what to do, I asked, Please? Please separate?
In reply, I got a response along the lines of If you insist, and a feeling that millions of millions of tiny things were swimming towards the edges of my hands. Before my eyes, a rim of salt appeared around the edges of my hands, thick, crusty and white. I tasted the water in my hands cautiously.
It was as free of salt as if it had come from the spring that had been at the top of Gift. I gulped it down eagerly, trying to slake the burning feeling in my throat. It was the best water I had ever had, but even that tiny mouthful, after nearly a whole day of fasting, threatened to upset my whole system. I went back to holding onto the board and trying not to throw up. I concentrated on breathing, breath after breath, and watching the unchanging horizon of crests and troughs. There was nothing to see except water, water, and more water. My experiment with the water had tired me out more than I had expected, so I drifted off to sleep as dawn began to break against the horizon. This time, I didn't dream.