They came during the coming of age ceremony.
The Eki clans were one of the many peoples of the Great Isof Enclosure, though one of the least populous. They were also considered to be somewhat backward by the rest of the Isof. Only recently had they selected a permanent place to settle, which they called simply Ekim, a small village constructed of wood and straw, with dirt for streets. Ikeli rather liked it though. There was a simplicity to their life, which Ikeli had just barely grown old enough to appreciate.
Once, when she was younger, her mother had brought her to the nearest of the cities, Ikoolim. Her mother had had some business there—something to do with the Akipuu Liberation Society, which Ikeli only had the most vague knowledge of—among the large buildings of stone, each road paved with a similar material. And there had been so many people, more passing by in a minute than Ikeli had seen her entire life, that it had made her nervous. It felt like being in a different world, one more claustrophobic, brutal, impersonal. She much preferred her little village, where everything was in soft earthy tones and smells, where she knew each person living there as her own family. Would it be possible to even remember so much as everyone's name in a place such as Ikoolim? She couldn't imagine that kind of life.
A short distance from Ekim, a little higher up the mountain, there was a shelf of flat granite. It was here that most of the Eki had gathered for the ceremony. All of the women and most of the men were here—a couple of the men had stayed behind to watch over the youngest children. All in all, they numbered thirty-five, including the four involved in the ritual. There was Amti and Pekoo, both turning thirteen like Ikeli—the village expected they would marry one day. And then there was Eseri and herself.
It had taken some convincing on Ikeli's part to talk her mother and Isegrui, the Eki elder, into allowing her to take part in the ritual with Eseri, a woman, but she had succeeded. Not that the Eki opposed same-sex pairings as a rule—though there weren't any in the community at the moment—but the point of the ritual was fertility, and there wasn't anything fertile about such a couple. Usually. Besides, there weren't any boys among the Eki Ikeli was particular to. And it wasn't that she and Eseri had that kind of relationship anyway, though the two of them had recently considered the possibility. They weren't sure exactly which love they had—insifoom or ingeelim, the love between friends or that between partners. The line between them was sometimes indistinct.
What she knew was that she and Eseri had been the closest of friends for as long as she could remember. Eseri was her favorite person in the world, and they did everything together, told each other everything. Although she knew, in keeping with her great-grandmother's legacy, she would be expected to produce a daughter, so she would have to take a man—from a different village would probably be best, as Eki tried hard to prevent inbreeding. But she also knew she and Eseri tried not to think about that.
Of course, Eseri would likely be leaving Ekim soon. She was fifteen already and had sworn to join the Akipuu Liberation Society as a guardswoman. She would need to go through the proper training, and then she would travel to fulfill her duties. They tried not to think about that either.
Did that make this ingeelim? She didn't know.
The ceremony was a simple one. First, Isegrui performed a ritual, which involved a meandering speech about spring and family, and the letting of Amti and Ikeli's blood with a particular knife used for the purpose for generations. Then a few of the Eki struck a tune on a collection of instruments, and the four of them danced. Ikeli found the stinging of her palm very distracting, and the watching eyes of the Eki a little discomfiting, but she managed it. Though they had barely started when the interruption came.
The sound of a throat clearing pierced the air. From the strength of the sound, which was much louder than it should be, Ikeli understood the woman's voice to be magickally amplified. That simple fact was almost stranger than the interruption itself. Eseri instantly stopped, stuck in place with such solidity that Ikeli stopped with her. The musicians and Amti and Pekoo took a little longer to wind down, petering out gradually. Then there was silence.
It took a moment for Ikeli to find the trespassers. Just outside the circle of Eki, to the east, was a group of severe-looking woman wearing brown leathers with a red sash, each with a sword at her waist. That must mean they were the Summer Guard, the Esturooye's enforcers. Ikeli felt a sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach. She exchanged a glance with Eseri and knew she was feeling the same. As one of the Guardswomen searched the Eki with her eyes, for exactly what Ikeli didn't know, she took a second to count them. Twenty-six. The sinking feeling worsened.
The central Guardswoman spoke, her amplified voice booming in the air. "We come bearing orders from the Esturooye. You are the Eki." It wasn't a question.
Isegrui, appearing bent and frail with age, shifted her way to the front of their group. "We are the Eki," she said with a voice tougher-sounding than her usual tone. Of course, she wasn't nearly as frail as the eye would infer as it was.
"You speak for the Eki," the Guardswoman said as her eyes fell on Isegrui.
"So you will account for the crimes of the Eki."
The tension the arrival of the warriors had raised suddenly redoubled. Looks of concern were shot between the Eki in a wave, and Ikeli had the vague impression the adults had had their suspicion confirmed. There were whisperings as Isegrui delayed further. Ikeli noticed her mother staring at her in her peripheral vision, so turned her eyes on her. Run, her mother mouthed. Stinging ice started spreading through Ikeli's veins, and she shared another glance with Eseri, whose hand further tightened around hers. It hurt a little.
"I know of no crime," Isegrui finally answered.
"It has come to the attention of the Summer Guard that among the traitors of the Solstice Revolt were Eki."
Total silence. It was true. What the Esturooye loyalists were calling the "Solstice Revolt" had been a peaceful of gathering of Akipuu, raised in protest against Esturooye brutality. The Summer Guard had slaughtered every last one; of the Eki, three had died.
"We have been ordered to exterminate the—"
The air exploded. Ikeli would never know who, Guard or Eki, attacked first.
Suddenly Ikeli found herself on the ground, Eseri's body on top of hers forcing her down. Cacophonous noise surrounded them—shouted incantations, magick crackling and bursting, screams of pain. Under the storm of battle, Ikeli heard Eseri muttering a lengthy spell. When she finished, a prickling sensation crossed Ikeli's skin in a wave. "Now, run!" Eseri lifted from her and dragged her to her feet.
Eseri pulled Ikeli to the west, away from the Guardswomen, at full speed, fast enough Ikeli was tripping over her steps. When she had regained her balance she planted her feet and pulled back on Eseri's hand. "We can't leave them!" she shouted, turning back toward the fight. The edge of the battle was only a few meters away. Volatile shadows were thrown by the flashing of deadly lights, and in the inconsistent illumination Ikeli noticed many were already motionless on the ground. Imsaloo, her second uncle and master wordsmith, got a sword in the face even as she watched. Ikeli felt a tightness in her chest, and her vision blurred.
"What good can you do?" Eseri yanked harder on her arm, and Ikeli reluctantly fell back a couple steps. "Run, you stupid girl!" she growled. Eseri had never called her stupid before.
Ikeli, the first tears leaking down her face, turned her back on the death of the Eki and ran with Eseri. As they ran, the ground flying under them in fits and starts as they worked their way around protruding boulders and dips in the surface, Ikeli stared at the stone under her, trying not to hear the dying cries of her people, simply trying not to think. A few minutes must have passed, because soon the shadows of the forest were stretching over them.
There was a rush of whistling air, a strange combination of blowing wind and shrieking flute, and a blast of greenish light parted around the two of them. The prickling sensation Eseri's magick had raised on her skin died. Eseri stopped and turned toward their assailant, dropped Ikeli's hand, and waved her onward in desperation. Reluctantly, Ikeli more slowly backed away.
One of the Guardswomen was approaching. Her eyes were wild, her hair was tangled, her leathers were scorched and askew, and her curving sword was red with blood. As she approached, both she and Eseri shouted incantations at each other. Eseri had already gotten some training in combat, just a little that a passing guardswoman of the Akipuu Liberation Society could impart in such a short time, but Ikeli knew there was no way she could stand against anyone in the Summer Guard. She was going to die. Ikeli couldn't just run, but what could she do about it?
Another torrent of green light sprung from the Guardswoman, and split across Eseri's defensive magick fruitlessly. But as Eseri started chanting anew, the Guardswoman simply bounded forward, and sunk her sword into Eseri's chest. Callously, carelessly, the Guardswoman lifted a foot to kick the younger woman off her blade.
As Eseri collapsed to the ground, Ikeli charged, mindless, at the Guardswoman, and leaped at her. The warrior had only partially lifted her sword, and Ikeli noticed a strange tugging in her side as she fell upon the woman, but she barely felt it, and it was easy enough to ignore. Either from the force of the impact or simply from surprise, the older woman fell, Ikeli on top of her. Unaware of the words she was screaming—she only assumed she was screaming from the tightness in her throat—she pounded at the woman, hitting and scratching whatever she could find. Of course her advantage couldn't last long; she was just a thirteen year old girl, and the Guardswoman was a trained warrior. Somehow the woman flung Ikeli off her, and she was suddenly laying on her back in the dirt. The warrior knelt over her, her face, bleeding from three lines on her cheek where Ikeli had gouged her, a picture of rage, and drew back her arm to stab.
While Ikeli hadn't been combat trained, she had received a very basic education in magick. So, thinking frantically, she glanced at the ground at her side and muttered a one word spell. A focused gust of wind lifted a portion of the dirt and flung it directly into the warrior's eyes. The Guardswoman reared back in shock and pain.
And then, in a flash of red light, she was gone.
It took a long moment for Ikeli's gasping to stop. When she could breathe normally, she tried to sit up; her first attempt failed, so she took a few seconds to brace her elbows more solidly against the ground, and finally pushed herself up. She cried out at the piercing heat in her side. A hand had jumped to the painful spot, and she pulled it away to stare at her palm in surprise. It was covered in blood, but the wound itself didn't look too bad. "Eseri?"
"Ikeli," muttered Eseri from where she lay nearby. Then she coughed, a wet, hacking sound that sent a tearing sensation through Ikeli's chest that had nothing to do with injury. Ignoring the pounding pain in her side, Ikeli crawled the short distance to Eseri. She was laying front down, her face hidden by her hair turned hard by sweat and dirt, both hands clenched into tight fists. Slight tremors ran through her body, from pain or tension Ikeli didn't know. "Did I get her?" she asked weakly.
Ikeli glanced at the Guardswoman, what was left of her. Which wasn't very much. "Everything above her knees is gone."
A noise somewhere between laughter and wheezing burst from Eseri's throat. "That's what she gets for killing me. What, did she think I would just let her kill us? No, the Eki fight back, bitch. Serves her right." She coughed again. With a frown of concern, Ikeli realized Eseri was a little delirious. Slowly, as gently as she could, Ikeli took Eseri's shoulders and turned her over.
She let out a wordless noise of despair. Blood had stained a large portion of the front of Eseri's tunic; there was enough of it that Ikeli couldn't even see the wound itself. Even as she watched, a little more color drained from Eseri's face. "Oh, no," she moaned, her vision blurring again.
"Ikeli." One of Eseri's hands raised, a little shakily, to point at the blood on Ikeli's own clothes.
"I'll be okay," she insisted. Ikeli took the hand Eseri had raised with her own, noticing somewhat distantly that it was shaking.
"You have to get out of here," Eseri muttered. "They could come at any time. I burned that one, but more—" She coughed again, her free hand rising unconsciously to her mouth during her spasms. It took a moment for the look of agony to fade from her face so she could speak again. "—more are coming, and I don't think I can fight another one." This was said with an edge of cold humor on her voice.
It was hard to speak through the lump as large and hard as a boulder in her throat, but she managed it. "I'm not going without you."
"You're definitely going, no question about that. And I'm clearly not going anywhere," Eseri muttered, gesturing to herself with her eyes. Her voice was getting weaker. "So you're going alone."
"Imgeeliya." I love you.
Ikeli froze in surprise. "No," she said after a moment, shaking her head, "don't say that."
"Imgeeliya," she repeated. "Go, please."
Feeling her heart shatter, Ikeli let out a choked sob. It was impossible to stay when Eseri was begging her to go like that. Swallowing her tears back as much as she could, which wasn't very well, she nodded jerkily. "Where do I go?"
Eseri closed her eyes for a long moment as she thought. "Do you know how to exit and enter the Enclosure?"
At first Ikeli nodded, but then she realized Eseri's eyes were still closed. "Yes."
"Stay in the Spade world for a day or two. They'll stop looking for Eki by then." Eseri took a long moment to merely breathe; she was losing the rest of her strength as she continued to bleed. "Then go to Ikoolim. Can you find that?"
Ikeli hesitated for a moment. "I can find it," she decided.
"Good. The Akipuu will protect you. Now, go before—" Through the sweat and the blood, Ikeli noticed a tear slide down Eseri's pale cheek. "I don't want you to watch me die, Ikeli."
So, grinding her teeth in grief and frustration, forcing herself through every motion with everything she had, Ikeli kissed Eseri on the forehead, and simply left.
It wasn't until after she exited the Enclosure that she realized how bad her injury was. She wasn't hurt as badly as Eseri was, of course, and she could move around—or more accurately, stumble around—she was still bleeding rather heavily. Every motion sent a flash of stinging heat in her side. As she went, her breathing became shorter and more painful. She began to realize she wasn't going to make it a day or two. Through the forest she staggered, knowing with dread certainty that, like the rest of the Eki, she was going to die.
Maybe she could find a Spade healer. Did Spades have healers? She couldn't imagine how anyone would heal without magick, but she supposed they had to do it somehow. Of course she didn't know a thing about Spades. She was sure they didn't speak the same language, and she knew from stories that some Spades farmed—cultivated plants for the purpose of later eating them. The idea seemed so foreign, but she supposed they had to get food somehow, as weird as it sounded. They certainly couldn't just use magick to summon what they needed, the way her people did. What strange lives they must lead.
When she muttered the incantation of a simple enchantment designed to locate thinking beings, she was surprise at how nearby the closest Spades were. She limped in that direction, leaning against trees wherever the support was available, wondering to herself the whole while what she would do when she found them—there were two—and how she would communicate what she needed.
Soon she came upon them. Their skin was slightly lighter than hers, their features slightly rounder, and they had a haggard look about them that Ikeli found curious. She supposed life was harder for Spades. They wore strange long dresses made of very coarse cloth—or perhaps those were animal skins, it was hard to tell with her vision blurred by continued tears—and carried woven baskets. Within the baskets were piles of what could have been herbs. This was an activity she recognized: it was believed that certain plants lost their magickal properties when created through magick itself, so they had to be gathered by hand. Ikeli came to rest against a tree and took a few gasping breaths.
The noise drew the attention of the Spades. Both women stopped what they were doing, and looked toward Ikeli with looks mixed between curiosity and fear. They took in Ikeli's foreign dress, her foreign features, the blood coloring her side. They froze, watching. One muttered something to the other, but Ikeli had been right: they spoke a different language.
Maybe she should demonstrate she was Eemoorxikim. They may be more willing to help her if they knew she could use magick, that she could do things for them in return. So she pushed herself to standing freely, held out her right hand palm up, and slurred out a short incantation. A ball of gently glowing light appeared floating above her palm, soothing in its white and pure color.
Or at least Ikeli thought so, but apparently the Spades disagreed. They stared at the supernaturally summoned light, one of them letting out an oath of surprise, for a short moment. Then they turned and sprinted away.
Ikeli let the light fade with a tired sigh. Curse Spades.
So she continued stumbling through the forest. As she went, she was aware of her body weakening, as each step grew harder and harder, more and more unsteady. Soon her breathing seemed unable to sate her need for air. She started getting dizzy. Seeing became more and more difficult, and she tripped a few times over plants, rocks, and roots. The desire to quit, just lay down and die became powerful, eating away at the determination Eseri's order to survive had inspired in her. Nausea rose with the dizziness, and before long she was consumed by strange sensations. She felt she was going to vomit, but yet she felt oddly empty. Her skin and joints pounded in unison with her faltering heart. Her brain prickled and buzzed.
Eventually, she tripped over something, exactly what she wasn't sure, and crashed to the ground. And didn't get up. She would go to sleep, that's what she would do. She knew she would never wake up, that she would lay there until she died, but she couldn't summon the passion to care.
She knew not how long she lay.
Just as the darkness was closing over her mind, something touched it. A tendril of power reached into her. It worked through her mind and into her body, bolstering her failing strength. As the muddiness of her thoughts started clearing, as the dizziness and nausea faded, she took a moment to examine this foreign influence that had lifted her from the edge of death. There was very little she could decipher. It danced through her mind as song would through air, unknowable, untouchable. All she got from it was an impression of strength, strength so vast death was a small thing, and a mind so ancient she was less than an insect in comparison.
"Turn over, child," came a voice, light and dancing just as the touch. Thanks to its influence, Ikeli had the strength to do so. She pushed at the ground with a hand and a knee, turning herself over slowly—even with the power suddenly coursing through her, she was still barely strong enough—eventually making it to her back.
When she opened her eyes, she saw it. There were no words. Leaning over her was a being with a vaguely human shape, but it was not human. There was a head with hair and a face, shoulders, arms, torso, hips. She was sure there were legs as well, but those were out of her sight. But it was so white. A pure white, like the freshest of snow but somehow beyond even that, a color that nature in all its splendor could never match. And the creature glowed with a brilliance Ikeli was sure it should pain her eyes. But it didn't. Instead there was only a soothing warmth, that spread throughout her whole body as would a bonfire, yet more uniform, more gentle. She knew what this creature was, and the knowledge amazed her.
"You know what I am, child?" it said with its ethereal voice, as though it had read her mind. It probably had.
"Ibiryan," Ikeli whispered. No one knew exactly what the Ibiryan were. They were clearly thinking and feeling beings like humans, though their minds seemed to function radically different. They were impossibly competent in all forms of magick, even in some disciplines humans could not begin to imagine, and nearly immortal—though Ikeli knew, since they had long ago been hunted for sport by the bravest and most foolhardy of Eemoorxikim, that they could somehow be killed.
Gentle yet fearsome, they were now revered for their connection to the emyoorxa. Many generations ago, a woman now known as Emoorshauu the Transcendent met an Ibiryan, and the Ibiryan, for reasons unknown, decided to inhabit the mortal. Emoorshauu gained many traits of the Ibiryan, including its longevity, and the strength necessary to end the Great Division Wars. Over time, the process was repeated with several other women, who came to be known as the emyoorxa. These empowered women now ruled most of the Eemoorxikim nations—such as the Esturooye, who controlled most of the Great Isof Enclosure. They were feared and beloved, as befit their strength and their wisdom.
And now an Ibiryan had appeared before her.
"Yes, child," the Ibiryan sang. "I have been watching you."
She was simply flattered. That such a powerful creature would even notice her! She could barely grasp the idea. But to business: if the Ibiryan came to her, perhaps that meant she intended to help her people? Sure, the Eki were gone—she stifled the flash of grief the thought inspired—but there were still the Akipuu. "You know the plight of my people?" she asked after a moment of hesitation. She didn't want to seem too demanding, after all; this was a holy being.
"I do," the Ibiryan said, imitating the human gesture of nodding. "The Eki and the Akipuu Liberation Society are no more. How may I help you, child?"
Ikeli's veins turned to ice. The Akipuu too! "What happened?"
"The Esturooye Summer Guard exterminated each chapter of the Liberation Society even as they murdered the Eki, and certain other centers of separatist sentiment."
Hearing it in such emotionless terms only chilled Ikeli further. "They're all gone," she moaned. "The Eki, the Akipuu. There's no one left."
"True, the Eki are gone. But you still live, child. And time has not run out. The Esturooye plans to execute the grown women of each Akipuu family, but it has not been done yet. The Liberation Society is gone, but what is left of the Akipuu people still breathes. For now."
"It doesn't matter anymore. Just let me die."
The Ibiryan seemed puzzled, cocking its head slightly. "But your people yet live."
"I am Eki first, Akipuu by association. My mother is Akipuu, Eseri is Akipuu—"
Ikeli groaned at the correction. "They were. I am not. I never was."
"You don't care what happens to them." The Ibiryan sounded disappointed.
"There's nothing I can do for them. The Esturooye's people are too strong, too many. They will crush me before I can breathe."
"As you would crush them, if you could."
The Ibiryan's words paused Ikeli. Did she want them to die? She had never wished that on anyone before, and it was a rather foreign thought that she ever would. She didn't think like that. You are too gentle, Eseri would say, whenever they would talk about Eseri's conviction to guard the Liberation Society. Ikeli abhorred even the idea of violence, and the thought of Eseri harming anyone, even in defense, had made her a little sick inside. So no, she didn't want them to die, and she didn't want to kill anyone, certainly not. She just wanted her people to live in peace. So she told the Ibiryan as much.
"Do you really?" the Ibiryan said, the startings of a smile on its angelic face. "You seek not revenge, not power, not glory?"
"What use have I for such things?"
"Indeed." The Ibiryan seemed amused. "I will help you, child."
Ikeli frowned. "How?"
"As long as you desire only the betterment of others, act only to protect and enrich the lives of your people, I will live in you. My strength will be yours, my magick will flow in your blood, and I will make you emyoorxa."
No. She didn't believe it. She was not being made this offer. She was just a common child, a girl like any other anywhere. There were many more deserving than her, more worthy, many who would be more useful to the Ibiryan. She could only do the most basic of magick, and even that not very well. She couldn't even read. This must be a mistake.
"No mistake, young Ikeli. You are worthy of what I say you are. I offer you my life."
Well, Ikeli certainly couldn't say no, could she? Who was she to disagree with an Ibiryan? If this was what the Ibiryan wanted, she would do it. She didn't know what good it would do, what good she could be for the Akipuu or the Ibiryan, but she would do it. "I would be honored."
"You Eemoorxikim and your honor," the Ibiryan said with a smile. And in a flash, it was gone.
Had the Ibiryan gone? Had it changed its mind? That would not surprise Ikeli in the least, unworthy as she was. But if the Ibiryan was gone, why was she not dying? She felt as well as she had any day of her life, as fit and whole. With a twist of her body, she examined her side, and seeing it had fully healed. The blood was still staining her skin and her clothes, of course, but the wound was gone. She sat up, without dizziness and without pain. But she didn't feel any different. She wasn't sure how she expected to feel after joining with the Ibiryan, but it would have felt different, she was sure.
Then she felt something at the edge of her thoughts, the mental equivalent of someone leaning in to whisper into her ear. It was an incantation, she realized. So, obediently following the directive of whatever had given her the knowledge, she let the magick flow into her in preparation to cast.
She let out a gasp of shock, the magick fading away from her in her surprise. There had been so much! Usually when Ikeli used magick, it flowed into her as it flowed into any normal human: as a flowing stream, trickling into her soul. But this had been different. It was as a river crashing into an ocean, a maelstrom of power so vast it burned her mind going through. She breathed heavily for a few moments, trying to calm herself. What had happened? Where had this sudden increase in power come from?
Gritting her teeth against what she knew was coming, she cleared her mind again. The magick flowed in, a white torrent of energy, swirling, frothing, a complex song of absolute strength so different from the single notes she had summoned before. She hissed out the incantation. The magick screamed through her, the energies around her rushing through her mind and back into the world, working her will on her surroundings. It hurt a little, a pounding heat in her skull. But it worked: a silvery sheet of something hovered before her vision, contorting in the air. Then it solidified, turning reflective.
She gasped again. Her skin had turned paler, but not pale in the sickly way people were pale. A pale color brought about by white light bursting from the inside. Though she was not completely white yet—that would come with time—it was clear there was great power in her. Her irises had vanished entirely, leaving nothing but white in their place. Gradually, the realization that she was emyoorxa, one of those immortals, one of those Eemoorxikim so powerful they breathed magick itself, dawned on her. The thought made her dizzy with disbelief.
And so ascended Ikeli the Transcendent.