Taleen couldn't remember what land she was from but she was certainly not Zathian. Some villagers claimed that she had been the lone survivor of a ship that had sunk and had lost her memory in the accident. No one could identify her race, not with her skin that glowed like moonlight and long, silvery white hair.
She would create lands in her mind of where she and her people had originated. Taleen was constantly eager to explore the caves hidden in the Dusk Hills in the hope that the gnomes, who supposedly lived there, would know. Or other times she'd race into the Emerald Sea's waves without warning, claiming that the fish could tell her about her land. "If only they weren't so secretive," she would bitterly retort as she emerged, wet and shivering.
No gnomes, nor the treasures they hid, had been found that day by Taleen and her older stepbrother Jeneth. And it was getting late. They started in the direction of their village, east of the hills.
"Where do you think I'm from?" she asked Jeneth, attempting to begin a favorite guessing game of theirs. "The clouds or the bottom of the sea?"
"Not now, okay Tal," he said, increasing his pace.
"Come on!" She tugged at his tunic. "Guess!"
"Maybe you're the monster that rose from the cesspool where all the waste goes."
"That's not funny." Taleen shoved him.
"I don't know. You looked pretty slimy when Mother first found you wandering alone on the beach. Luckily it had been raining pretty hard so a lot of that grime was probably washed away. Still, she had to scrub you pretty hard."
Taleen frowned. The first thing she ever remembered was being led out of a cold, wet darkness into a small warm room with rounded walls. But everything was blurred, dreamlike.
She had then been placed into more water but this time it was warm and comforting: it reminded her of something…a memory that was dashed away as soon as it emerged. When Taleen blinked, she found that her vision had cleared. She was looking into the dusk-gray eyes of a slender, pretty woman. A woman whom she eventually learned to call "Mother."
In the months that followed, Jeneth and his mother named Taleen and taught her how to speak since she either had never been able to or had somehow forgotten.
"Taleen, wake up." Jeneth gave her a playful punch on the arm.
"You were daydreaming. We have to get home." He glanced around nervously. A tinge of fading sunlight clung to the hills but the rest of the valley was washed in shadow. "There's going to be a full moon tonight."
Taleen tossed her head back and laughed. "You do this every month. You know, the other kids wouldn't tease you so much if you didn't still believe in moonwraiths. They think you're even stranger than I am."
"I…I don't." Jeneth quickened his pace, heading toward the cluster of cone-shaped cottages that dotted the shore like pointed mushrooms. A few windows were lit, shimmering against the crisp night air. Overhead, stars were starting to prick the darkening sky. "It's just that we've had a busy day, first with school, then exploring the caves. Besides, I'm hungry. I wonder what Mother is making us for dinner."
Taleen would have laughed at Jeneth's weak excuse but something faintly incandescent and as pale as her hair caught her eye. It glistened on the ground a few feet away, resembling a thick cobweb. According to stories told about the moonwraiths, on the first night of a full moon they throw down fishing nets spun from moonbeams and capture sleeping children. A chill breeze rippled through her hair. She shivered.
Those are just silly stories told to frighten children who don't behave, she thought as she dashed after Jeneth. And that web was just an abandoned fisherman's net.
Still, why did she doubt?
That night Taleen couldn't sleep. The moon seemed to be melting through the tiny window above her head, spilling down a tangible light that felt like cobwebs…like a fishing net.
"Calm down, don't struggle so," said a voice within her mind that wasn't hers. It was softer than a zephyr yet filled her head, not her ears. "I first have to carry you up to my world."
Taleen's eyes sprang open. She was surrounded by a darkness that reminded her of the night sky except that the stars were even bigger, as if they were miniature suns. The moon, straight ahead, appeared enormous and Taleen was headed directly toward it.
"This is a dream," she whispered to calm herself and struggled to shift to a more comfortable position. Something tightened around her. She saw that slender, silvery mesh ropes entangled her.
That looks like the fishing net that I saw earlier this evening. The one I didn't want to show Jeneth because it would upset him more than he already was. He can be such a coward sometimes! No. That provesthis is just a dream. I ought to just ride it out and see what happens. I'll be awakening soon anyway.
"You can call this experience a dream," said the voice again. "Just as you can call your life a dream, if that is what you desire. Look around. You have arrived."
Taleen noticed that she was no longer dashing through a void but lying, still ensnared by the moonbeam-net on rough yet powdery ground. The sky overhead was black and star-spotted, stretching over a pale, crater-pocked terrain. A blue-green orb, swirled with white, peered over a chain of jagged mountains.
"Where am I?" Taleen asked and noticed that her voice was no longer audible. Instead, it was more like a projected thought.
"Isn't it apparent? You're on the moon," the voice answered as a narrow shaft of light came into her view. Taleen stared hard at it and noticed that, from certain angles, the image of a beautiful woman appeared to be reflected upon it.
"Are-are you one of the moonwraiths?" Taleen asked, uncertain. According to the stories shared by the Zathians, the moonwraiths were ethereal beings of shadow, not of light.
"If that's what you want to call me. I'm actually the only one and have lived here for eons," said the light-woman. "My name is Umbria. You are now like me while you're here."
Taleen rose to her feet, a sensation that felt as if she were floating. The net fell away, sliding through her as if she were made of air. She glanced down at herself and saw that her skin was glowing even brighter that usual and had a diaphanous appearance. She raised an arm and peered through it, at the terrain beyond. An eerie feeling filled her. "Am I invisible?"
"No. And, as you can see, neither am I. Humans would be able to see us if they came here or if we went to Earth but such a thing would be impossible since I can only survive on the moon and humans could only live on Earth. You are the only one who has been designed for both worlds. You'll notice that you no longer need to breathe while you're here since there is no air. In your solid human form, not only would you suffocate but also you would freeze here during the long lunar night. You can't feel the temperature, can you?"
Taleen shook her head. She was comfortable and even found that she was beginning to enjoy this process of speaking telepathically. But something else was both confusing and exciting her. "Then I'm your daughter? This is where I'm from? The moon?"
"In some ways you are. While you're here you can do things like this." Umbria leaped gracefully into the air in a darting arc of light, flashing across the black sky. She alighted on the sharp peak of one of the mountains. "Try it." Her voice sounded just as loud in Taleen's head as it was when they were standing next to each other.
Taleen bent her knees and jumped. The dusty ground, washed in bluish earthlight, dropped away beneath her. For a brief, terrifying moment she feared she would sail off into space but then the joy of exhilaration took over. She was flying, just as she had done dozens of times in her dreams. She sailed over the mountain range and landed at the edge of a crater. The glimmer-image that was Umbria leaped down beside her moments later.
"I wish Jeneth were here," Taleen said, jumping over Umbria. "We could have flying-leaping races. I'm sure I could win. He usually wins when we race on the Emerald Sea's shore but that's only because he's older and taller. I've come pretty close to beating him. But here I think it would—"
"Jeneth wouldn't be able to live here." Umbria was beside Taleen once again. "Although he may be able to visit if a little air was added. In fact, the moon would be a beautiful place if it had some life, don't you think?" Umbria's voice thrummed like a melody within Taleen's mind. "What if the craters were filled with deep blue water and flowers of every kind blossomed on their banks? The air would still be much thinner since this world is so much smaller than Earth, so the stars would still be visible during the day, but you and I could still exist in these forms and your earthly friends could join us for short visits. The moon would be their pleasure garden, a place where they'd always be welcome even if they couldn't stay long."
An excitement similar to the moon-leaps filled Taleen; she could almost feel her skin glowing brighter. "Is that possible? How?"
Umbria turned to look at her. For a moment her light flickered. "Have you heard of a stone called the World's Soul?"
Taleen nodded. "I think so. Wasn't it buried beneath the Earth centuries ago? My new mother used to tell me about it." Taleen smiled as she remembered, not long after she had been found, Mother kneeling beside her bed and stroking her hair as she whispered stories about the Soul and how it protected the Earth, kept everything on it alive.
"That's the one. It was created after the world was almost destroyed by terrible wars and buried deep in the caves of what eventually became known as the Dusk Hills that fringe your village. It shouldn't be hard to find since you and your stepbrother often explore those caves. I know. You've been linked to me all this time. It wasn't until tonight that I finally felt you were ready and made myself known."
"Ready for what?"
"I'd like you to retrieve the Soul for me. If it was able to replenish the Earth, it would bring life to the moon."
Taleen looked down, unable to focus on the beautiful, shimmering woman. "Why should I bring life to the moon if it would cause the Earth to die?" Still, something inside ached. This being of light was her mother, her true mother. Wasn't she?
"No. It wouldn't die right away. Maybe in two or three generations but by that time, those you know now would be long gone and their descendants would probably have adapted to living here. You are the only one capable of this task since you are the only being who can survive on both the Earth and the moon. I would be destroyed if Earth's atmosphere touched me and, of course, no human could live on the moon. I chose you to be the exception."
"What do you mean? You created me?"
"Not exactly." Umbria's light slightly dimmed. "The stories the Zathians tell their children about moonwraiths are not entirely a fabrication. For decades I stole sleeping infants from their cribs, drawing them into my moonbeam nets and injecting them with elements that would make them more like me, yet able to retain their human forms. The Soul's magic, which didn't exist in the early years, enabled me to do this one thing. You, Taleen, were my only success. The others died rather quickly. I kept you for a few years, making sure that the essences would work, while you slumbered on. When you were ready, and old enough, I sent you to a town across the sea from where you had come. A town called Zathia, which was located near the Soul, where your current family found you and raised you. You have been quite happy there, haven't you?" Taleen nodded and felt her eyes warm. If I were in my human form, she thought, that warmth would be tears. "You have a choice. You can retrieve the Soul and I will leave that family alone. Or you can choose to return but I will draw your stepbrother Jeneth into my net. The only difference between you and him is that he won't be able to survive."
"Monster." Taleen turned away from Umbria. Sadness filled her, dimming her own light. Umbria was her mother but showed her no love. All she wanted was the Soul. She had sacrificed so many others in an attempt to find a child who would eventually retrieve it. And that child is me, she thought.
"That's your choice." Umbria's voice echoed through her head, louder than ever. "You can retrieve the Soul for me and I will leave Jeneth alone. Just think how excited he would be to visit the moon."
Taleen felt her body flicker with what would have been a sigh if she were on Earth in her solid form. "Okay. I'll help you get the Soul." She struggled to block out the thoughts that wanted to emerge, how she would come up with a plan to thwart Umbria. But she couldn't think of anything. At least this way Jeneth would be safe.
She could barely feel the moon-net, the only thing that could hold her in this form, in any form, as it settled over her head and shoulders. In the next instant she was hurtling through space toward an enormous, deep blue sphere. The net grew tighter and her lungs struggled to draw in air that they now needed as she landed heavily next to a tiny opening in what she knew was the Dusk Hills.
Taleen sat still for several moments, deeply inhaling the damp sea air. The heather coating the hills shimmered silver in the moonlight. She looked up at the moon, full and centered in the sky, drowning out the surrounding stars. Her net extended up, up until its cord faded in the distance.
She looked from the moon to the cottages far below, banking the misty Emerald Sea. Umbria couldn't stop me if I went home right now, Taleen thought as she started to untangle herself from the net.
A sharp jerk distracted her from her momentary sensation of triumph. "I'm sending down another net as you sit there pondering," said Umbria's thought-voice. "It is coming for Jeneth."
"No!" Taleen shouted. She was startled by the sound of her voice echoing against the hills. "I'll get the Soul for you. Just leave Jeneth alone."
She squeezed through the small opening. The tunnel inside was dark and cramped but she could faintly see by the subtle glow of her skin. Anger tightened her throat, made her want to lash out at the sharp edges that brushed against her, shredding her sleeping gown and scraping her limbs.
I finally discovered where I come from but it's not what I want, she thought. It was cold and damp down here; now that her body was solid again, Taleen was aware of these discomforts. The tears spilling onto her cheeks were the only comfort she could feel. But even they quickly chilled.
"Just keep going," said Umbria, giving her a mental squeeze. "You are getting closer to the Soul."
Taleen struggled to ignore the voice it as she continued to push herself through the narrow tunnel. "Jeneth…I'm doing this for Jeneth," she whispered to give herself strength. Her hope that this was a nightmare from which she'd soon awaken had long faded.
She had never been down this far, not even with Jeneth. Fear began to replace her anger but she swallowed that down and pushed onward, brushing against cold, damp stone.
"How much further?" Taleen asked, either to herself or Umbria, whose consciousness she now seemed to share. She didn't know, didn't care.
Am I doing the right thing by retrieving this Soul and allowing the Earth to slowly die? Is Jeneth's life worth it? Should I—?
A brilliant golden-blue light shone ahead. The Soul? Taleen struggled toward it. It was shining in speared rays through a narrow crevice that she wasn't sure she'd be able to fit through.
"You can," came Umbria's thought-voice. "That's why I came to you now, while you are still a child, slight and small. If I waited much longer, you'd be too big."
Taleen took a deep breath and pushed through. She fit, just barely.
She entered a tiny chamber with a ceiling so low that she had to bend slightly to keep her head from banging against it. The light that filled this room was so bright she could barely see where it was emanating from. She blinked hard and rubbed her eyes in an effort to focus.
The Soul was a melon-sized rock of jagged crystal that lay at the center of the chamber. A tiny form that looked like a misshapen mushroom huddled beside it.
"Yes. That's the Soul." Umbria's thought-voice was nearly deafening in Taleen's head. "Take it and hurry back. I'll pull you back up into my net and Jeneth will be safe."
Taleen stepped toward it with a pounding heart. The Soul looked too sharp to touch but the light radiating from it was comforting, like sunlight. She was barely aware of the sharp rocks that bit into her bare feet. Just grab it and run, she thought. Don't worry if its sharp points cut you.
The mushroom-form suddenly moved and seemed to sprout enormous, incandescent eyes. "You've come to visit the Soul," it whispered in a voice that reminded Taleen of rainfall.
"Who are you?" she asked. Her heart was rapid, pounding in her ears.
"I'm Leywyn," he said, rising while, at the same time, he attempted to bob a clumsy bow. "At least I used to be called Leywyn…I suppose I still am. I haven't heard anyone use my name for so long that I've practically forgotten it."
"I…are…are you a gnome?" A pulse of excitement battled with her anxiety. She had heard about such creatures ever since she had come to Zathia and had hoped to catch a glimpse of one.
"Yes. I am the one who was chosen to guard the Soul after it brought us, and all things magical, into existence. What is it that you wish of the Soul?"
Taleen chewed her lower lip as she studied Leywyn's craggy, gray-brown face. Nausea was slowly rising in her. Umbria hadn't mentioned the gnomes. Did she know that one would be here, guarding the Soul?
"Just grab the stone and run," she commanded. "He's a tiny, useless guardian. You can overpower him."
"I may not look like much but that hardly matters," Leywyn said, pacing on squat, round legs. His wide eyes seemed to see through her as if they were reading her thoughts and Umbria's. "I can't really stop anyone from stealing the Soul. I can only provide them with the warning that death awaits anyone who does. It is their choice whether or not to believe me."
"Has anyone tried this?" Taleen strained to tune out Umbria's commands to ignore the gnome and just take the Soul.
"Let me just say that humans have been a particularly foolish breed. It was they, after all, who destroyed their world before. It didn't matter that most were too big to enter this cave; some still tried, believing that they'd found the greatest treasure. All had failed. What will your choice be?" He cocked his overlarge head. "Are you one of the foolish? But I'm not sure if you're fully human."
Taleen stared down at Leywyn. Were all gnomes this tiny and awkwardly made? I wonder why he was chosen to guard this precious resource.
"Because the Old Ones were foolish," said Umbria. "What are you waiting for? As you know, you're not fully human but part moonwraith, if that's what you'd like to be called. The Soul won't kill you. Take it!"
But Taleen couldn't move. She was more afraid of killing the Earth than herself.
"What is it you wish of the Soul?" Leywyn asked again.
Taleen felt strangely humbled even though she knew she could crush him so easily. But she didn't want to. Guilt tugged at her.
"I wonder," she began, slowly chewing over her words, fighting to push Umbria out of her mind. "This Soul is what brought magic, right?" Leywyn nodded. "Then is there a way that I can separate myself from the moon's power? Make it so that the lady of the moon can't reach us, just like in the early days?"
"Is that what you truly wish?" he asked, his tiny voice nearly drowned out by Umbria's wailing within Taleen's mind.
"Then break off this spine." Leywyn indicated one of the sharp points jutting from the Soul. This one was incandescently white as if it were filled with moonlight.
"No, Taleen!" Umbria shouted, nearly deafening her. She wondered if the gnome could hear the frantic voice as she knelt and broke off the spine. Umbria's screams instantly hushed, leaving a silence as dense as the moon's within Taleen's mind.
Relief filled her. She was so excited to have her mental freedom back that she didn't at first notice a sharp stinging sensation that throbbed upon her palm. She looked down and saw that the now dull crystal shard was sleek and red. She dropped it, shattering it against the stony ground. Blood trickled from a cut in the center of her palm where the crystal's sharp edge had sliced her.
"Hold your hand up to the Soul's light," said Leywyn.
Taleen did so. Her palm was bathed in warmth that reminded her of the first bath Mother had given her after she was found. The cut closed seamlessly, the blood dried and vanished.
Taleen noticed something else. Her skin was no longer pale and glowing but a deep olive color and the hair spilling over her shoulders was an ordinary brown.
"What happened?" she found herself asking even though she already knew the answer.
"You not only severed the moon lady's power," said Leywyn, "but yourself as well. Whatever magic she had filled you with is gone now."
Taleen wanted to scream with joy. She was free and neither Jeneth, nor any other child, was in danger of being caught in Umbria's moon-nets again. But a part of her felt sad. She wouldn't be able to journey to the moon and jump over its mountains. Still, she could tell Jeneth about her experience. Would he believe her?
"Goodbye, Leywyn," she said as she turned to leave. "My brother and I will visit you, now that I know where to find you."
"I'll be here."
The sky was the clear, dark blue of early dawn as Taleen emerged from the cave, and the moon, now low on the western horizon, was starting to lose its nightly glow. Taleen laughed up at it. "Your nets won't work anymore, Umbria. They're now nothing more than intangible moonbeams."
Should I try to find my true parents? she wondered as she started down the hill, in the direction of her cottage on the Emerald Sea's shore. She could see the vague shapes of fishing vessels through the morning mist, their masts protruding from the waters like bones. Wild sea birds dove into the fading foggy white. They would live on the other side of the sea. But Jeneth and Mother are the family I know, the ones who raised me.
A laugh started to swell in her throat. Will they recognize me now?