Valley of Ashes


Chapter One


A bird in a gilded cage was nothing more than a prisoner, enchanted by the world it was confined in.

There was little noise, the halls of the ancient temple quiet as a young girl darted through the passageways with a wide smile. Most of the natives were sound asleep, a sort of nightly hibernation all living things went through. Except bears, a small part of her whispered. Bears could sleep for months on end, bodies eating through a mass storage of fat to keep them alive and warm in the winter. The thought nearly drew a soft, airy laugh; it would have, if there were more than a few waking souls within the building.

She moved like a spirit, soundless as she raced through the long hallways. Dark wood floors gleamed, reflecting the image of a youth with whirling robes and a sash that fluttered through the air behind her like a butterfly dancing upon the warm, gentle winds of spring. She slid to a stop before the translucent paper door, pushing it open and leaping through with an airy giggle. Her unbound hair billowed, rippling behind her like veils of midnight. A dark sky, glistening as if a thousand small stars were caught within the thick tresses.

None of the Sisters were awake, and her own handmaiden was nowhere near. I'm the first to be awake, she went down a small flight of stairs, the front of her robes hitched up as she skipped down them with an airy hum. Around her, the twisting corridors, half-lit as the first whisper of dawn crept over the horizon, seemed to blur. Cold, wooden floorboards bit into the naked flats of her feet, the temple fires unlit. Then she heard something, a faint whisper, and young Anya dunked behind a massive, heavy vase resting at an intersection.

Good thing I'm so tiny, she grinned as she peeked around the curved side, pink eyes wide as she watched armed priests hurry down the hall. They were silent, but their movements were hurried. She frowned, still as she waited. Seems they know I'm not in my room, she rose onto her feet, darting around the vase and making her way further through the building. Well, I'd best hurry before Misa-ni catches up!

Anya made her way through the twisting hallways, inhaling sharply as she entered the courtyard. Cold, chilled air washed over her thin frame. Her cheeks reddened, and she stilled, head dipping back as her eyes closed. Around her, the world seemed to thrum with power. A deep, echoing sound which came from somewhere deep within the mountain Vokana Shrine rested upon and up into the bare soles of her feet. Only moments passed, and then she was making her way through a side door, venturing towards the underside of the shrine were steam-laden springs beckoned her with the warmth and love of relaxation.

The moment she was through the door, she pulled her sash free. The front of her robes opened, pooling on the floor as they slipped off her arms. She kicked the garments off to the side, and then ran across the warm stones and leapt into the water. The impact of hot water rushing over chilled skin was paradise, her body loosening up as she sank until her back-end rested on the smooth stones at the bottom of the spring. Dark tresses swayed around her, curling around her as she twisted and spiraled through the air. She kicked off the bottom, gliding through the water until only her face broke the water.

Exhaling, she eyed the open ceiling and the sky beyond that was beginning to show the first signs of a new dawn; the sky was red along the edges, edges that faded until they purple and pink and then, finally, blue. She floated there, most of her body submerged, as she watched the stars fade away one-by-one. Grinning, she drew in another breath and dived. She flipped, kicking her legs until she was deep under the water. Eyes wide open, the spring aglow with light and shimmering orbs she could never touch —no matter how hard I try— whirling around her. It was almost like a dream, one which she adored. One she never wanted to wake up from, this time in the water when she was truly free.

Anya surfaced a second time, grasping a moss-laden boulder with both arms. She leaned into it, resting her forehead against the soft wildlife growing across the old stones with a content smile. Under her palms, energy hummed. It pulsed, a deep echo of power that spread out onto the stones surrounding the spring and spreading further into the water and walls. Eyes half-lidded, Anya sank into the stone as she listened to the quiet, whispering song of the earth.

"Anya-ko?" The ravenette blinked, her head rising as her name echoed through the spring. A woman was crossing the grounds, movements sharp and then she was pausing, leaning down to pick up a corner of her discarded robes with a raised eyebrow. The woman stood, letting it flutter against the ground as she said, "Anya-ko, I know you're in here. Come out!"

She sank, in response. Anya peeked around the boulder, barely disturbing the water as she swam behind the cover of moss-laden boulders as the woman approached the edge of the hot spring. She watched as the lady propped her hands on her hips, standing directly over her. Anya placed a hand to her mouth, pink eyes sparkling as the older woman's gaze swept across the room. Then, sudden and unbidden, Anya sense a shift in the air. She reached forward, eying the shifting hues or deep red and darkened, muddy yellow. Anya pulled herself up, eyes wide when she finally said, "Misa-ni, are you alright?"

The woman above her shrieked, head snapping downward in a startling impressive way. That had to hurt, Anya pulled herself out of the water, sitting next to the woman's feet as she continued, "You're frustrated and fatigued, but you obviously just woke up. Did you not sleep well?"

Anya eyed the brunette, head cocked to the side as the maiden fetched a robe from a woman entering the room. Misa knelt before her, voice strained as she said, "I know it is early, Anya-ko, but do not forget that Keeper-kova has guests today."

"And I made away to the springs," Anya's gaze dropped to her lap, voice light as she said, "I'm sorry, Misa-ni."

"Let us hope your apology shall suffice," Misa murmured as she began to pat her dry, hands breezing over sensitive areas with a sureness of a woman who had done this a hundred times. Anya lifted her arms, exposing herself fully as she said, "Keeper-kova will have just awoken and the guests not yet meeting. I should be fine, yes?"

Misa wrapped her up in her dry sleeping robes, helping her off the ground and ushering her though a sliding door. Anya wiggled her toes as she waited for her handmaiden to close the door, nose scrunching up as the cold wooden tiles chilled her feet. It was not long before they were back in her bedchamber, Anya discarding her clothing before plopping down on a stool. Seconds passed before a hairbrush was combing through her hair, another handmaiden entering the room and bowing low to the ground. Anya smiled, voice soft as she said, "You may enter, Tana-cona-ba."

"Remember, Anya-ko," Misa tugged at her hair, voice light as she continued, "Our Sisters from Talino will not be used to our way of honoring others."

Anya pouted, and then giggled when the newest priestess in the room ran a hand along the heel of her foot. "That tickles, Tana-cona-ba — ah, Priestess Tana."

She shot a hopeful look over her shoulder, and Misa sighed. "And how shall you address Keeper-kova?"

"Master Keeper."

"Your handmaidens?"

Anya paused, and then frowned. "Ah…I'm not sure. Unlike the lowlands, we have no surnames — but it would be rude to refer to them by first name. They are not like you and Tana, they are not my friends…"

Anya paused, foot nearly flying out of Tana's hand when the cold lotion was smeared across her foot. Tana then said, "You will refer to us as you did me, by their customs. Jana-oba, for instance, will be Mother Jana. Misa-ba will be Miss Misa, whereas our visitor, Galan-ba, will be Mister Galan."

"My head hurts," Anya muttered, and then she signed. Misa was pulling her hair up, piling upon her head before pulling out a thin robe of near-transparent cloth. A slip; Anya wrinkled her nose, but stood regardless. Several layers later, Anya had her arms tucked across her torso, rules and polite, lowlander speaking running circles through her head. Her gaze landed on the two women, voice small as she said, "I will mess this up, you'll see…"

"Nonsense."

That was all Misa had to say about the matter, helping her rise with an encouraging smile. Anya did not feel confident, or brave, but she lifted her chin regardless. She was a Daughter of Vokana Shrine, raised proper with the teaching of the Great Spirits. She told herself this time and again, whispering the words to herself as they made their way through the long and twisting corridors with a sense of purpose. They were heading towards the Dining Hall, where the Keeper rested with the guests.

Had the meal already begun? Anya smoothed down the front of her robes, clearing her thoughts. Misa was a steady presence at her side, the air around her a pretty silver laced with fluctuating hues of a variety of colors. Mostly deep red and swirls of pink, two colors that had Anya's chin lifting. Affection and certainty, two emotions saturating the air around the eldest of three walking through the hall. If Misa-ni is certain, then so must I be. It is only fair. Divine Ones, help me be brave.

"When was the last time we have had a visitor, Misa-ni?" Anya looked to her left, where the woman in question stood. Misa frowned, and then Tana said, "It was before Keeper-kova brought you here, to Vokana Shrine. It was roughly around the same time we all started using the same honorifics, which you, as a child, taught us."

"I taught you?"

"Not me, personally, but the woman who carried you here taught us."

Anya wanted to ask more, to venture more about this woman —was she my mother, this woman?— but the door was opening, and Anya was stepping through on her own before the question could slip past her lips. Instead she found herself standing in front of a great number of people, the long table holding dozens of people. Anya's gaze shifted, taking note of the many priests and priestesses she knew to some degree, to the silver hues and the blue tones of their energy, and then the newcomers.

As she made her way around the table, reaching a hand for the Keeper, she felt something different. She sat, slowly, at his side as the Keeper said, "Allow me to introduce Lady Anya, Vokana's chosen daughter."

She blinked, and then bowed her head in greeting. Something wasn't right. She sat up fully, shoulders squared and pink eyes moving from one gaze to another as she tried to pick out what was bothering her other than the unnatural chill in the air. It was as if something icky was crawling over her skin, and, as one woman stood, bowing, she noted the energy. There's were more gray then silver, the hues all a sort of confident red and healthy, forest-green but…webbed with something dark. Anya tilted her head to the side as the woman said, "Greetings, Lady Anya. I am Sister Lai, from Talino Rising Temple. It is a pleasure to meet you."

"Likewise, Sister Lai," Anya murmured, voice softer. She felt the Keeper's grip on her hand, tucked safely under the table, shift. His energy shifted from the deep, earthen green and deep thick pinks —I still don't know what that is, even after all this time— taking up a shade or two of bright oranges tinged with darker hues. She curled her fingers around his, containing, "Master Keeper and I have been eagerly awaiting your arrival. I hope your travels were done in peace."

"For someone so young, you speak with a great maturity," Sister Lai said, and Anya, feeling a stirring of irritation rise, exhaled. She smiled, then, as she replied, "I will take that as a compliment. My sisters and brothers here at Vokana take my studies seriously."

There was a sense of a deep, dark pink, a pink no light could get through, around this woman. Anya did not look between her and the Keeper, but said, instead, "What brings you to our temple, Sister Lai?"

"We seek to expand our truths of this world," Anya then cocked her head to the side, voice light as she asked the woman, "Should you not be mediating under the wisdom of the Great Spirits, then?"

Silence filled the room, as the younger brothers of the temple carried in food. Anya accepted a glass of water with a polite 'thank you,' smiling kindly at the youth was roughly the same age as she. She sipped at the clear liquid, settling into her seat as small talk filled the room. Several watched her, their darkly colors auras shifting and turning. It was like comparing oil-based paints to water-based, one thick and letting nothing show through while the other was light and open. This was how she saw the colors surrounding the natives of Vokana compared to those of Talino, and her stomach did not settle well. It churned, leaving her not-so-hungry. She exhaled, and set her cup down as one of the others, Galan he soon introduced himself as, said, "Your eyes are unlike anything I have seen, Lady Anya. Breathtaking."

"Thank you, Galan-ba — ah, Mister Galan," Anya flushed, cheeks reddening as he blinked. She cleared her throat as she murmured, "Forgive me, but I am not well acquainted with the Lowlands and their manner of honorifics. It still catches me unawares…"

"Think not of it!" Galan leaned forward, resting his elbows on the table. He dropped them, when Anya's face settled into a light scowl. He then said, "It is to be expected, I would say. Our own manner of speaking is not as reserved, as I'm sure you're beginning to learn."

Anya inclined her head, drawing in a shallow breath as the thicker hues rose. Some were almost sickly in tone, and then the Keeper's hand was on her shoulder as he said, "Anya-ko, are you well?"

"I am," Anya paused, paling as the room swayed around her. The darkness, like a web, was seemingly branching outward. In thick strands, as if made of a sort of dark wire too heavy to break. She pressed her hands flat against the table, seeing them tremble as she whispered, "I am feeling faint, Keeper-kova. May I retire early?"

The heaviness, the thickness, was becoming too much. She did not hear his answer, but soon an arm was wrapping around her middle. Gentle hands helped her up, and then she was tucked into someone's side. She stepped lightly, as she was led from the room. Behind her, whispered conversation became background noise as Misa's voice cut through the haze of her mind, "Anya-ko, what troubles you?"

"Take me to my room, Misa-ni," Anya shuddered, arms coming up to wrap around herself as she whispered, "There is something wrong with the air. It is trying to crawl into me, Misa-ni. Take me to my room…"

Misa's grip around her tightened, the guards of Vokana Temple marching around them. She could hear the echoing, ringing sound of their boots on the wooden floors as surely as she could see ripples of energy expanding out through the ground with each step. Her gaze shifted to the left, towards were fragile trees whispered and spoke as a stray wind ruffled their canopies. They were silver and emerald, the air clear and clean and pleasant. Anya breathed that in, drawing it in with deep breaths as they made their way through another hallway until they reached her temples.

Misa said something to the guards, and then the doors were closed. A seat was under her in moments, and Anya sank into it. Her handmaiden waited silently, kneeling on the ground at her side while gently running calloused fingers over the back of Anya's hand. She smiled, at the action, before she said, "Misa-ni, there is a sort of darkness around our guests. It is deep, cold and unwelcome. I have never seen the likes of it, in all my years. Blackness turning silver gray, turning once positive hues dark and negative…

"Our guests, they are not who they say they are." Anya sat up, absently rubbing her fingers across the soft silk draped over her knees as Misa stood in one swift, fluid motion. She met the older woman's gaze, pink eyes dark as Misa asked, "Are you certain?"

The maiden took her hands in hers, voice soft as she said, "Keeper-kova would not endanger us, I know he would not."

Anya shook her head. "It is not like that, Misa-ni. This darkness, it was at the core of them and branching outward. Keeper-kova, he does not sense these things."

He can't know, not unless I tell him. Her stomach turned, then. Her eyes widened. And I left him in there, with them!

She went to stand, but Misa pushed her down. "Think not what is going through your head."

She is silent for a moment before she asked, "Tell me, Misa-ni, what lies behind the walls that cages us? What manner of world surrounds us?"

A gentle pull of unease, of shock, greeted Anya's senses. She cast one look at her servant's face, seeing the closed off expression regarding her, and frowned. She knew that look, the one she always wore when Misa was thinking hard on something. It was a look she knew very well, and it was one she took upon herself anytime Anya spoke of something she feared the Keeper would not approve of.

"The world outside our quiet existence, Anya-ko, is a place of cruelty." Anya tilted her head to the side, lips pressing into a thin line. She stood, shedding a layer of clothing as she asked, "How is it cruel, Misa-ni? Does it not have people who wish to protect it and those living in its ever-changing gardens?"

Anya heard Misa rising, moving about the room. Anya wrung her hands together, head bowed, and then looked into her handmaiden's eyes. Misa held the look, and then she said, "There is so little I can tell you, Anya-ko. The Keeper has denied his children the horrors of the outside world with reason."

"He fears for us."

Misa looked away, towards the window. "He fears many things. He fears for the priests and priestesses of the temple, for your safety, for the world itself."

"Keeper-kova tells us we must accept the world, to pray for it, but how can we pray for something we have no knowledge of?" Anya trailed one hand over the fabric of her blanket. "The Sisters who came from the eastern temples had to traverse the world outside, and maybe this is why their aura is darker. Their innocent was broken. I am not privy to such knowledge. How can I hope for changes when I know not what is in need fixing?"

"I do not know what the Keeper thinks, Anya-ko, but I do know he only wishes for you to be safe." Anya looked over at her maid, eying her with wonder as she asked, "Tell me, Misa-ni, am I safe in a place I know well or is the safety I feel only something I wish to believe in?"

"You are thoughtful tonight, Anya-ko."

"Perhaps I just have a lot on my mind."

"Perhaps," Misa stood, quiet for a time as she ran her hands over items old and cared for. Anya watched her with a soft, faded smile. What was this place, they lived in, if nothing other than a gilded cage? Misa made her way to her, sitting beside her as she said, "What troubles you, Anya? What horrors do you harbor in your mind that you are shaken and afraid?"

The lack of honorific caught Anya by surprise, her lips parting as her eyes widened. She then frowned, head bowed as she said, "I fear that if evil and darkness were to enter our home, we would not know until it is too late. We see little of the horrors the rest of the world faces and it has…blinded us."

For some time, Misa does not respond. When she did, she stood and paced across the room. Anya watched her pace as the older woman said, "There is much I would like to tell you, but I cannot go against the Keeper. His word is law, as is yours, but it is his orders that must be obeyed."

The raven-haired female sighed, one hand lifting into the air. "We are like birds, Misa-ni. We are caged, but we are also taken care of."

"Anya-ko," the smaller waved her off, her voice firm as she said, "I am like a doll, Misa. One would think I am a princess with how I'm treated. Like all those with royal blood, I am a prisoner to the will of those who pull my strings."

Anya turned her gaze upon the woman who had been with her since childhood, voice low as she asked, "Tell me, Misa-ni, of the lies our guests may hold. Why have they come here? Why now, of all times, do they show themselves?"

Unease shuddered under panic, and the feeling was upon Anya's shoulders in a matter of moments. Her gazed snapped to her servant, to her friend, and she grasped her hand. There were feelings, dark and unsaid, in the halls behind her doors. Anya looked into the older woman's eyes, staring deeply into those brown eyes, before she said, "I had no desire to upset you, Misa-ni. Yet I cannot unsee, or unfeel, all that comes across my senses. I cannot control it."

Misa swallowed, her gaze moving to the door and then back to her. "I forgive you."

They sat in silence for some time, and it was Misa who broke the silence sometime later. "The world has protectors, but they are not like us. They are powerful with abilities they are taught at a young age. They defend their homes, their people, and their way of life."

Anya blinked, turning fully to look at the woman sitting in front of her as she asked, "What do they do?"

"They train day in and day out, going to their breaking point but refuse to drop from exhaustion," Misa paused, then. She seemed thoughtful, as if there was something else on her mind before she said, "They fight for their beliefs, they defend it, and they kill for it. At times, they give their lives for it."

Anya's eyes widened. "Misa-ni…"

"Hush, Anya-ko. You deserve to know," Her servant whispered as she moved to sit next to her once again. She took Anya by the hand, and the young girl watch, eyes wide, as the handmaidens energy brightened, turning so many different colors she could not keep up. So she listened, lips parted, as Misa continued, "Many of those people believe in peace, in the lives of everyone, to be the most important thing. Because of that, they will go to any length to ensure its survival. Yet, like all things, there is a dark side."

Her friend looked far sterner than she did earlier. Her brow was furrowed, dark eyes distant. Anya felt the unease lurking in the background, a gentle probing that drew her attention. She curled her fingers around Misa's, holding that worn hand close, her voice light as she whispered, "I won't tell, Misa-ni. Not ever."

"There is something else on your mind, Anya-ko." Another moment of silence sat between them before the smaller female replied, "There is one, Misa-ni."

"Then ask."

"Will I ever be free?"

The question pulled a smile from her servant. "Anya-ko, that is an answer you must answer yourself."

When her lips parted, a question on the tip of her tongue, Misa held up one hand as she continued, "No person, or thing, in this world is free. Not truly. All living things are slaves to their desires and needs, yet anyone who seeks a new measure of freedom can obtain it if only they are willing to risk everything to grasp it. Some are not so willing, and others throw caution to the wind."

A light smile stole across Anya's face, a sense of wonder stirring in her as she flopped onto her back. The smooth covers stirred, and the ceiling, made of dark wood, almost gleamed as she grinned up at it. No one was free, but everyone could find some measure of it if they were willing to sacrifice for it — it was a thought she said aloud, and Misa hummed her own agreement. If that is true, then someone like me can find freedom, but I must be willing to take the risks involved. She eyed the distant window, her own private garden growing wild and untamed. What sort of sacrifice would more freedom cost? What was freedom, truly? Anya murmured these questions to herself, but Misa said nothing in response. Yet, in the back of her mind, one last question brewed.

"How can a bird open the door to a locked cage?"

The answer was one Anya feared, for, if a bird did fly away, would it survive. If the bird was let go, would it ever come back? Would those who took care of it still love it?

Anya closed her eyes, content to know some questions had no answer.


Author's Note

Having multiple projects going on at once isn't often the smartest of things. I'm well aware of this. It helps, though. If I get stuck on one, I can work on the other. Kind of like a ball bouncing between two walls, ping-ponging from one side to the other in an endless loop. I'm still working of 'Five Nights,' I'm about halfway done with the next chapter. It's a lot slower going than this story, given this one is technically already finished. I'm just revising it. I have the entire story on hand, but the process of fixing it can take a while. Though I hope everyone enjoys it, as it will be quite a long story.

Good Day, Goodnight, And Don't Forget To Write (A Review!)