This is the tragic, beautiful tale of a girl without a soul.
I am that girl and this is my story.
Let’s start at the beginning.
Chapter 1: The Rite
When a songstress is born, she isn’t alone. A tiny, glistening thing resides very near to her soul. It is her song, and it accompanies her all her life.
Before I lost my soul, my song was buried deep, deep within me.
Until the day of the Rite.
On that day I lay in the grass. On that day everything changed.
I was just staring off across a noon-lit meadow that smelled familiarly of cherry blossoms, when a loud scurrying alerted me to the arrival of a girl that was far too small for her tail.
Or maybe her tail was simply too big.
Either way, the girl, who happened to be part-squirrel, came scampering into the meadow, disrupting the rest I’d long sought after.
“Aura!” she cried, slashing about the blades. “What’re you doing out here? Miss Danice sent me to retrieve you!”
She was too loud for a day so calm. I wasn’t in the mood. Not today. Not with the Rite nearly upon us.
But as the Squirrelean girl tipped her head forward, hands to her hips reprimandingly, I couldn’t help but grin. One of her ears was erect, while the other flopped forward. She looked ridiculous like that.
“You found me, Kantú.” I put my hands up in surrender. “And I thought I was being so sneaky, too.”
Kantú returned the grin. “You, Aura Rosh, are not sneaky.”
She was right. But neither was she.
“Anyway, what are you doing out here all by yourself?” she said, settling down beside me. The grass came up to her shoulders. She batted at it.
Truthfully, I’d just woken from a dream. But it hadn’t been a good one. Something about a cavern full of mirrors and a bright red light . . .
Not worth mentioning.
“Nothing much,” I said. “Just trying to mentally prepare, I guess.”
Though it was hard preparing for something I knew so little about.
Kantú was on the same page. She twisted the end of her bushy tail between her fingers and stared intently at the center of my forehead. “Wonder what even happens during the Rite,” she said. “Do you just wander around in the dark? Or what?”
I didn’t know, and I didn’t want to think about it. My nerves acted up whenever I did.
But Kantú wouldn’t let it rest.
“Well, your Rite can’t be much worse than Laria Lynn’s, at least,” she said. “Remember that? Something flew up her skirt, she tore it off, and when she came running out, the whole village saw her – exposed.” She let out a high-pitched chittering laugh. “I mean, how embarrassing!”
Again, I didn’t want to think about it.
“Weren’t you saying something about Miss Danice?” I diverted through my teeth.
“Oh right! Miss Danice wants to go over some last minute songstress-ish stuff with you. She’s waiting at her cottage.”
I groaned. ‘Songstress-ish stuff’ was the last thing I wanted to do.
But Kantú was persistent. “She promised me a whole satchel of spring nuts if I sent you back.” An evil smile crept across her face. “So whether I have to carry you, drag you, or a combination of the two, you’re going!”
I rolled my eyes at her. “Addict.”
I wouldn’t put it past her to follow through with her threats, though. Besides, it was probably for the best that I meet with Miss Danice one last time before the Rite. Maybe she could even provide a little insight into what it entailed.
“Fine.” I stood, but not before letting out a sigh. “You probably won’t see me again until tonight, though, so wish me luck.”
Kantú bounced to her feet and wrapped her arms around me. “Good luck, Aura! You’re gonna do great, I just know it!”
I started towards town, but turned back to take one last look at my beloved meadow before fully committing. For some reason I felt sad. I’d only be gone until tomorrow, and yet . . .
Don’t forget me.
A large waft of cherry blossom-infused air surrounded me, seeming to answer my plea. Satisfied, I cut through the long grass to the dirt path that led to town.
My home was a simple village of log cottages, street merchants and dusty roads, with a culture ruled by song and legend. The mayor welcomed in a traveling trader only once every year or so, and by most accounts, Kantú was the most exotic thing the town had ever encountered.
In Squirrelean culture, one’s maturity level was not based on age, but rather by the size of one’s tail. As Kantú had an unusually large tail for her age, she’d been sent out into the world while still a child. She’d stumbled upon Farellah, by chance, and Marbeck Berfield, the town librarian, had taken her in as an assistant in exchange for rent.
We’d been friends ever since.
The town had given me a headache all week, just at the nape of my neck. The sort of headache that pangs worst when you acknowledge it. People had been bringing up my Rite all week, causing the headache to swell.
My Rite. My coming of age. The ritual. The cave. The releasing of my song.
There was no escaping it.
It is said that oftentimes the nosiest of people live in the smallest of towns, and unfortunately, Farellah was smaller than the smallest of towns.
In the distance, I saw Miss Danice’s peach-colored cottage. She was the only person in town with a colorful one, having concocted a paste-like stain out of mud and morningberry juice. While hers stood out amidst the uniform wood-tones of the other cottages, the peach-color looked sort of sickly. I suspected she’d been shooting for pink.
It was something she’d never admit.
Miss Danice was the songstress under whom I was apprenticed. She was a vibrant woman, with a lavish vocabulary and a passion for the dramatic.
She flung open her door before I even knocked.
“Why, Aura, you kept me waiting for ages!” Her voice rang with over-exaggeration as she let me in. “Look at your hair, peach, it’s all wind-tossed! We can’t have you looking like that for the Rite. But we’ll get to that later. First, we must do one final review!” She exuberantly pointed to a worn wicker chair as if welcoming some foreign royalty to their throne. “Seat yourself, peach!”
I obeyed. I didn’t have much of a choice.
“Now then,” she continued, “are you nervous? Excited? Ready to discover your song? No matter, it’s not like there’s any changing the inevitable! Aha! I just can’t believe you’re already coming of age. My pupil’s all grown up! How about we start with a warm-up scale?” She held up a finger. “Recite the six regions of the Westerlands as you go!”
I hadn’t even gotten in a single word yet! And already she wanted me to sing?
But such was the way when it came to Miss Danice.
If I did any differently, she was sure to scold me with a tongue-click.
I took a deep, reluctant breath and began to sing a scale: “Carouth, Rendalt, Elenque, Abardo, Farrowel, Nor . . . Carouth, Rendalt . . .”
These were the regions of the Westerlands. Or so we’d heard. Farellah’s record tomes had only bits of legend about each of them, and the hand-drawn maps we’d received from travelers over the years were too inconsistent to be of much use.
One of them even told of an ‘Easterlands’ across the great ocean.
“Flawless!” sang Miss Danice. “Next, let’s hear the Song of Juniper’s Cry. You do remember it, don’t you?”
I didn’t. I rarely remembered the songs that had been drilled into my head. I chuckled nervously as I tried to recall the words. Miss Danice clicked her tongue.
Several more clicks would follow, for the drilling would go on well into the late afternoon. My throat felt rough and dry by the time we were finished.
But Miss Danice was still full of energy, not at all affected by the vigorous hours of training, per usual, and intent on getting me ready for the evening.
“When I’m done with you, Aura Rosh, you’ll look positively radiant!”
An hour later, I stood in Miss Danice’s bedroom, examining my reflection in her floor-length obsidian mirror. She was proud to be one of the few people in Farellah that owned such a rare artifact.
“You look lush, peach.” Miss Danice’s voice cooed behind me. “The color is fabulous! Your hair looks just like stardust!”
The purification gown I’d decided on was lavender. Miss Danice thought wearing it would make my silver hair look simply striking. But drawing attention to my hair – which the village women had always coined ‘peculiarly lustrous’ – would mean drawing more attention to ME.
My stomach protested with a gurgle.
“Thank you, Miss Danice.” I faked a gracious smile.
The songstress herself usually wore some sort of live bird in her hair as an accessory, switching them out each day to match her outfits. She had mastered a song that allowed her to control them using mist, putting them into a dazed stupor for hours on end so that they would behave.
I considered it imprisonment, more so than creative expression.
“No bird today?” I asked, searching her hair.
She patted her head. “Not yet, dear. I’m saving it for the ceremony.”
“Well then, off you go. Don’t fret – you look enchanting, and that, my dear, is fifty percent of what counts. I’ll see you at the beach at dusk. Don’t be nervous, peach. You’ll do wonderfully!”
I started to leave but paused beside the door.
It was true I wasn’t much of a songstress, but I was far better off than I would have been on my own. Miss Danice was one of the strongest magic-wielders I knew. She’d offered so much of her knowledge, while asking nothing in return.
Some people were all good, it seemed.
“Miss Danice, thank you for . . .” – I didn’t know where to start – “well, for everything, I guess.”
I looked up at her, and she was staring at the top of my head. It took a moment for her to answer, and when she did, her voice was strange. “I should be the one thanking you,” she said, tone subdued. “You don’t know how special you are, Aura.”
Special? Only if she meant lower-than-average.
“You’ll understand someday . . .” A vacancy crossed her stare.
But if I wanted to press her, I wouldn’t get the chance. “Enough of that, peach! Your parents are waiting for you!” She reverted to her old, vibrant self, and flung her hand towards the door, dismissing the topic for good.
I shrugged it off and gave her one final hug as an apprentice before leaving her to decide which bird she would wear to the ceremony.
Breathe, Aura. This will all be over soon.
Dusk had come too quickly. I’d always found the beach a calming place. It wasn’t only the vibrant shells that were beautiful there, but also the grotesque snarls of driftwood, each different, each ugly but lovely.
Tonight, though, the beach was anything but calm. It was where the cave was waiting to swallow me.
As was custom, my parents accompanied me. They served only as escorts for the night, but I was treating them more like guards, struggling to hide behind them as we moved along the sand.
My mother was a thin, willowy woman with full lips and silky black hair that flowed loosely around her frail face as she walked. A raven goddess. At least it was her beauty the townspeople would be drawn to first.
At least I could hope.
“Aura, you aren’t nervous, are you?” Her voice was melodic, as always.
I didn’t need to answer. My sweatiness was an answer all on its own.
“But why, Aura? You look so beautiful! And no one in our family was born without a song. You’ve got one, I’m certain of it. Father and I can’t wait to hear its release.”
My father nodded silently in agreement. He was a quiet fisherman, more at peace with the fish he caught than in the presence of people. Ceremonial things like this didn’t interest the shy man, and I didn’t blame him. Fishing sounded more appealing to me at the moment too.
Tonight, the moonlight made his gray hair shine to a silver that almost matched mine, though it was only a trick of the light.
“Release the best song, Aura.” Mother squeezed my arm. “For you and for Illuma too.”
My older sister.
My dead sister.
The girl stolen by the sea.
The girl that loved attention and ceremony.
She’d been uniquely beautiful even as a child, with deep violet hair, and light gray eyes that weren’t milky or dull but that shined like the moon.
Mother read my face. “Aurie Pie, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said anything. Don’t look so sad. Illuma is watching you from beyond the Mistlands. Always.”
We arrived at the beachside hut with only moments remaining until the gong would sound. My parents set off to join the rest of the villagers, who were slowly trickling into their respective places on the beach.
Miss Danice had decided on a blue twitfoot to draw out the slate in her blouse. It looked content enough perched within her bun, but . . .
I smiled weakly, ultimately feeling sorry for the bird.
I scanned the crowd for Kantú but couldn’t find her through the mesh of faces. There was Mayor Berfield with his mother, Marbeck Berfield; Laria Lynn, looking uneasy in a tan bonnet; Parnold Rekrap, the blacksmith . . . but still no Kantú.
She was probably sleeping in my stead out in the meadow. That was fine. Better that only one of us had to endure this.
Bong! Bong! Bong!
The crowd hushed as the gong sounded.
Stomach dropping, I made my way out of the hut and into the salty night air. The purification gown billowed around my bare ankles. I was shaking, though the air held no chill.
With the voices of the other songstresses surrounding me, I moved through the cool sand to the water’s edge.
I had attended only two other Rites in the past, but I knew their words by heart.
I wasn’t a great songstress. I could rarely remember the Songs of Old. The songs of the Rite were different, however, for though I had learned hundreds of songs – songs for festivals, for births, for mealtime – there were none I loved more than those of the Rite. Memorizing them had always come easily for even a lower-than-average songstress-in-training like me.
Over my shoulder, the village priestesses looked tribal, performing the steps their ancestors had performed for hundreds of years. Each of them had a wand adorned with bells – a chimbree – which they waved through the air with precision and poise. According to legend, tonight they were not only priestesses; they were something celestial. Angels of the night illuminated by the firelight.
The warm breeze off the coast was seductive as it swept past my cheeks and tangled my hair. I waited at the edge of the beach, feet immersed, swaying to the music.
Until, all at once, it stopped.
The opening act had ended. It was almost time.
That familiar pang at the nape of my neck acted up. So many people were there to see, and so many people would see should I happen to fail.
Mayor Berfield stepped forward. He was a tall, balding man with an oversized mustache that curled over the side of his mouth and dangled well past his chin. “Who speaks for this girl?” he said, voice echoing even in the openness of the beach.
“We do,” said my parents in unison.
“And who can attest to her knowledge of the Songs of Old?”
“I can!” came Miss Danice’s eager reply.
“Are you ready, Aura Telmacha Rosh?”
This was all happening so much faster than I’d anticipated, but there was nothing I could do to stop it.
“Yes, Sir,” I replied, determined that my voice at least remain calm.
“Then let us begin.”
At his command, the other songstresses lined up behind me and started to sing – a myriad of confident larks belting in unison. Was I really qualified to join their numbers?
Maybe I was, after all.
When I opened my mouth, some internal force came through:
“The time is passing, moon is waking,
Heart is formed to song be taking.
Sisters of Farellah, a new song is opened,
The moon is waking!”
That was it. That was all I had to do. As the crowd fell silent, I stared out across the water, holding my breath. There was one dreadful millisecond when nothing happened . . .
. . .
. . .
. . .
But then a bright blue light shot out of the water and hovered above me a moment before skipping down the coast and zooming into the Cave of Discovery.
It had worked?
I squinted to be sure.
It had actually worked!
The light was a good sign; it meant that I wasn’t a dud or anything and that my song had the intention of being released that night. The heavy anxiety I’d carried all week melted away and was replaced by pure, sweet relief. I wasn’t a failure. My song was alive inside of me, and I would become a real songstress soon. It had all been worth it.
“It’s time.” Mayor Berfield’s voice rang through the silence. “Make your way to the sacred place, songstress-to-be!”
Nodding, I took a deep breath and started down the beach.
With each step, the waves licked my feet, trying to tug me into the ocean with every retreat. I’d never been allowed this close to the cave before, and the nearer I got, the more ominous it looked. I shivered and diverted my eyes, instead glancing over my shoulder at the water – a usually tranquil sight that was now black and treacherous.
No comfort there!
After a few more steps, I paused at the entrance, unsure of what was to come. Was my sense of unease part of the Rite, or was there validity to my unrest?
Either way, I had no choice but to enter the mouth.
I continued into the damp, musty cave, stumbling over wet, moss-covered rocks as I went. Eventually the sounds of the village died out, giving way to utter silence. Still, I proceeded further and further into the darkness.
Droplets of cave water trickled down my forehead.
No matter how long I stayed in the darkness, my eyes never seemed to adjust. It got to the point where I couldn’t tell for sure if my eyes were open or closed.
After several minutes, an earthy scent filled the air.
This would be worth it, I told myself.
Soon the song that had been with me since my birth would be released out into the world. An ancient magic of my own to command.
I wandered on aimlessly awhile longer, growing more and more uneasy with each step deeper, until the sound of falling rubble caught my attention, stopping me in my tracks.
A cave creature?
The rubble tumbled a bit more and then was quiet. I strained my darkness-shrouded eyes to find the source of the disturbance, but before I could detect anything, creature or otherwise, a hand covered my mouth.
It was unmistakably a hand.
But there wasn’t supposed to be anyone here!
Panic began to well. If someone from the village had crept in here, this whole thing would be for nothing! The Rite would be voided, and I’d have to go through all of that again!
Who would want to sabotage me?!
I meant to protest, but my voice was muffled, caught up in the hand pressed to my lips.
And then something strange happened.
The captor’s grip suddenly felt . . . different.
Warm, but not just warm.
This captor was someone I knew.
And the warmth coming from them was . . .
I closed my eyes and let it into my skin, and my heartbeat quickened in response. But not just my heartbeat; my blood liked it, too. It became alive, slithering down my veins and twisting through my body in warm enjoyment.
Without really thinking, I stopped resisting.
“Scream not, or I shall kill you where you stand.” Despite the familiarity of the warmth, I stiffened when a woman’s cold voice cut through the darkness in front of me. She had a strange accent, unlike any I’d heard before.
Foreigners in Farellah?!
“You are too harsh, Cousin,” said a second voice. It was my captor. Male. His tone was mild. “Do not fear, Rosh child,” he said, turning his attention to me. “We need to take you from here. The safety of your village depends on it.” He held me closer. “This is the best place to do it. No one will tread into the cave, for fear of disturbing the ritual. We will have a day’s advantage.”
They were taking me?
And also . . .
My body felt warm. Captivated. Intoxicated . . .
Whoever these people were, their touch contained some sort of subduing power.
“Enough of this!” spat the first voice impatiently. A burst of red light shot from its direction and headed straight for me.
I heard the male whisper, “Sorry,” before everything grew hazy and my body fell limp.
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