Tag Archives: fantasy romance

The Eternity Duet – Chpt. 1

The Eternity Duet_72dpi

Prologue: The Eternity Vessel

All living things, it is said, are contained within a vessel. Made of material beyond man’s comprehension, the Eternity Vessel rests suspended in the blackness of time. Therein, the world is kept lingered between two powerful, terrible sources: Azure and Bloőd.

At the top, Azure, filled with cunning and bide. At the bottom, Bloőd, of ardor and haste.

Two powers to hold a sphere.

The world rests;

The powers turn.

The world turns;

The powers rest. 

The time for bequeathment approaches.

Chapter I: Awyer

The castle town of Eldrade has not been invaded for nearly a thousand years. Protected by powerful barrier enchants, its people live in near seclusion, awaiting nothing; for they have long forgotten the balance of enchantments. They have long forgotten the consequences of their stolen color.

One such resident, a sphinx-eyed boy, sits sifting grain in a most unassuming storehouse at the western docks. A modest boy in a modest task, there is nothing so remarkable about him.

But all of that will change.

All of it is already beginning to change.

Not yet seventeen, the boy’s Amethyst has yet to emerge, but seventeen is fast approaching, and the inherited power has already begun to writhe in his veins. On this day, it courses through his wrists, turning them a deep, flushed purple.

“It grows stronger,” the boy observes while staring at his own changing flesh. And he is not glad. He is bothered. For seventeen’s emergence of power means a great deal for the boy. Soon, very soon, he will be made to cast. Like his father. Like his grandfather. After seventeen, he will be made only to cast, and his grain-sifting days will forever be over.

That is the penance of those living with stolen color.

“Awyer!”

I call to that boy in the midst of his sifting, and he looks up to see me standing upon the storehouse’s topmost catwalk. Unbeknownst to him, I have been spying. On his sifting. On his brooding. I take the opportunity to use an Amethyst enchant of my own.

“Here I come, Awyer!”

And I do come. Featherlike, I come floating through the levels of the storehouse and land into the pile of grain halfway sifted. It catches me softly and spills in overflow. Awyer shakes his head. A boy of few words and even fewer expressions. But I know him well enough to know what he is thinking; I know him better than anyone, for I alone remember the consequences of the stolen color. I alone remember the balance of enchantments. And I alone can see into Awyer’s future.

Not that I will ever tell him so.

“Grim.” Awyer says my name with perturbation. “Move.”

But the pile of grain is soft and welcoming, and although I have knowingly disrupted his work, I will not be moving just yet. “Join me, Awyer,” I issue. “Take a break.”

I am responded by a headshake.

Within the storehouse, the air is mugged and still. Our words are dropped by the muting piles of grain all around. I must work all the harder to make my wants clear.

“Your brow is heavy, Awyer,” I prod at him. “Join me. Divulge your worries.”

Awyer gives it some thought. His brooding brow broods a little deeper before making a decision. He leans into the side of grain.

A satisfactory outcome.

Were the pile outside, it would shimmer golden in the sunlight. The gold of the land. The treasure of the earth. But within the storehouse, the shining is muted to dull tan. “Now then, Awyer.” I slide into place next to him. “Tell me what plagues you.”

Awyer stares into the ceiling. His features are dark, his hair and his brows and his lashes; all but his eyes, which are golden and slanted and look more like an animal’s than any person’s. That is only fitting. Sphinx blood runs thick in Awyer’s veins – a gift passed down from his mother’s father.

Awyer takes his time answering, as he usually does. “It is not anything new, Grim,” he admits once allowing a helping of seconds to pass. “It is . . .” He bares his rightmost wrist. Purple-hued, the veins beneath twist and curl. I put a finger to it. The Amethyst is warmer today than yesterday; soon Awyer’s time will come. I put an ear to it, and a rushing sound only I can hear tells me of what will be.

Awyer stands atop a pillar, encompassed in a funnel of Amethyst smoke. Soundless, the air around him rises, pushing the cloud higher and higher until there is nothing less than a direct line to the heavens.

The future flashes at the front of my mind, hazed like a dream yet certain as death. Awyer’s destiny: A little more of it is revealed to me each day.

Lo, it is my destiny to read his.

“It grows stronger,” Awyer says again upon inspecting his painted flesh. “And it aches.” The storehouse’s catwalks pervert the few beams of light allowed to exist therein. One perverted ray spreads across the whole of Awyer’s face. Illumination does not suit him.

Then again, I may merely be predisposed to things dark in nature.

“I have a new task for you, Awyer, if it interests,” I say.

But to the request, my ward, wholly content with sifting long into the evening hours, shakes his head and continues to stare.

That will not do.

“The fountains are overrun by Pates, and it will take someone of great craft to convince them to move,” I tempt.

Awyer narrows his already narrow eyes.

“Something to say?” I inquire.

“You play with me, Grim.”

And to some extent, that is truth. I do play with him. I know as well as he that there is not an ounce of craft within his person. A sphinx born without guile. A boy born without wile. My ward is the ultimate paradox.

No matter. That is where I come in.

With an invisible giggle, I float to the door of the storehouse. “Come along, Awyer! To the fount!”

The outside air clears away the muggedness of the storehouse, cool and crisp and clean – enchanted to be so. The overhead sky tints a lavender color, and no one of Eldrade knows that skies should not be so. Blue skies and warm air, those things exist only beyond Eldrade’s barrier, forgotten by Awyer and his neighbors; forgotten by everyone but me.

Eldrade bustles. Its buildings of polished stone rise, neatly cutting through the horizon, texturizing the skyline. Carved and curled statues of the Great Ones, nameless avian protectors of Eldrade, guard the entrances to every inhabited tower – all of them tinted with Amethyst, all of them enchanted.

High overhead, amidst the smooth building tops, Eldradeans float to and fro on umbrella-adorned platforms – the premier transportation of an enchanted city. Though the flats have been spelled to keep along predetermined paths marked by threadlike lines of light, that does not stop the Amethyst-empowered youth from finding ways to make them stray.

Awyer, no ordinary youth, has no taste for mischief. It is I who will spell ours astray.

“After you, Awyer.” At the loading docks, I prod him onto a rickety looking flat. The ricketier, the better, as any hoodlum knows. Those are the ones whose enchants have worn enough for modification.

Awyer steps on with reluctance. Outspoken or not, there is no question he dislikes being bossed by me. Alas, if I do not pressure him, his destiny will never come to fruition.

That funnel of Amethyst smoke, it is up to me to get him there.

“Up to no good again,” the man at the docks assumes. He looks at Awyer with disfavor. My poor ward must take the brunt of consequence when it comes to our mischief. After all, to everyone but Awyer, I am nothing more than a shadow. “At least you’ve got your naefaerie with you,” says the man, whose arms blare full Amethyst. “Keep him on the right path, Mistress.” This he commissions to the space just to the right of me. The man cannot read the sun. He knows not where I stand in relation to my shadow, though it is all he has as a reference. He cannot see me. He cannot hear me. I do not fully exist.

“If you knew,” Awyer responds.

Yes, if the man knew. Just as any naefaerie’s job is to guide their ward along the path that is right and good, it should be my job to guide Awyer’s conscience. Should. Not in our case. I am a naefaerie of . . . uncommon descent.

But that we shall save for later.

Everything about our situation is erroneous. Awyer the cunningless sphinx and his mischievous naefaerie. We will let the Eldradeans think what they like.

“Going up!” The man taps the umbrella with his finger, and the lift takes off into the air along the string of silver guiding light.

We are in ascent.

“Do you tire of it?” Our ride is not more than a few stories up, when comes a rare conversational piece from the few-worded boy.

“Tire of what?” I say.

Awyer nods to the man who is quickly shrinking as our umbrella moves farther and farther away from him, the docks, and the ground.

Ah, that.

“Being invisible?” I say.

Awyer nods.

Truthfully, all that matters is that HE can see me, but to say something to that extent would be . . . compromising, so all I answer him is, “Not particularly.”

Awyer settles his eyes on the silvery skin of my invisible face. He says nothing. He is in thought? Yes. About our pact? Yes. His hand finds its way to his right shoulder. The tattoo beneath his tunic is our proof. Like a cracked, imperfect shard of obsidian crystal, the spelled shape rests against his skin, binding him to me, allowing him to see and hear me, and allowing me a glimpse into his fated future.

With that tattooed shard, our destinies are tied.

Air pours past as we glide into the air and hover across the tops of the towering architecture – stone structures cut and set neatly without wear from wind or rain or age. Our destination is meant to be the Grand Grimoire Library at the center of Eldrade’s hilly non-residences. Our business, however, is not there.

I call upon an Amethyst enchant to steer our course. “To the fountains!” Not only to them, but to the high top of them, where the Pates have been illegally gathering.

Excitement catches me.

Awyer, on the other hand, is disinterested in the task. He kicks his feet over the edge of the platform and stares with unaffected eyes over the metropolis that is his home. The invisible barrier surrounding the Amethyst City stretches into the distance. Awyer cannot see it, but even he can feel it. They all can. And although they have forgotten the balance of enchantments, there is one thing all Eldradeans know to be true: Once one leaves through the protective barrier, it is impossible to find his or her way back. That fact looms around the outskirts of the city, warning any who get too close.

Willingly kept within one land for nearly a thousand years.

Perhaps Awyer and his neighbors deserve what is coming.

It is not my place to warn them.

This I know.

. . . And yet, when I look at Awyer . . .

No, I cannot think to that extent. It is too compromising.

“How?” says Awyer.

No elaboration necessary. I understand what he is asking. “How are we to convince the Pates to leave the fountains?” I say. “Simple. We will trick them.”

How?

He will see. There is not need to waste words on the inevitable.

Awyer does not press. He rests his chin on his hand and his elbow on his thigh. My stooped ward. How he has grown in the days since our pact. When I found him, he was only a boy. Now he is tall. And strong. And lean. Seventeen is fast approaching.

The umbrella has shifted course. It whizzes sideways, along an unused path without silver guideline. When we near our true destination, it begins to slow. Awyer lifts his feet in anticipation. Just in time. The platform skims along the top of one fountain’s jutting water.

We have arrived: Fountain Terrace – a place harboring seventy fountains of varying size, power, and build. Housed on multilevel tiers, the enchanted water reaches a massive diameter for no purpose other than to beautify Eldrade.

And beautify it does. Glimmering water hops from fount to fount, spraying offshooting mist into the air, which in turn catches the sun and glistens. The whole of the place sparkles, mimicking a waterfall’s crashing domain.

Sadly, the beauty is dirtied by a presence. The Pates collect atop the topmost fount, conspiring to absorb the natural power found within the skipping water. They know not that their methods are akin to those used by necromancers beyond the walls of Eldrade, for they know not of the existence of necromancers at all.

But they will. And soon.

The water skips. The Pates conspire. What they wish for is petty sorcery, indeed. They are the riffraff of the kingdom, content with bullying the lesser residents and causing piddly acts of disarray. Comprised predominantly of failed Amethyst users, the Pates are gnats; and the rulers of Eldrade have long sought to banish them from the otherwise peaceful city. Alas, the enchanted barrier is a double-edged sword: Just as anyone who leaves cannot find his or her way back to the Amethyst City, so too cannot any one inhabitant be forced to leave. Through any means. And so the Pates, who have caused no offense worthy of being locked in the underground prisons, as far as the street officials are concerned, are left free to wander and disrupt the flow of daily life. Were they successful in their attempts to draw power from the water, a viable threat they would become; for this reason alone, they are not to gather in yonder fount.

But gather they do, and a menace it is. Awyer will rid them with my craft, and his reputation will rise.

“It is time, my fief.”

The stooped boy steps from the lift and stretches. His eyes gleam yellow. It is fortunate that he looks the part, even if far from it. Encompassed in mist, Awyer approaches the Pates.

Ten of them today accumulate – eight of no consequence; two obviously occupied by wit. Those are the two we will focus our convictions on. Gull those and the rest will follow. I hide my shadow within Awyer’s shadow. Unless they are looking intentionally, I will not be seen. There are certain advantages to being nonmaterial.

Upon Awyer’s intrusion, one of the wit-occupied gnats, a woman of wide stature and thick chin, steps forth. The others shuffle to conceal their tools – bone and beak and powdered crystal – and, in a fully conspicuous manner, huddle to wall off the targeted fount.

“Why are you here, O crafty one?” the woman speaks.

Awyer squints at her assumption, but remains widely disinterested in the task. His mouth is bored, his posture uncommitted.

“Now, now, Awyer,” I scold. “No one will take you seriously if you slouch.”

He rolls his eyes. He does not delight when I act like a mother. Lately, it bothers him more. He gives a sigh and brings a hand to the back of his neck. Reluctant to the core, my ward is.

But reluctant or not, when I whisper into his ear, he dutifully repeats:

“A wealth of knowledge is held in its crown. It spreads with wings; it sits on down. Name it not, you may not stay. Win the guess, keep ire at bay.”

The woman glances at the other gnat of wit. “A riddle?” she says.

Aye, what else from a sphinx?

Awyer nods and presents his hand. “A riddle of gold,” he expounds.

Of gold. This is a blessing cast upon the sphinxes. With the riddle’s true answer spoken into Awyer’s mind, a sanctified deal may be struck with the Pates. He may not go back on his word. He may not house two answers, though many may exist. Of gold: It is meant to keep us honest.

An unspoken exchange transpires between the woman and her comrade, and when it is finished, “Very well,” she says and takes Awyer’s hand. But the deal cannot happen just yet, as Awyer does not yet know the answer to his own riddle. The moment I tell it into his ear, a light of gold reacts within their clasp. Their hands glow. The pact is formed.

Upon releasing the woman’s hand, Awyer’s continues to glow; and it will until the riddle is solved. So, too, does the woman’s as she retreats into the fold of her fellow riffraff.

“Well done, Awyer. You are quite crafty.”

Awyer scoffs at my praise, and then he looks to the lavender sky. Clouds move in. Not because they have broken through the barrier somehow, but because the sky has been enchanted to show variety. Even rain may come.

The Pates are huddled. Awyer waits. He brings his glowing hand to his face and his eyes shine in reflection.

In time, the Pates let out an: “Aha!” because they think they have found their answer. They have not. I have observed their so-called wit. I have predicted their guess. And it will be wrong.

The thick-chinned woman approaches.

“Have you an answer?” Awyer asks, aloof.

“We have,” she says. “It is one of the Greats of Eldrade. A phoenix. It holds a wealth of knowledge within its crown; spreads its wings; sits upon a bottom of feathery down. The answer is a phoenix.”

With the answer given, the Pates are smug.

I am far, far smugger.

“Incorrect,” I say via Awyer, and the woman’s smugness falls. “The answer is the Grand Grimoire Library. Its wings stretch – north and south and east and west; it sits upon a hill without trees – a down; and a wealth of knowledge is stored in its shelved crown. Therefore, the library is the correct answer.”

The gold of the Pate woman’s hand dims, while the light of Awyer’s grows. She scowls at her comrades, though there is naught she can do. The deed is done, the riddle solved, and the Pates have no choice but to retreat. The deal is such that even if they wished to go back on their word, the blessing of the sphinxes would not allow them. A riddle of gold’s outcome is undeniable. Their riffraffed feet begin to walk on their own. In a line, the Pates do go, and a zipping hummer appears in the place they once were. A tiny bird of teal and scarlet, the hummer flits about the scene, sweeping the air and collecting information. It is building a report to bring to the elders.

Yes, Awyer’s reputation will surely grow.

“A phoenix could have worked too, Grim,” says Awyer gruffly as he hops upon the umbrellaed platform.

“But that was predictable. The greatest riddles have three layers. I knew they would not be able to see past the first, which is why I told you the second.”

“And what of the third?” he asks.

The third involves things beyond Eldrade’s border. I say nothing. Awyer folds his arms and looks at me slyly.

Our flat begins a sloped descent, through the misty offspray and away from Fountain Terrace. Awyer’s arms remain crossed. Not only has he been in a mood all day, our rapport has not been in the best standing as of late. Things between us have been wrong. Tense. And seventeen’s emergence of power is not all to blame. The truth of the matter is that it has been a while since we last . . . diverted. In Awyer’s younger days, diversion was all we did.

For beings in our situation, diversion is everything.

“Here I go, Awyer!”

Without additional explanation, I hop to the top of the umbrella and give it a kick. Awyer perks as, once more, our flat changes course.

I command the lift go up, and it rises straight into the sky. Though the barrier’s warning looms overhead, we press on. We will not break it, but we will come close. Pressing the limits in this way is an act most exhilarating. Awyer does not necessarily feel the same.

I take care to tiptoe around the umbrella’s edge. “Look into the distance, my fief, and tell me what you see,” I say.

Using the umbrella’s handle for grounding, Awyer stands and scans the horizon. The expanse beyond Eldrade’s barrier is blurred – enchanted to be so – but if Awyer will use just a whit of the Amethyst writhing about in his veins, he may be able to see a hint of clarity. “There, Awyer.” I point to a particular peak through the dense lavender of the upper sky. “Press at the center of your eyes with your mind, and you will see it,” I tell him.

Awyer’s animal-like irises become intent.

“Can you discern what lies beyond?” I ask.

“It is foggy.”

“Stare into the blur and push it away. Only then will your vision clear.” Awyer gives it more concentration, but still he cannot see. “Focus, Awyer. Enough Amethyst writhes in you to perform a spell so small.”

Belittling the issue works. “A . . . mountain?” he guesses.

Yes, a mountain. But more importantly, a story. A story he must hear. I make my voice to be ominous:

“For on that mount, two witch sisters lived, collecting unlucky animals that wandered into their lair. Theirs was a nest of things unholy, and the witch sisters, called by their underlings ‘Hamira’ and ‘Gorma’, were known throughout the land for their acts of treachery. Most treacherous was their lust for enchants.

“Only three powers were ever meant to exist within moral reality, Amethyst being the daughter of the other two; but the witch sisters, they pulled from a fourth magick, a darker magick – an accumulation of the evil thoughts thought but never carried through; and the secrets kept in shame, never to be shared.

“Aye, secrets and malice, those were the things that fueled the witches, and it was no small sin that it was so; for unused malice is sent to a place beyond the Eternity Vessel – a blackness no man or god has ever seen, and a place no mortal should ever touch. But touch it they did, and corrupt they became, and from that day forth hoarded forbidden magicks alone within their shrine. While the other powers of the world spun, their control over the darkness grew. An unbalance into the balance. A wrinkle into the fold.

“Ages passed. Stars faded. And what became of the witch sisters? They yet reside on the mount, rotting in spite, and their power continues to grow. Any who encounter them be wise: The peak is named Ensecré, for a witch will always trade a spell . . . for a secret.”

Awyer gazes into the hazy skyline as I finish my tale. I have offered him just a little of the knowledge he should not know. “Two powers that birthed Amethyst?” he inquires. “Grim, explain. Excluding storytales, Amethyst IS the only power.”

I cannot say any more. All I can give him is a nod. Small and deceitful, the nod makes Awyer frown.

In due time.

In time near.

But not now.

I float from the umbrella’s top and to the platform itself. Next to Awyer I settle. Together we kick our legs over the side of the flat. Over the whole of the polished stone city. Over the Pates and the street officials and the elders and the casters. My ward and I sit in silence.

“You cannot tell me.” Awyer does not ask, merely states.

“I cannot,” I respond.

Awyer gives a sign and stares down at his own changing flesh. “It grows stronger.”

I put a hand to his wrist, finishing: “And it aches.”

He nods. “Mm.”

“Not for long, Awyer.”

The silvery skin of my arm rests against the healthy tan of his. The longer parts of his hair, dark as untilled under-earth, toss in the enchanted breeze. Mine rest, for I do not exist enough to be kissed by the wind. My hair is short and shifts in color during the hours, from palest white to deepest onyx. I could will it longer, but there is no point in that. There would be no one to see it but Awyer, and if I were to do so, he might think I had for his sake. And that would be . . . compromising.

Ever compromising are the things I should not imagine.

“You can lean here, Grim.” Awyer pats his tattoo-marked shoulder.

“You know I do not tire, Awyer.”

“I do know,” he says. “I offered because you looked like you wanted to.”

Compromising.

It is compromising.

Both that I wanted to.

And that he could see it.

We cannot have that.

I float to my toes and return to the top of the umbrella. “Time to go home, my sphinx.”

“I am more man than sphinx,” he says.

“You are more boy than man.”

But as I watch his hair toss about behind his neck, I realize the differentiation is becoming as blurred as the enchanted horizon. Boy, sphinx, man, ward – of those things I am not certain, though there is one thing I am.

Awyer is mine. He will be mine until the day that he dies. Awyer’s destiny: A little more of it is revealed to me each day.

That is how I know something is brewing, even before the first blast of red smoke hits Grand Grimoire Library and shakes the enchanted city of Eldrade.

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Heart of Farellah – Chpt. 1

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.

Farellah.

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.

Anyways, Farellah.

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.

Ugh.

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.

I wondered.

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.”

“R-right.”

“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.”

Illuma.

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.

Illuma.

Illuma.

Illuma.

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.”

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?”

Was I?

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.

Gross.

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?!

“Mboumf?!”

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.

Familiar.

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?

But why!?

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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