**UPDATE 30 August 2010** The following episodes have been replaced with the beginning of my re-write. The third edit is underway and things are going well.
Supple lengths of bamboo stretched in gentle arcs, the wind peppering them with sand. Mae'ora squinted to ward off the encircling prickles. There was normalcy in the action and she lingered in her pocket of comfort. The scent of salt dried in her nose as she inhaled. Silence ruled, save for the moan of the wind, eager to remind her of her loss.
Gentle hands wove in three beats from her heart to her face.
Behind her the sound of a releasing bough. The breeze accepted a new force into it's fold. Mae'ora sighed and waited. Her lips pursed as she read over again the letter in her hand. Diplomatic words arranged in a chorus of her turmoil. The corner smudged by a rogue tear she was not quick enough to press into her cheek.
I pray this letter reaches sane eyes before it is too late.
An unforeseeable plague has infected my people and I have no choice but to flee. I beseech the reader of this letter to forget the past of our people. It is my hope that we can unite to conquer a new enemy. I seek to put aside the quarrel of our ancestors. Alas, I cannot fault you if you find yourself unable to accept my truce. If you will not help me, then at least heed my warning. Beware even your closest tribesmen and family, for ours have all gone mad. There are but a handful of us left, and I fear it may be my turn next.
Mae'ora of Felderow.
A quiver puckered her chin. She folded the note before she was propelled into the agony penned by her own hand.
Oh good. I cannot think any longer.
Mae'ora spun on her heels, an easy feat in the compliant sand. Her eyes glossed with warm recognition. Her hands and fingers danced in perfect rhythm in front of her face. Their eyes never left each others gaze.
I need you so much now but I have no other choice.
Mae'ora watched him dig his claws into the sand in defiance. Whether he agreed or not was neither here nor there. Her hands had spoken, and with them her will divulged. She warmed him with her gentle smile and beckoned for him to follow. The wooden slat walkway raised her up from the valley. Her bare feet were coated with a film of sun warmed sand. The scratchy tickle blessed Mae'ora with a merry smile. Each step gently bounced the walkway and she ran her fingers along the thick rope supports. They were old, but they were stained with the sweat of her tribe, and it was a scent that she had always craved. She had not expected her order to be followed so easily and was pleasantly amused to note that her quopei was still holding his ground.
Oh my dear friend, how I will miss you.
His indignant nature was refreshing. Mae'ora raised a playful eyebrow at her guardian, waiting for him to give in. His willowy feathers swayed with the breeze, and he puffed out his chest. Mae'ora whistled at him and pointed firmly to the walkway beside her.
He squawked in defiance at her, though his inky black eyes shifted with nervous tension. His protestation was drawing to it's inevitable end. She hated the thought of being separated from him but she could not leave her home. Not yet. She needed Kaia to bring help.
Fluid hand movements, this time more firm. More urgent.
Kaia unfurled his wings and rocketed into the air with abounding ease, considering his size. Settling beside Mae'ora caused the walkway to bow and bounce. She smiled at the bubble that swelled in her belly with the sudden movement. His feathers flowed like silken threads of weeping moss. So fine underneath her fingers, Mae'ora often marvelled that they were so soft, she almost could not feel them at all. She sighed and dropped her shoulders.
I don't even know who I am writing to. Nobody in particular...anyone at all?
They watched the shadows lean over the dunes. Mae'ora imagined them to be a blanket, covering the graves of her kin.
After all that has come to pass, who would want to save us?
A whorl of black smoke wafted through the trees. Purpose driven, it was no mere residue of frivolity. No pile of smouldering logs denoted it's origin. For in fact the origin of the wispy tendril lay not within nature, but within a man. Neitzagh, feared by all, hungry and insatiable. The dank blackness of the smoke matched the colour of his soul.
'Useless sacks of meat, all of you. There is no fight in you. Vengeance doesn't feel as good when you give in so easily.'
There he soared, effortlessly, through his secretive plane. Satisfied in his victory, yet smug annoyance marred his conquest. He coiled around a branch and spied one of them. His face morphed out from the smoke like a bird of prey emerging from a hidden nest to snatch an unsuspecting victim.
'You, the pretty mortal. The delicate, intricate tangle of organs and flesh. What a waste.'
A smoky hand curled out and lifted the chin of a wandering man. His eyes were glazed. No recognition. No understanding.
'Pitiful, pathetic, useful only for slavery. You never look hard enough to see what treasures abound.'
The man's jaw hung slack, and a rubbery thread of drool glistened over his chin.
'You think you own this world? No, you don't think, you blindly assume that you own it. You believe that there can be no other deserving race.'
Neitzagh retracted his hand into his shadow and let the incoherent man amble on his way.
'Think of it as an act of mercy. I have freed you from your boring existence.'
He chuckled, and little puffs of smoke tore free from his centre like pollen from a ripe flower underfoot.
'From birth you have been told how to eat, how to speak, how to walk. Then you grew into a man and you were told how to live, how to farm, how to provide. Now you have a higher purpose. Now you carry out my will.'
The whorls caressed each gnarled trunk as he skimmed past, eager to find the last one. Only one more left to take. It was a shame to Neitzagh that there were no more clean vessels to toy with. He liked to dance with them, swim around them, and wait for them to notice. Then he would enter them, connect with them, and revel in the glory of their terror when his nefarious soul merged with theirs.
'No matter. All games must come to an end. You have something that is mine. Andriose, you thief, you vile sack of worm feed. I am coming for you.'
Nestled behind the thick wall of gnarled trees, Neitzagh watched, and let the darkness of the Great Deep smother him. At the front of his smoky mass were the glow of his eyes. Behind the smoke mask, they were a tell-tale sign of his real presence. His gleaming eyes were a stark contrast to the murky gloom that seethed within and around him. As if by some peculiar anomaly or frightening birth defect, there was no pupil or iris. Instead, a pair of creamy white orbs stared through the gloom. Where he was staring, or for that matter, how, was not clear. However illogical it was, he could most certainly see.
'You are destined to be my champion. My vengeance will be wrought. They should have killed me when they had the chance.'
The buildings in the valley of sand resembled hand shaped biscuits arranged in a delicate maze. Bronzed and crumbled at the tops, Felderow was an ever expanding cluster of homely mud brick dwellings. Raised from the sand bed by pillars and supported by long ropes, some loose and bouncy, some taut. Each of the thickest and strongest ropes were fastened around the closest tree trunks in the Great Deep.
'This place is nothing but a web, and I the hunting spider.'
Smoke tendrils coiled around an aged rope, the oily residue of man and sap had stained the fibres orange. His shadow form crept out closer into the sun drenched valley, a stalker, ready to strike. Limbs formed beneath the smoke, ashen and charred like a corpse.
'There is nobody strong enough to stand against me. Not even you.'
The old man hiding in the hut was the last remaining soul to claim from Felderow. A gleam flashed across Neitzagh's blank, staring eyes, rapturous to know that he would soon claim such a welcome addition to his collection.
'No longer will your thoughts belong to you. I own them now as I own you. Sink deeper like the weak fool that you are and come to me.'
Reaching out from the Great Deep and into the mauve hue of the waning sunlight with one of his claws, he willed the ashen smoky tendrils that encircled his body to drift forth. Becoming an entity of their own, they wafted away from him as though they had a mind of their own, and a dark deed to commit. His eyes narrowed, as he watched them dance and flit about like an apparition of a swarm of black butterflies. Their sole intent was to do his bidding, and claim his new slave.
Mae'ora neatly folded the small note. The fine feather quill in her hand brushed lightly against her cheek. A smattering of light brown freckles peppered her forearms and her face, remnants of her childhood unwilling to let go. Her infinitely compassionate eyes were a vivid green. With a sigh, she tucked a few of her disobedient, loose curls behind her ear. She thought of the people who might come across her note and wondered how they would react--or more importantly, if they would react at all. The fierce men and women of Night’s Grave had been at war with her people since she was a babe. They were brutal warriors, who would not save a drowning child unless it bore their marks.
Still they must be warned. I cannot stand back out of spite.
Her thoughts turned to the careful, quiet people squirreled away in Worden’s Gate.
No, I doubt that I can hope for a saviour from there.
They barricaded themselves within impenetrable stone walls, which stood as a testament to their reluctance to fight. For all she knew either one of the villages warring with hers might have sent the plague. Her heart thudded with anguish.
No, this is surely not a plague. What plague sends an entire village mad?
Shifting the weight of her small frame from one foot to another she turned to face Kaia. A surge of pride welled within her when her tear-stung eyes fell upon him, standing there beside her. She whispered a prayer of thanks that he was still clear of mind. He knew no fear, which gave Mae'ora great comfort. The quopei ruffled his white feathers, cocked his head at her and blinked his benevolent inky eyes. She affectionately stroked the underside of his fierce jaw. A tremor wobbled her chin.
Her hands expressed her heartache to him, weaving and brushing over her cheek.
His eyes blinked and he bowed his head towards her. Her reminiscent moment was sucked away as her stomach turned with despair. With a lump constricting her throat, she tied the plea for help on the chain around his neck. She motioned towards the sky, commanding him to leave her and fly.
I hope against hope that you would find allies in a world riddled with enemies.
He needed no further explanation. He was so receptive that Mae'ora had often wondered if perhaps he could read her mind. He unfolded his powerful wingspan and ascended, a surge of wind rippled the dust around him. Mae'ora admired the majesty of her quopei, as the wind buffeted through her unkempt hair, bringing with it the familiar scent of her old friend. His guttural cries echoed through the valley, a shuddering terror inflicted into any small creatures that heard it.
I will wait for you, Kaia. I am not strong enough on my own.
A feeling of loss washed over her, as she wondered how she would cope without him. Kaia was a gift from her father, a guardian that had been with her since birth.
A rare treasure for my rare treasure.
The memory of her father's words made her question her decision. Mae'ora had never seen another quopei. Nobody could tell her much about the species. Her father had found the baby bird abandoned and was keen to replace the hole in Mae'ora's life that her mother had left. Her chest tightened. She watched him fly away from her until he was but a speck on the horizon.
Have I done the right thing? Will Kaia be safe? Will I be safe without Kaia?
I have failed.
'Time is running out. I can feel it. I can feel him within me. Burrowing.'
Andriose felt his erratic heart beat quicken. Rather than fear it, he tried to focus on every beat, for he knew that they were numbered.
'Perhaps,' he wondered, 'If I could control it, I could force it to beat, for as long as I need to live.'
He looked at his knuckles, and his stomach turned when he thought he saw a worm ripple under the skin. He had to fight hard not to imagine maggots under there, gnawing away at his tendons and his muscles. Vivid though it was, he knew the macabre image was a figment of his irrational fear.
'It is no physical thing that will inevitably grow and crawl within.'
Thinking upon the real truth made him begin to wish that it was a plague of maggots, for the hard truth was infinitely more fearsome. Everything that he had fought so valiantly for was slowly slipping away from him, vein by vein, sinew by sinew, thought by thought. He shuffled wearily over to his table, and feebly tried to raise a cup of water to his lips. A draft entered the room from underneath the front door, and a chill descended upon the room. It was a deep cold that seemed to snake down his throat and thicken, which made him feel unsteady. Before he got to taste the cool liquid for what he thought might be the last time, his hand shuddered. The cup tumbled through the air, spilling the water in a spiralling arc on his clothes and the floor.
'I am not this old. I am not yet this frail.'
He could barely see the floor for his vision was beginning to blur.
'I know what this means. There is no questioning it now. I have failed her...my daughter.'
Thinking of her beautiful face made his heart ache. Although knowing that his pain made him a human still, he was then torn between wanting to be rid of it, and needing it to feel alive. Pretty soon he would not feel his heart at all, and he wondered what might be worse.
'I am being punished, for instigating the freedom of my people. To him it was a betrayal.'
He had prayed in that this moment would never come. His chest tightened further. Neitzagh was growing stronger and more devious than Andriose had ever feared. The old man gripped the table ledge for balance. An honourable man he was, and a good fight he had started, but he felt himself no match for the sorcery that was mounting an attack on his very soul.
'I have brought this upon us all.'
Faces of the dead, the twisted howls of those already fallen to madness haunted his vision. Then like a dagger of ice rammed with force through his heart, he saw her face. Her ghostly and agonised face. She was the first one that he had been powerless to save. The one whose brilliant blue eyes had bewitched him in his youth. Eyes destined to become dead pools of torment, as her lively nature was numbed by madness. A timeless beauty, shrivelled to an empty shell.
Oh, Lillith, I am lost without you.