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Thread: [OneShot] A Drop of Quicksilver

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    [OneShot] A Drop of Quicksilver

    Originally posted for Milbunk's 2017 Fanfiction contest. Posting again for archiving purposes.

    Looking at about 16k words.

    One line synopsis:

    Spoiler:
    5000 years before the common era, a young girl has a dream of the end of the world. That end doesn't seem to be as far away as she thought.



    ---------------------------


    Opening my eyes, I was struck by a dry, dusty wind.

    It took me a moment to recognize what I was seeing. Everywhere around me, the land was...dead. There were no plants. No animals. What few trees there were were toppled, grey as stone. Stretching off into the distance was a barren wasteland of sand and rock, as far as the eye could see.

    ...a dream?

    The sight before me was so alien, so unfamiliar, that I couldn't help but immediately assume it wasn't real. Had I ever had a waking moment without being surrounded by the green of the forest?

    Above me, the moon glowed with a harsh light in an otherwise empty sky. There were no stars, another sight I could hardly fathom. Yet despite the obvious clues of nighttime, I had no problem seeing the landscape around me.

    Even realizing this was a dream, it was tremendously unsettling. What could have possibly happened to rob this land of life? What toppled these trees, and replaced the rich soil beneath them with sand? It was scary enough to think of something powerful enough to do so, but that something wanted to do so was even more unnerving.

    Though the landscape was foreign to me, it was not the first time I had had a dream like this, one so vivid and...disturbing. It was not uncommon, and it was normally important. While I was far from skilled at interpreting these kinds of dreams, I knew Etsa certainly was. All I had to do was remember, carve every detail into my memory, and tell him exactly what I saw.

    What did this mean? Why was I seeing it?

    ...and where was it?

    A soft rumble in the earth below me distracted me from my attempts to memorize the scene. Instinctively, I covered my ears as the rumbling grew into a deafening shriek. For a few moments, the shrieking continued, so loud I felt like it alone might have split the rocks around me. The earth shook beneath me as the scream continued, knocking me down to fall on my backside.

    Gradually, the shriek waned, and the earth settled. Less than a minute after they had begun, both came to an end, and once again silence reigned over the desolate wasteland.

    ...no. That wasn't right,

    It wasn't silent again. Before, even this barren expanse was filled with the noises of nature. Wind blowing. Sand shifting. Rocks toppling down hills. Dried wood cracking under its own weight. The sounds of a pained, wounded world, but still a living one.

    Now, there was nothing. Everything was still and silent, like it had been frozen in time. Like the faint traces of life that had filled it moments prior had been extinguished.

    Like a corpse.

    At first, I couldn't believe what I was seeing. However, no matter how long I waited, no matter how intently I listened, nothing changed. There was no sound. There was no nature.

    The Great Mother was dead.

    Instantly I began to panic. How? How was that even possible? Without the Great Mother, how would we even survive?

    Without her voice, how could I even survive?

    Panic soon gave way into sheer terror. There was no way this could have happened. Everything relied on the Great Mother. What would ever want to see Her harmed? How could something so essential to everything that lived possibly die?

    How could we possibly survive in the face of that?

    Nevermind our village, without the Great Mother, how could any village anywhere survive?

    As my mind raced, trying to understand the implications of what was happening, another cry filled the air.

    It was different from the first. While the first was a shriek, a death cry filled with pain and despair, this was more of a howl. A mournful cry, full of sadness and emotional pain.

    Looking up to the sky, where the howl seemed to be coming from, I saw it begin to change. The pale white moon was turning dark, dyed red as if soaked in blood. All around it, eight stars began to shine brightly, piercing through the blackness of the empty void surrounding them.

    The stars themselves were crying out in mourning, weeping over the loss of their sister, howling with grief immeasurable.

    And they were crying out for revenge.

    As the howl died out, it was replaced by the sound of shifting sand and earth. In the near distance, what had once been a large hill was starting to shift - to stand. Sand and rocks poured to the ground as the thing rose up, paying no more mind to the enormous stones and dessicated logs that lay on top of it than a man would to a blanket of dry leaves.

    Even as the sand and stone washed off of it to reveal the creature beneath, my eyes could barely understand what they were seeing. It was both green and blue, and yet somehow neither. It had skin - fur? Maybe a shell? - like polished stone, gently gleaming in the harsh red light from the moon above. It had legs, and yet no feet. It had a head, yet no face. It seemed alive, yet made of stone, yet made of fire.

    No matter how I looked at it, I couldn't even begin to describe it properly. Just looking at it for a few moments made my head hurt, and yet I couldn't look away.

    Watching that monster rise up in front of me, all else was stripped from my mind. My fear and panic at the Great Mother's death were still there, yet somehow beyond my reach. While this creature existed before me, I could see nothing else, think nothing else, hear nothing else.

    As the beast rose to its full height, larger than any tree I had seen, it raised its head to the stars above. With a roar that was both frighteningly loud yet just beyond hearing, it answered the call of the stars still shining in the sky.

    There was no mourning in its voice. There was no despair, no sadness, no grief. No, the strange beast called out with nothing but anger. Rage. Fury.

    As that promise of vengeance dominated my mind, I could feel my consciousness begin to collapse.

    As my vision faded to black, staring at that monstrous creature, I was filled with a new, much more primal terror.

    No matter where I ran, no matter where I hid, no matter what I did, the very existence of this creature carried with it a terrible promise.

    ...I was going to die.



    ---------------------------



    With a cry, I sat bolt upright.

    The Great Mother was dead.

    I was immediately beset by panic upon awakening. Vaguely I was aware that there was someone else here, but I had no composure to answer them as they called out to me.

    Truth be told, I didn't even really understand what I was scared of. I knew I had been dreaming, but in my current state I couldn't even remember what it had been about. I knew it was something terrifying, something of the utmost importance, but I couldn't remember even a tiny portion of what had happened, and somehow that made it even scarier. All I had was the overwhelming conviction that the Great Mother had died somehow.

    That I was completely and utterly alone.

    I knew I needed to calm down, but I couldn't. I knew the dream was important. It had to have been. I had to remember it. But my inability to remember it made the fear worse, and the fear made it harder to think, made it harder to remember. Somewhere deep inside my head I understood I was caught in a vicious circle, that I needed to calm down if I had any hope of escaping it, but by this point I was far beyond reason.

    I could feel myself losing my grip on consciousness as I struggled to keep breathing. The harder I tried, the more difficult it seemed to be. Clutching my head in my hands, I tried to scream, but I didn't even have the breath for that. I tried to move, but something was pinning me down to the floor. I tried to struggle, to cry out for help, but I couldn't hear anything over the sound of my own heartbeat, going faster, faster, faster-

    Be still, my child.

    I froze.

    Deep within my blind panic, the sound of the wind passing gently through the leaves outside reached me.

    You are not alone. I am still with you.

    The call of birds, the chirping of insects from outside came to me, clearing my mind like they had torn the blindfold from my eyes.

    Slowly, I let go of the breath I was holding, dropping my hands from my head and looking around.

    Breathing heavily and drenched with sweat, I was sitting on a thin mattress in a familiar hut. I was home. I was in the village. I was safe.

    I was not alone.

    After taking a moment to get my breathing under control, I finally noticed the girl sitting beside me. Her expression had frozen in fear, little different from what I had been feeling before, but by the way she was holding my shoulders I could tell it was fear for me.

    Wordlessly, I nodded to her in thanks. After a few moments, as if to confirm I was actually okay, she tentatively took her hands off my shoulders, leaning back with an exaggerated sigh of relief.

    She was still quite young. Perhaps a few years younger than me, she must have been sitting here watching me sleep since I lied down around noon. Now, she sat only an arms' length away from me, clearly shaken by my fit. Come to think of it, it must have been her first time seeing me go through that.

    Faintly, I hoped it would be her last, but even I knew that was naive at best.

    "Don't scare me like that!" the girl's voice was still a little shaky. "I thought you were dying!"

    "...sorry..." Without making eye contact, I mumbled an apology.

    Hearing my voice, the girl's mood completely changed. With a beaming smile, she stood up, brushing the dirt from her legs.

    "No problem! This is my job, after all!"

    For some reason, hearing my voice always made her unreasonably happy. It had only been a little over a moon ago that she had been assigned as my attendant, one of the special few who were allowed to be left alone with me. Maybe it was because I rarely spoke to anyone, but it seemed like she treated hearing my voice as some sort of special honour. Really, I just didn't like talking all that much. Ever since I was little, others did the talking for me, and I was more than happy to let them do so.

    At any rate, she was a good, honest girl. She was bright and cheerful, perhaps a bit too willful, but she took her job very seriously. Maybe a bit too seriously, though I'm sure most of the villagers would be aghast at the suggestion that was even possible.

    "Shall we go get something to eat?" the girl said, already moving to prepare my clothes for going out. "Nothing settles the stomache after a bad dream like some food, after all! That's what my mom says, at least."

    After thinking for a moment, I shook my head. Still feeling the lingering effects of my fit from earlier, I had no appetite for food. Seeing my refusal, the girl stopped for a moment, unsure of how to proceed. After a few moments of standing awkwardly in the middle of the room, she returned my clothes to where they were and instead got out a small brush.

    "Okay, whenever you are ready then," she said, trying to mask the uneasiness in her voice. Sitting down behind me, she set herself to brushing my hair, humming quietly as she did so.

    Though she had been assigned as my attendant for a short while now, she shared the position with two others, who took turns looking after me. As such, she was still a little unsure of what kind of suggestions were appropriate, or what to do when I refused them. I suppose it would help if I just told her how I felt, but life was hard enough without that added stress.

    As she brushed my hair, I turned my thoughts inward. Now that I had had some time to calm down, I could recall the events of my dream much easier. That bizarre landscape, that agonizing shriek, and the mournful cry that echoed after it. It all left a terrible feeling in my stomache. Though I was absolutely certain of the meaning of the dream, the cry of the Great Mother's death, the fact I could still hear Her voice whispering to me now was clear enough evidence that She was still very much alive.

    Was it a prophecy, then? Warning of some future event? It was not completely unreasonable. I had had such dreams before, though typically they were much more cryptic, much more difficult to decipher. But the meaning this time was so clear, so evident, it made me doubt my own interpretation of it. Especially combined with the absurdity of it.

    The Great Mother, dead? Was that even possible? She, who had existed even before the first man? It seemed only fitting that She would live long after the last man passed away. And yet, that death cry still rang in my ears, as if to defy my intuitions of its impossibility.

    ...either way, this dream was certainly something of great import. Even if my interpretation of the dream was mistaken, it no doubt still spelled grave news. I couldn't just keep it to myself. For all I knew, the lives of everyone in the village were at stake.

    Ignoring the girl behind me, I stood up and took a few steps towards the exit of the small hut. There was only room inside for a grown man to take perhaps five steps across, so with that small movement I was positioned at the exit, standing in the streams of sunlight that peaked through the grass curtain into the dark interior. Once again, the girl behind me had stopped, unsure of what was happening or what she was supposed to do.

    "Puyu." In a quiet voice, I called the girl's name, causing her to jump to her feet.

    "R-right! Sorry! One moment, one moment!" In a rush, she returned the brush, got the clothes from earlier back out, and quickly set about clothing me. Really, I didn't mind putting my clothes on myself, but it was as I was told many times before by the elders. Even in trivial, meaningless tasks, there can be great meaning in leaving it to others. As mundane as it was, this was Puyu's job. It would be an insult to her to take it away from her.

    After a few minutes, she had finished changing me from the light clothes I wore to sleep to the heavier, more regal clothes of my position. Though they were untouched by the bright, vibrant colours of the Honoured, the somber darkness and stifling thickness of them were testament enough to my station.

    Giving Puyu another few moments to prepare herself, I gave her a nod, and she opened the loose door in front of me. Covering my eyes against the sudden flood of afternoon light filling the room, I took a deep breath. As much as I disliked going out into the village when I didn't have to, I now clearly did have to. The elders...Etsa needed to know what I had seen.

    Releasing the breath slowly, I nodded again, this time to myself. After taking a moment to wipe the cold sweat from my face, I followed Puyu out into the sunlight.


    ---------------


    Though I didn't really enjoy going outside all that much, it wasn't all bad.

    Even walking through the heart of the village, with dozens of people milling about around me, I felt much closer to the Great Mother here than in my own closed off little hut. Cutting through the sound of people hard at work - mostly women at this time of day, though it was late enough that the men were beginning to trickle back in to the village - was the soft hum of life around me. Though I always felt nervous with more than two or three people around, especially those who I didn't know well, the gentle whispers of the leaves and distant calls of wildlife helped to ease the stress.

    Wherever I was, the Great Mother was with me. No matter how I closed myself off from those around me, or how the noise of daily life struggled to drown out Her voice, I could always hear it, could always feel Her comforting presence.

    You are not alone.

    I will keep you safe.

    Neither man nor beast can harm you.

    Whenever I was stressed as I was now, these words would come to me over and over, comforting and encouraging me. It was thanks to them I had the strength to leave the confines of my little hut in the first place. Even the thought of losing that voice, losing that connection...that terrible premonition brought on by my dream from earlier, was enough to drive me crazy. Just remembering it now, I could feel the fear I felt then coming back, but with Her voice still with me, I could push the fear down.

    Though I avoided making eye contact with the people around us as we made our way to the center of the village, where Etsa's hut was, Puyu was another story entirely. Bright and cheerful, she greeted everyone we came across with a smile, and similarly they greeted her back with open affection. And as I tried to ignore them, they ignored me as well.

    It was by no means a rule, but ever since I had officially been Named, the people of the village had started talking to me less and less. It wasn't out of hate, or some attempt at ostracizing me - rather, it was the opposite. The longer they spent with me, the more they realized I didn't like talking. As such, they gradually learned not to talk to me either. Surprisingly quickly, it became an unspoken rule that I only ever spoke with Etsa and my personal attendants, and anyone who had business with me would have to go through them.

    I didn't particularly mind people talking to me, but I was just as comfortable with them not. It wasn't that I particularly disliked them. Far from it, actually. It was thanks to them that I was even alive - though my father Returned to the Jungle well before I was born, and my mother died to give birth to me, it was their open kindness that kept me fed and clothed since I was a baby. And in turn, I knew it was my sacred duty to protect them, to be their Guiding Light in the Dark.

    But ever since I could remember, the voice of the Great Mother had been with me, comforting me, guiding me, teaching me. Her words seemed so much more true, so much more real than those of the people around me. I found it very difficult to have even the simplest of conversations with other people, even the most honest and well-meaning of them talking to me from behind a social mask I didn't understand.

    Luckily for me, Puyu was the opposite. Though she was still a child - or perhaps because she was still a child - she cut right through those masks and brought out the truth in everyone. And though I couldn't participate in those conversations, it made them much easier to listen to when she was a part of them. No doubt that particular charm of hers was one of the main reasons she was chosen to become one of my attendants.

    Our village being one of the largest in the area, with a population numbering in the hundreds, it took a few minutes to reach the center of the village where Etsa's hut was. Standing separate from the other structures in the village, it was clearly the most ornate. While most other huts were constructed simply, with dirt floors and uncovered entryways, this hut was different. Built on a raised platform, perhaps an arms-length off the ground, a solid wood frame and roof, and ornate grass curtains covering the entry, it was easily three times the size of any of the other huts in the village.

    This was, of course, to be expected. This was no mere home, after all. This was where the people found their connection to the Great Mother, where they came to plea for mercy or show their thanks. It was a sacred space, where neither the elders nor the Honoured could enter without permission. Even the Chieftan was barred from entry. Only two people in the entire village could enter this space freely.

    The first was Etsa. And the second was, of course, me.

    Today, however, there was something decidedly strange about it.

    "Hey there, Puyu. What are you two doing here so late in the day?"

    One of the two men guarding the entrance to the Shrine called out to Puyu as we approached, eyeing me with a look of concern mostly overshadowed by curiosity. It was very normal for the Shrine to be guarded day and night, so that no one could enter it and taint the sanctity of the place. Normally, however, that role was given to older men, injured, or those exhausted from repeated outings into the jungle. It was mostly a ceremonial position, meant more to scare away children who didn't know any better than for actual protection.

    "Lady Nantu has business inside today. I think she wants to talk to Etsa."

    The two men guarding the door gave each other a concerned look, as if unsure of what to say. Turning back to look at the little girl, the first man spoke again.

    "Sorry Puyu, but Etsa gave us explicit instructions that no one is allowed inside today. No one at all."

    It was normal for there to be a pair of men guarding the entrance to the Shrine at all times, but this was different. Though their garb was the standard fare for the men in the village, a knee length grass skirt with chest bare, they each had a grass armband on their right arms, halfway between their elbow and their shoulder. Woven into each of their armbands was a feather, each a startling vermillion. Similarly, in place of the simple, expendable wooden spears favoured by most of the men in the village, lashed to the tips of their weapons were sharpened stone spearheads, a similarly coloured red feather tied in with the bindings.

    These men were Honoured.

    Warriors, who had stolen their lives back from the jaws of certain defeat. Champions, whose actions had saved the village itself from destruction. Heroes, whose influence earned in battle rivalled that of the elders themselves. Chosen, of which there were only five in the whole village, and who stood as the symbol of the village's might, beside the wisdom symbolized by the elders.

    The fact that these heroes of the village were posted here, at what should have been a guard duty that was little more than a ceremonial show, would have been more than enough to confirm something was terribly wrong, even if I hadn't seen that dream earlier.

    "How dare you! Do you have any idea who you are speaking to?!" Puyu, of course, didn't care who they were. "Lady Nantu demands that you step aside at once, or else face her wrath!"

    The second of the guards laughed, resting his free hand placatingly on Puyu's head. "Sorry kid, but Etsa's instructions. If Nantu wants us to move, she can ask us herself."

    "You have no right to stop us!" Puyu shouted back at him, her 'outrage' looking somewhat comical as she made no attempt to remove the hand resting on her head.

    "I have every right to stop you," the man replied, ruffling her hair as he knelt down to her level. "If Nantu wants to go in, like I said, she has to ask."

    At that point, Puyu, followed by the other two, turned to look at me, a look of obvious concern on her face. It wasn't that the man - Kapanti, if I remembered his name correctly - was being mean-spirited. I outranked even the Honoured when it came to anything involving the Shrine. Even instructions from Etsa wouldn't be enough to keep me out - if I asked them to step aside, I had no doubt they would.

    But the fact that they were demanding my specific instructions to step aside from their duty before letting me through was enough to tell me of the seriousness of the situation. Looking at the top of the Shrine's roof, I could see a steady smoke rising into the late afternoon air, signalling someone was definitely inside. Etsa had never before attempted to restrict my access to the Shrine, so the fact that he had given instructions that even I wasn't to enter was unprecedented. Of course, Etsa would know that I could enter if I really needed to anyways, but even an easily passed barrier sent a clear message.

    "...how long?" I spoke a bit softer than I had intended, motioning towards the Shrine door.

    The first man stroked the stubble on his face. "How long? Oh, I'd say since he woke up this morning? Shortly after sunrise, we received word that no one was to disturb him inside until he gave the go-ahead. We're the third shift to take guard duty today, I suppose? He hasn't even come out to eat anything yet, as far as I've heard."

    Looking at the sun, I guessed that it was probably little more than an hour before sunset. There were few rituals that he could be doing that would take so long that could be completed alone, so I concluded it would be best to wait a little longer, to allow him to finish what he was doing. What I had to tell him was urgent, but not so urgent that I needed to risk a potential ritual he could be involved in, especially since it was likely close to completion.

    Nodding in thanks to the guards, I turned to leave, prompting Puyu to stomp up beside me in a huff.

    "Lady Nantu! You don't have to listen to them! Just go on inside! You have important business, don't you?!" Though she tried to speak in a low voice, it was hard for her to do so while so upset, so I figured the guards probably had no problem hearing her.

    As if to confirm my suspicions, Kapanti called out after her. "Puyu, don't bother her. She knows better than any of us whether its okay for her to interrupt Etsa or not. Trust her."

    "But...but..." Caught between a rock and a hard place, Puyu sputtered briefly before crossing her arms with a scowl aimed at no one in particular.

    "Why don't you go get her something to eat?" Kapanti continued, fruitlessly trying to pacify the now-furious girl. "You can bring something back for Etsa as well. I'm sure he'll be done soon, and will no doubt be starving after skipping a full day of meals."

    "That will not be necessary." A muffled voice called out from inside the Shrine, shortly before the grass curtains over the entranceway parted.

    Stepping through the doorway was an old man. Tall and muscular, and though his cloud-white hair and wrinkled face and hands displayed how ancient he was, his strong frame and powerful bearing showed that age had done little to weaken him. Unlike the other men in the village, he wore a finely woven coat, covering his upper arms and chest. Woven into the coat was an alternating pattern of white and black feathers, creating something like a hoop that circled his upper body. On each wrist was tied a thickly woven band, decorated with a crest of feathers similarly black as night on his right wrist and white as bone on his left. His ceremonial headdress was nowhere to be seen, indicating that whatever ritual he had been performing inside was now complete.

    "Wisdom," Kapanti immediately spoke upon seeing the man emerge, "I'm glad to see you well. Please, come have something to eat." Though before the other villagers I had similar standing as the ancient man before us now, even the birds would have been able to tell that the men treated him with far more respect than they did me. I could hardly blame them, though. After all, I was nothing but a little girl to them, still years from even being an adult.

    This man, who had seen more sunrises than the two Honoured guards combined, who had watched three generations - some dared to suggest four - grow to adulthood, would have commanded such respect if he was an armless, legless lunatic. How much moreso that he was Etsa, the longest serving Wisdom our people had ever had?

    "As I said, that will not be necessary," Etsa spoke, looking at the four of us present with a firm yet unconfrontational gaze. After a few seconds, he settled his eyes on me. "Come, Nantu. I'm sure you have words for me, but I must speak with you as well."

    With a nod, I approached the Shrine, Kapanti and his companion parting before me without a word. Without waiting for me, Etsa turned around and walked back through the curtain into the interior of the Shrine, and I made to follow.

    Even before I had given her instructions, Puyu walked ahead of me up the stairs to the Shrine, sitting down on the platform beside the door. For some reason, she had a rather smug look on her face, but the fact she understood she needed to stay outside without my explicit instructions was enough to satisfy me.

    Turning one more time to nod in thanks to the guards, I took a deep breath and parted the curtain leading into the Shrine's interior.



    ------------------



    With a deep breath, I pushed down the impulse to stand up and stretch my aching legs.

    Though it had felt like hours since I had entered the shrine, I knew it couldn't have been more than one. The complete lack of windows made it impossible to see how dark it had grown outside. Even the hole in the ceiling to allow smoke to escape was carefully constructed to prevent any hint of sunlight from entering. But as Etsa added only the second log to the low-burning fire in the center of the room, I knew it couldn't have been that long.

    Sitting alone with him in the darkness, he gave a very different impression than he did from outside. Maybe because I was closer to him than any other in the village, I could see the tiredness that hid beneath his powerful exterior. As we both sat unmoving, staring at the soft glow of the firelight as it hungrily set to work picking apart its newest prey, I could see an air of lonely exhaustion hanging about his shoulders.

    Though he had wanted to speak with me, he had yet to speak a word since we had entered the shrine. Even so, I understood, at least in part, what he wanted to tell me.

    Etsa and I were unique in this village. Out of all the many hundreds of other people, only the two of us could hear the Great Mother. For him, it was a difficult task, requiring lengthy rituals and complicated potions to open his ears to Her voice. When he learned I could hear the same voice, he was jubilant. When he learned I could do it without the aid of his potions, without any sort of ritual, he openly wept with joy.

    ...now, Her whispers told me exactly what he wanted to speak to me about. No doubt he had spent a large portion of today communing with the Great Mother, trying to confirm his suspicions.

    The jungle was calling.

    It was time for him, after all these long years, to finally leave us.

    And though I hardly needed Her voice to tell me so, it was one more layer of dreadful confirmation.

    "I am afraid, Nantu." Without warning or preamble, he spoke. Like his appearance, his voice was strong and robust, giving no indication of his proximity to death. Without responding, I stared further into the embers, now flaring with life.

    "I am afraid," he continued, "not because of my end. I have lived a long life, have been the connection between our village and the Great Mother for far longer than I deserve. No, I have long waited for my chance to return to the jungle...but now? Now, I am afraid."

    Quietly, I nodded. I did not like speaking, but that was beside the point. Right now, more than any other time in my life, he needed me to listen. Though I had a natural intuition towards it, once again Her whispers told me the sad truth.

    You will not have many more meetings like this one. Cherish it.

    "The Great Mother gave us a tremendous blessing with your birth. It seemed almost certain that our village would lose its connection to Her when no one with Her blessing was born for two full generations. But after that period of fear and panic, for one as skilled and blessed as you to come along, what could it be other than a sign of Her favour with us?" Though it still carried great strength, his voice began to grow softer as he continued speaking.

    "And though you are yet young to inherit the title of Wisdom, I believe you are capable. You have learned well, and will almost certainly outperform me in no time at all." Though he praised me, his face remained stiff as wood. Come to think of it, I wasn't sure I had ever seen him smile. It made me wonder a little bit if he even knew how.

    "...but no matter how capable you are, I fear it may not be enough. Of late, I have dreamed of great calamity. Not just upon us, and our village, but upon a great many. A great tragedy upon the entire jungle, a disaster that will harm not only the living, but those who are yet to live. And even those who already have left us. Yet as I appealed to the Great Mother to reveal to me the nature of this calamity, Her responses have been clouded with declarations of my own fate, convictions of my advanced age. As if to say what is to come is no longer any of my concern."

    For a few moments, silence passed between us. Though I didn't make eye contact, I could tell he was staring at me, and the voiceless question came across loud and clear. As I delayed the inevitable, I took a deep breath. The smell of smoke, of the burning wood, filled me with a sense of forlornness. Seeing the dead wood consumed by fire, I couldn't help but think of Etsa sitting across from me. Just as the wood, long since bereft of life, found one final purpose in feeding the fire, so too did Etsa seek a final purpose.

    He knew his life was over. He knew there was nothing he could offer anymore. Yet still, seeing even just hints at the darkness that was coming for us, for the people he had served tirelessly for generations, for the people he loved with all his body and soul...he wanted to find a way that even his dying self could burn brightly one more time.

    Because even dead wood could burn.

    I took another deep breath, letting Her whispers soothe me as I prepared to speak.

    "...I had a dream today." Long accustomed to my reticence, Etsa made no reaction as I finally spoke out, his gaze still locked on me, unrequited. "The stars were mourning, for the Great Mother had died. And then a monster awoke. A beast greater than any in the jungle. It was angry. It wanted revenge against the one who killed Her."

    Nevermind speaking about it, even recalling that dream was dreadful. But as fear threatened to choke me again, Her voice echoed in my ears. The crackling of the fire, the faint sound of the leaves swaying in the wind outside, the even fainter sound of Etsa's own breath. As if to deny my words, Her words came to me.

    I am alive.

    I am still with you.

    Do not be afraid.

    As the fire in the center of the room grew, it more clearly illuminated the tightly drawn expression on Etsa's face. Though I didn't look at him directly, I could still see the strain those words put on him. He must have known, after spending all day alone in the Shrine, that the Great Mother was far from dead. It took only a single glimpse outside to see She was as strong and powerful as ever. But that did little more than make my dream even more terrifying.

    What could possibly happen to bring Her, in the height of Her power, to Her knees?

    ...and why did that beast seem even more terrifying than the thought of losing Her?

    A sudden sigh of relief from Etsa caught me off guard, causing my eyes to snap up and look at him directly. His eyes were closed, and a much more gentle expression than before was on his face.

    "Thank you, Nantu. Your words give me great hope."

    Once again, I blinked in surprise. Hope? How did the prospect of the Great Mother's death give him hope? Surely, her death would mean the end of our people altogether...right? Looking up again to return my gaze, he answered the question he must have seen in my eyes.

    "Yes, hope. Look outside. Listen. The Great Mother is as strong as ever. Perhaps in saying this I am no more than a little egg trying to console the mother bird. You can feel it far greater than I can, can't you?" Seeing I was still oblivious to his meaning, he continued. "The Great Mother is strong. She is overflowing with life. She will not fall to the likeness of even the greatest disaster, nor can any man hope to injure Her." After a pause to make sure I was following, he finished. "Even if the dream which you saw comes to pass, it will be many lifetimes before it does."

    Slowly, I nodded. What he said certainly made sense. After all, what could possibly happen to kill the Great Mother? Surely, nothing in the jungle could hope to do so. All things depended on Her for life. All She would have to do is withdraw her favour, and any threat would be extinguished. No, Etsa must have been right. Whatever threat I dreamed of must have been in the far future.

    And while that didn't make the problem any less important, it meant we had time to prepare for it.

    ...I had time to prepare for it.

    I couldn't help but breathe a sigh of relief as well. With that line of thinking, it was likely whatever catastrophe was coming would happen well after my lifetime as well. Perhaps I would need to play a key part in staving that disaster off, and that's why the dream came to me. But it was not necessarily so urgent, and I would not have to shoulder the burden myself.

    There would be many generations after me who could carry that burden alongside me.

    As I had thought, speaking to Etsa had been the correct choice. Even in his last days, he was able to provide me with such wisdom. Perhaps that is why I had the dream now - so that he could teach me what it really meant before he returned to the jungle. If he had not been here to teach me what that dream truly signified, then who knows what I would have done in the grips of panic?

    Suddenly, everything around me grew quiet.

    Something was wrong.

    Before I understood what was happening, I was holding my breath. Etsa was speaking, but I couldn't hear what he was saying. The whispers of the Great Mother that had been with me every waking moment since I had been born faded to silence.

    Then, like a lightning bolt had fallen from heaven, She screamed.

    I was in shock. In all my life, I had never heard such a voice come from Her. It was even different from the wail I had heard in my dream. While that had been a cry of anguish, a dying moan, this was something entirely new. Fear. Confusion.

    Panic.

    Almost unconsciously, I rushed to my feet, stumbling as my sleeping limbs tried to carry me outside. Vaguely, I was aware that Etsa had noticed my distress, but even that was crowded out of my mind by the keening anger I felt coming from outside. Not just the Great Mother, but it felt like all of nature itself was joining in the tumult, raising its voice in protest.

    As I tried to lift myself to my feet again, slower and steadier, I got outside as fast as I could manage. Had they not caused me to trip only a moment earlier, I might have even forgotten the pain in my legs from kneeling on the wooden floor for so long. As it was, as I pushed my way through the grass curtain that led outside, there was only one thought repeating in my head.

    No.

    Please no.

    Not now.

    Please, please not now.

    I had no idea what was happening. Such a cry was entirely new to me, and so, try as I might to deny it, I could only assume the worst.

    This was it.

    This was what I was afraid of.

    Turning my eyes to the sky, my eyes darted back and forth rapidly. The sun had set long ago, and the stars were hanging alone in the night sky. Once again, I was vaguely aware of Etsa exiting the Shrine behind me, but I couldn't understand the words he was speaking. I knew he was concerned, but filled with Her voice, I didn't have the presence of mind to even think about his words.

    The Great Mother was crying out.

    Run.

    Run away.

    Flee from here.

    Her words were not directed towards me, nor towards the people of my village. I could understand that much instinctively. No, they were directed towards nature, towards the jungle. There was nothing I could do but wait and watch. And though time had seemed to slow down, I didn't have to wait long.

    One of the stars was moving. Though it was difficult to tell at first due to the sheer multitude of stars in the sky, it quickly became obvious as it began to move faster and faster, growing larger and larger. As it grew closer and closer, its also grew brighter and brighter. In only seconds since I had left the confines of the Shrine, my eyes still unadjusted to the darkness outside, the falling star glowed so brightly that I could make out everything in the village as clear as day. And brighter still it became, as the star grew larger than even the sun at noon, twice as large, twice as large again.

    Despite its blinding brilliance, I couldn't tear my eyes off of it. I didn't have much choice, however. In the next split second, the spellbinding light arced across the sky, passing over the village in less than a heartbeat, smashing into the ground a distance away.

    Though it landed well beyond where we could see, thanks to the thick jungle surrounding our village, we felt the impact immediately. A strong tremor shook the village, knocking me from my feet. It lasted only a moment, passing shortly after I hit the platform.

    Still blinded by the intense light shed by the falling star, I could do little more than blink dumbly as I waited for my vision to return. All around me was silence. Even the Great Mother's voice had grown quiet once again, as if the whole world was holding its breath together.

    A few moments later, a loud howl tore through the village. This time, it was not the Great Mother's voice, nor was it nature itself, but rather it was an intense wind, ripping through the leaves and between the buildings of the village. Once again, this wind lasted only for a short while, and everything grew quiet again.

    As my vision slowly recovered, sound slowly came back too. First, the faint whispers of the Great Mother came back, calm and soothing. Soon after, voices from the village came, calling to see if everyone was okay.

    Realizing I had been holding my breath the entire time, I started gasping for air. Blinking furiously, I tried to clear the fog from my eyes so I could get a good look at the village, to confirm everyone was okay, but it was slow in coming. Before my eyes could adjust, sparks of fire began to light up throughout the village as villager after villager ignited torches, and soon the night air was alive with sound.

    Moving in from the corner of my vision, I saw Etsa kneel down beside me, offering me his hand. Of course, someone as sturdy as him hadn't been knocked over by the tremor. Taking his hand, I let him help me to my feet.

    "Lady Nantu! Lady Nantu! Are you alright?! Are you hurt?! Are you okay?!" As if not to lose to the panicked voices of the villagers surrounding us, Puyu suddenly popped up beside me, letting loose a stream of concerned cries. Though I was still shaken by the event, I tried my best to put on a brave smile and put a comforting hand on her shoulder. My nod was enough to get her babbling to stop, but she was still very much concerned...very much frightened.

    I couldn't blame her. I felt much the same way.

    Now that the village had filled with light, I could properly survey the damage. Thankfully, it was fairly minimal. A handful of huts seemed to have collapsed, and even now the occupants were being pulled from the remains. It was hard to tell from a glance, but there didn't seem to be anyone too terribly hurt. Another quick glance behind me confirmed the shrine was still intact, prompting me to give a sigh of relief. If we had lost the shrine now of all times, who knows how we could have managed?

    "Wisdom, what happened?!" The two Honoured who had been guarding the Shrine were still there, now looking up at Etsa with tense expressions. "Was that...?!"

    "It was not our doing," Etsa replied, making the men look simultaneously both relieved and concerned. Of course we wouldn't have done such a thing on purpose, not without warning the people of the village. But if it wasn't us, then what had happened?

    But more than that, I could tell there was something more pressing on their minds. Looking to Etsa briefly, I turned back to the Honoured after receiving his nod of approval.

    "Go. Please help."

    Blinking in surprise at my sudden words, after a moment of hesitation, they snapped a quick bow towards me as one.

    "Thank you, Lady Nantu!" For what must have been the first time, the men as one thanked me with a formality I really should have been giving them. Without complaint, however, they turned and bolted into the village, immediately setting to helping free people from the collapsed buildings.

    "I cannot but interpret this as a sign, Nantu." Etsa spoke quietly to me as we watched the men go. "Though it may have been just a star, it fell with all the brilliance of the sun. It seems that my remaining time was even shorter than I imagined."

    Taking a deep breath to try and calm my nerves, I nodded slowly. It was almost undeniable. Never before had I heard of such a thing happening, not in all the stories I had memorized from Etsa, or heard told by the elders. It was like the sun itself had fallen into the jungle.

    The word, etsa. The Sun. The brilliant light of day, the source of warmth and life. His namesake had fallen to the ground right in front of us. Even a child like me could see the meaning behind that sign clear as day.

    "As such, it appears that the time to pass the mantle of Wisdom to you will soon come." Dropping to one knee in front of me, Etsa looked me square in the eyes. With his impressive height, even on one knee, we were almost at eye level. "So, Lady Nantu." His voice was calm yet firm, his expression serious yet composed. If he was afraid, he did not show it. If he was worried, he would not show it. "What shall we do?"

    In response to Etsa's question, I turned to look out over the village. It seemed, at least at first glance, that everything here would be okay. The people had organized themselves well, and it would be no time at all before everyone had been pulled from the huts that had collapsed in on them. Work on clearing them away would likely have to wait until morning, so until then, we would have to find a place for those people to sleep, and a way to tend to those who had been injured by the falling buildings.

    ...but that was not my job. That could be left to the Honoured, or the Chieftan. I had much more important work to do.

    Over the sound of the villagers hard at work, over the sound of the crackling torches, over the sound of the still quivering leaves, I could hear Her voice.

    Calling me. Calling me into the jungle.

    Asking for my help.

    "...sunrise. I will go to the fallen star." Turning to Puyu, who was staring uneasily at Etsa and I, I spoke again. "Please find the Chieftan. Tell him."

    After another moment of dazed staring, Puyu finally snapped out of it, her whole body snapping rigid. "Yes Na-...Lady! Lady Nantu! Yes, Lady Nantu!" After a few botched attempts to speak, the flustered girl bolted off into the village in search of the Chieftan.

    Shaking partly from my usual nerves and partly from anxiety at what I had just commanded, I instinctively turned to Etsa. Though I looked to him for advice, or at least feedback on my decision, he gave me nothing. Instead, he simply stood, heading back to the Shrine. "If we will leave at sunrise, then I will start making preparations for our departure now." Stopping as he pushed aside the grass curtain, he turned to look out at where the fallen star had landed. Though it was completely obscured by trees, it was almost as if he was looking right through them. "...it will be a long journey to where the star fell. Perhaps an entire day, to get there and back. I recommend you sleep as soon as you can." With that, he entered the Shrine, not even sparing me a glance.

    With that, I was alone on the platform. Gently, I lowered myself to my knees, trying to suppress the shaking in my hands. Though the comforting voice of the Great Mother was still with me, urgently calling me to go out, that comfort was rather offset by Etsa's sudden decision to relinquish control of the situation to me. Of course, it wasn't the first time he had done such a thing, but I had never expected him to do so at the opening of such a crisis.

    Taking deep breaths, letting Her voice wash over me and through me, I managed to keep control, and slowly the shaking receded. Etsa was right. It would be a long, difficult journey tomorrow. I would need all the rest I could get. And though he was leaving it to me, Etsa clearly intended to join me in my investigation. That at least was a comforting promise to lean on. We would leave tomorrow at first light, and bring this crisis to a close as soon as possible.

    But for now, I needed to act.

    After all, I was Nantu. The Moon. The Guiding Light in the Dark. And now, though I had so far only been acknowledged by Etsa, I would soon be Wisdom. Even if there was nothing I could do to help, I would not hide myself while the people of the village struggled, not knowing what was happening or why.

    After one final deep breath, I rose to my feet. Puffing my chest out, wrapping myself in a confidence I did not feel, I stepped out into the village proper.



    ------------------



    With an exhausted sigh, I lowered myself on to a fallen tree, clutching my walking stick tightly.

    It had felt like forever since we left the village. We had left shortly after sunrise, as soon as it was light enough to make our way safely through the uncut jungle towards where the star had fallen, and it was now at least an hour past midday.

    Looking around at my companions, it was clear that the only one who needed rest was me. For the third time since we had left, my escort had called for a break so that I could recover a little before continuing. Even Etsa, who was barely more active than I was and probably five times my age had no problem keeping up with the others.

    Upon hearing that we were planning to go to the fallen star, the Chieftan had been furious. After hearing that both Etsa and I would be going, that quickly shifted to terrified. It didn't take long to convince him that Etsa would not budge from his decision, though. Begrudgingly, he assented to our expedition, giving Etsa free reign to select our escort from among the warriors of the village. And Etsa was not one to be stingy.

    Ten of the fiercest warriors of our tribe, along with no fewer than three of the Honoured. Even I knew it was an escort of unprecedented size and skill for what must have seemed like utter nonsense to any of them. But both the Chieftan and the Honoured had an unwavering faith in Etsa - not a single one of them raised their voice in complaint against his choice.

    I couldn't help but envy the men slightly. Even their fitness aside, the short grass skirts they wore as their only clothing looked much more comfortable in the oppressive heat of the midday jungle. For that matter, even the clothes of the women in the village would have been fine. But as an apprentice to Etsa I was wearing a much heavier coat of thick grasses, covering me from my shoulders to my knees. Though it was soft and green, unlike the rough yellowed grasses they wore, it still had me drenched in sweat from the hours of arduous trailblazing.

    "Wisdom," Kapanti, one of the Honoured who had been guarding the shrine the previous night, called to Etsa as he emerged from the underbrush. "There are signs of burning ahead. Many fallen branches and a few scorched leaves. I believe we may be close to our destination."

    As he and his contingent of three others returned from scouting ahead, Etsa gave them a nod of thanks. No doubt that was the exact news the others had been waiting for, yet even so I could feel anxiety mounting. Being so close to their destination, and yet having to wait for me to catch my breath, it was no wonder they were tense. Nevermind that they were being sent head first into who knows what when we actually got there.

    Though Etsa had left me in charge of bringing this event to a resolution, it seemed he had not shared that information with the others. Though none of them complained about my presence, not even a single word of complaint at how much I was slowing them down, they clearly didn't think of my presence as anything important either.

    Taking a deep breath, I closed my eyes. Unfortunately, there was little I could do to assuage their fears, and I had no desire to bring their scrutiny or judgement on me. It was best to just rest and get ready to leave as soon as possible.

    Opening my mind to the forest around me, I turned my attention to the voices of nature. As it did last night, the Great Mother's voice still urgently called for me to press onwards, to find the fallen star. I did not know what She expected me to be able to do about it, but I'm sure I'd know once I got there. Besides Her voice, I could feel a general sense of unease and anxiety pervading the jungle - just as the men in my escort, the animals of the forest were all still terrified and confused. Even the trees seemed to be speaking in hushed whispers, their leaves barely moving as a soft breeze passed through them.

    For everyone's sake - the men, the village, and the forest itself - I needed to bring this to a close as soon as possible.

    Without missing a beat, the men moved into action the moment they saw me stand up. Kapanti and the other two Honoured kept close to me, while the remaining ten men split into two groups. At my nod, one of the groups slipped ahead into the dense undergrowth, while the remaining group took slower, more deliberate steps to trample down the jungle to make it easier for us in the back to progress.

    As Kapanti had said, after only a few minutes of walking, we began to see signs of the fallen star. Scorched leaves and branches, no doubt thrown here by the impact, and a large number of fallen branches that must have been knocked to the ground by the ensuing earthquake. Using my walking stick, a sturdy branch that was slightly longer than I was tall, I pushed the fallen wood out of my path to create safe places for me to step as we advanced.

    "What do you hear, Nantu?" I jumped slightly as Etsa spoke, having come up beside me without me noticing.

    For a moment, I glanced at the trees surrounding us. There hadn't been much change in the forest since the star had fallen the night before. Slowly, things were calming down, but at the same time they were getting more anxious, as if the animals were too afraid to approach the impact site.

    ...as if they were waiting for me to tell them it was safe first.

    "...tense. Everyone is worried, too scared to move."

    Etsa gave a distraught sigh. "So there is danger ahead, after all?"

    Quickly, I shook my head. "No. Just afraid. No one knows."

    Another sigh. "That is unfortunate. It would have been nice to have an idea of what we were dealing with."

    I refrained from responding this time, instead returning my attention to the surrounding greenery. At least, it had been green once. Here, tremendous swathes of scorch marks marred every surface, and clouds of ash and dust were being kicked up into the air by our escort's movements ahead of us. Luckily, the fires had burned out fairly safely, the forest around it too lush and green to catch easily.

    A short distance ahead, I could see the frontrunners of our party standing still. Though they did not call back to us, just looking at them was enough to sense how they felt.

    Tense. Uneasy.

    Afraid.

    Seeing them, the other men rushed forward to see what had caused them pause. The Honoured were slightly more disciplined, instead opting to tighten their circle around me, while Etsa moved up a few strides ahead of us. As each of them came up beside those in front, they too froze, silently staring out before them. Without a word, I walked up beside them with the Honoured, and in the same way, my breath caught in my throat.

    The trees had ended.

    While I had seen clearings before, like those in our village, I had never seen anything of this size.

    Fallen trees, shattered and smashed, littered the ground. Greys, browns, and blacks replaced the lush greens of the forest behind us, stretching out a tremendous distance. Closer to the center of the expanse, the detritus covering the ground became scarce. A large portion of the area around the center was completely barren, broken earth and jagged rock making up the surface. It was hard to gauge by the eye, but I suspected if you laid forty of the greatest trees of the forest down end to end, you might reach from one side of the clearing to the other.

    I had never before seen such a lifeless expanse. I had never even imagined that something could inflict such catastrophic damage on the forest. Even the greatest of fires were extinguished by the rains before they became anywhere near this size. I had never even dreamed-

    I choked.

    I had seen this before.

    Up until now, the hard exertion of pushing through the jungle had been enough to keep my mind off of it, but now with the scenery right before me, the imagery of that dream leapt to the forefront of my mind.

    Unconsciously, I took a step back, clutching my walking stick tightly to my chest. It was just like my dream. A burned, barren world, where the Great Mother was dead. Was this how it would happen? Stars falling from the sky, destroying everything? My eyes quickly filled with tears, as much from the sickening fear as from the dust and ash blowing into them from the clearing. Was this how it all ended? Was this how we were going to die? Was this-

    "Nantu."

    A firm hand on my shoulder pulled me from my panic.

    "Nantu, breathe."

    It was Kapanti. Kneeling down in front of me, looking at me eye to eye, he was squeezing my shoulder tightly with his free hand. Though I could feel, though I could smell his fear and confusion, etched on his face was a look of concern. For me.

    Breathe.

    Slowly, I relaxed my grip on my branch, and with considerable effort, was able to take a single unsteady breath. A second, and Kapanti's concerned expression finally broke into an uneasy smile.

    "It's okay, Nantu. We're here to protect you. No one is going to hurt you."

    After another deep breath, steadier this time, I gave him a shaky nod. Squeezing my shoulder one more time, he let go and stood back up. Though he turned to face forwards, he stayed only half a step ahead of me, occasionally glancing back to make sure I was okay.

    It was endlessly tempting to reach out and grab his hand, just to assure myself that he would stay with me, but I instead just tightened my grip on my walking stick. I was scared, and I couldn't help that, but I couldn't act like a scared child all the time. In a few more years, I'd be an adult, after all. And I might soon be Wisdom, as well. As much as I longed for comfort, I forced myself to instead tear my eyes off him and return my gaze to the ashen expanse before me.

    While I had been struck by panic, the others had begun cautiously advancing through the remains of the charred forest. Etsa, who normally would have been the one to chastise me for losing myself to panic again, had apparently not noticed the short episode, as he was advancing forward with the others. Only Kapanti had remained behind, standing by my side. I could tell from the way he gripped his spear, the way he eyed the ground before him, the way he nervously fidgeted...he wanted to be out there with them, searching the burned out forest for whatever was out there.

    Silently, I thanked him for indulging my selfishness.

    As we watched the others wade out into the ash, I reluctantly tried to recall the details of that dream. Now that I could think about it more clearly, the differences between that scene and the one before me became stark. In the dream, there had been no traces of life anywhere, whereas here, I was still surrounded by the lush green of the forest. In the dream, the land was dry and dead, like it had gone a hundred years without rain. But here, though it was similarly dead, it was in burned, charred remnants, a lively forest turned to ash in the blink of an eye.

    And most importantly, with the sun overhead in a too-blue sky, with the sound of the wind passing through the leaves, and farther off even the sounds of birds and insects chirping away anxiously...

    ...the Great Mother was still here. She was still alive, Her voice still filling the air.

    I was not alone.

    With a sigh, this time in relief, I wiped my eyes with the back of my hand. Though this place was a great wound to the forest, it would surely heal. It would take a much greater calamity than a single falling star to kill the Great Mother.

    From our spot at the edge of the forest we watched the others descend slowly. The ruined landscape before us curved gently down, no doubt caused by the impact of the star. It was not so steep as to be a problem, however, so in part out of curiosity and in part out of respect for Kapanti's obvious desire to join the investigation, I stepped towards the ash. Though I couldn't help but still feel a little shaken by my panic from earlier, I knew now there was nothing to be afraid of. With the Great Mother at my back and Kapanti at my side, and with Etsa and the other warriors in front of me, there was nothing left for me to-

    -as soon as I stepped a single foot into the charred remains of the impact site, a terrified screech filled my ears, causing me to freeze. It was so sudden, so unexpected, that it took me a moment ot realize it was not an actual sound. As the others continued forward, unaware of the horrid noise, I froze once again, my instinctual fear reignited.

    The Great Mother's voice called to me, with greater urgency and terror than I had ever heard.

    Leave.

    Run away.

    Get away from here.

    You are going to die.

    Before I could so much as open my mouth, the earth began to rumble beneath us. Before the others ahead of us could even slow their steps, the charred landscape erupted upwards into a column of ash.

    Everything else was different from the dream. The landscape, the Great Mother, even the sky. As the overwhelming terror that had punctuated it returned at full force, one last cogent thought slipped out of my mind.

    Why was this the same?

    A howl loud beyond hearing rent the air as the enormous beast raised itself from the ash. Whether it had been waiting for someone to come close, or had just now managed to free itself from the earth, it now rose up with a sound loud enough to drown out even the voice of the Great Mother. Greater in size than any tree of the forest, with a form beyond comprehension, even my inability to understand its shape was precisely familiar.

    Though it rose a considerable distance away, the sheer size of the creature made the distance between us meaningless. As earth and ash poured from its rising body, a cloud of dust and rock plumed outwards, enveloping the men in front before they could even see what was happening. Even those in the rear had only a moment to be shocked at the creature's sudden appearance before the cloud washed over them, shrouding them in darkness.

    Kapanti and I, however, were far enough back that we could react before the cloud reached us. Though I was frozen in fear, Kapanti acted instantly, throwing me roughly to the ground and covering me with his body. No more than three heartbeats later, the cloud washed over us as well, the acrid dust stinging my eyes and throat, my mouth filling with the taste of burnt wood.

    Even inundated by all these sensations, I still could focus on only one thing. Above the darkness of the cloud of ash, above the sting of its contents, above the sound of the wind carrying the cloud of ash past us, above the feeling of Kapanti's body pushing me into the ground...above all else, the roar of that beast filled my mind. And though I could understand so little about it, its form unreadable and its origin untraceable, I could understand this with terrifying ease.

    The beast's roar was filled with righteous fury.

    Thanks to our elevated position, the ash cloud passed by us and settled rather quickly. Both of us coughing violently, Kapanti lurched to his feet, pulling me up with him. Though he helped me stand, I was still completely overwhelmed by the presence of the creature, barely understanding what was happening around me. Though I could hear Kapanti shouting, I couldn't understand what he was saying, my mind so absolutely full of the image of it.

    Faintly, I could see traces of movement within the ash cloud below us.

    Run.

    Somewhere deep inside me, a small trace of relief sparked to life. They were okay. They could still escape.

    Somewhere deep inside me, I knew that relief was a lie.

    Run!

    Two enormous, spider-like legs lunged forward, gleaming like water under sunlight, cutting through the smoke like a spear through grass. Once more, plumes of ashen dust burst into the air, answering the creatures attack.

    Though I couldn't see through the dust to confirm what had happened, I knew instinctively before it had even moved. What lay at this creature's feet was only death.

    "Nantu, please!" Finally, Kapanti's voice broke through to me, snapping me from my trance-like fear. "Please, you have to run! Get back to the village! Warn them!"

    Run!!

    Standing before me, spear gripped firmly in both hands, Kapanti was in terrible shape. His arms and legs were covered in wounds, blood pouring freely from uncountable injuries. Though I was almost entirely unharmed, the chunks of broken wood and stone carried by the ash cloud had torn him apart. But even injured as he was, he still stood firm, facing down the unfathomable creature before us. Surely he knew he had no chance against such a beast, but that didn't stop him from pointing his spear towards it.

    Once again, the creature's scythelike appendages tore into the ground before it. Even from here, I could feel the lives of the men before us extinguished. And in that next terrible instant, I could feel the creature's attention turn to us.

    RUN!!!

    I could hear the voice of the Great Mother screaming behind me, screaming to run away...

    ...but not at me.

    "No, stop!" For one incredible instant, my desperation overcame my fear, and I shouted at Kapanti's back.

    Had he not heard me? Or was he ignoring me? The terrible creature took two enormous strides toward us, clouds of dust and ash billowing into the air as it moved. In just two steps, it had crossed half the distance between us. But before it could raise its leg to take a third step, Kapanti sprang forward.

    Coiling his body like a snake, he took three great strides before snapping straight, hurling his stone-tipped spear with all his might. Despite his numerous injuries, despite the sheer terror that he must have felt at watching the others die, his form was the epitome of grace and power. The crimson feathered spear soared through the air like a great eagle, straight and true.

    ...though like an eagle attempting to slay a mountain, it was doomed to fail from the start. Had it been against any lesser foe, the throw would have surely been a feat of legend, thrown so accurately across such a distance while so injured. But as the spear impacted into the body of the creature, it broke apart. The lashings holding stone to wood came undone, the stone spearhead shattered, and the crimson feather fluttered wildly to the ground, the attack leaving not so much as a scratch on the beast's hide.

    For an instant, I felt the world go silent. The creature, having noticed the attack, had stopped. His only weapon gone, Kapanti didn't hesitate for an instant, immediately turning to me. As I opened my mouth to tell him to run, he grabbed me with both hands and hurled me to the side.

    Before I even hit the ground, a beam of white-hot light cut through the space we had just been standing in. It lasted for no more than a heartbeat, and yet when it was gone, nothing remained in its wake. The ground had become smooth and hard, the ash and dirt becoming like a glowing stone. The sound of wood and leaves crashing to the ground filled the air as trees behind us whose trunks had been vapourised fell to the ground.

    And Kapanti was gone, not even dust remaining to mark his passing.

    Everyone was dead.

    I was the only one left alive.

    And soon, in just a few more moments, I would be dead too.

    The creature broke into motion again, another enormous stride taking it close enough that I could feel the wind from its body moving.

    In front of me, the spider-beast roared again, its rage enough that I felt my ears might bleed.

    And behind me, I could hear Her voice. A mourning shriek, a furious howl at Her children unjustly murdered before Her.

    Legs shaking, I was unable to stand, not that I had the time to. As the beast raised its frontmost leg again, this time to take my life, I pushed myself onto my knees. Unable to even sit up by myself, I planted my walking stick into the ground in front of me, leaning on it for support. Squeezing my eyes tightly shut, in one final act of desperation, I screamed.

    I was Nantu. The Guiding Light in the Dark.

    I could not die. Now that Etsa had been killed, I was the only one left to connect my village to the Great Mother.

    I was the only one left who could understand Her words, who could protect Her children.

    Though I was only a child, I was the only one left who could be Her voice.

    But above all that, one thought squeezed through the tiny gap between my fear of the creature and my sense of duty towards my village.

    I was just a child. I had barely even lived. I just didn't want to die.

    As I screamed, the wind howled. The sky thundered. The forest behind me raised its voice in chorus, and distant waters roared. Even the ashen waste before me raised its crackling voice, adding to the tumult.

    I screamed, and as one, all of Nature screamed with me. The earth itself shook beneath us as we roared that one, simple command.

    "STOP!!!"

    ...

    ...

    ...and the creature stopped.

    Slowly, tentatively, I opened my eyes. The creature's outstretched leg filled my vision, only a hands-breadth from my face. For an instant, the world was frozen in time, the aftermath of our shout turning to silence, the creature stopped in a moment of indecision.

    After a few moments that felt like an eternity, the creature slowly retracted its outstretched limb, shuffling backwards slightly to brace itself on the slope. Raising its head to the sky, the creature roared at the sky.



    Immediately, I was beset by a splitting headache. Somehow, I understood that the creature's cry held meaning, but even hearing it was agonizing. Even trying to remember the sound made my head feel like it was going to split in two.

    Using one hand to keep myself propped up on my walking stick, I used the other to clutch my head. Thankfully, in short order, the silent world raised its voice again, washing the memory of the creature's words from my mind.

    You will not harm my children any further. Leave this place at once.

    The voice of the Great Mother filled my mind, regal and powerful, more majestic than I had ever heard. Yet once again I could tell it was not directed at me.

    Was She speaking to the creature?

    As if the creature could hear Her voice as well, it responded with a series of whirs, clicks, and hisses.



    Once again, I could somehow sense that there was meaning behind those sounds, yet the sheer weight of them was enough to hurt me. Had I not already been on my knees, I likely would have collapsed.

    Leaning forward, the creature brought its head within a few feet of me. As the wind caused by its movement rushed by me, I could feel my clothes turning hard, and the texture of my walking stick turned from wood to stone.



    Struggling to open my eyes against the pain in my head, I saw that the change in texture wasn't just my imagination. Not just my clothes or the branch in my hand, the ground all around me - and indeed further out, beneath the creature's own feet - was changing. Grass, wood, ash - all of them were changing to...something, right before my eyes. To my hands and skin, it felt cold, hard, and smooth like stone. Yet to my eyes it looked like deep water, clear yet murky. It was unlike anything I had ever seen, briefly bringing to mind the legends of water that had grown so cold it turned to stone.

    My children have brought no harm to me. Would you have them executed for sins they have not committed?

    The wind howled back, a violent gust in response to the creature's words. Though I could only understand half the conversation, I could somewhat tell that I - no, everyone, all people everywhere - were being protected. The Great Mother herself was standing up against this monster to protect us.

    With another series of hisses and clicks, the creature withdrew, stepping slowly back down into the ashen crater.



    The creature's voice changed, and for the first time I felt like I understood a small fragment of what it had meant. It's pitch was higher, a piercing cry. Pleading.



    With slow, heavy steps, the creature retreated to the center of the crater, the place where the star - where it had originally fallen. With movements that seemed unnaturally efficient, it dug itself down through the ash and broken rock to the soft earth below, raising its head in one last keening wail.



    With that, it sank itself into the ash and earth, disappearing within a cloud of soot and dust.



    ------------------------------



    With a deep breath, I picked myself up off the ground again and pushed forward.

    It had taken me what felt like many hours to even stand after the creature had retreated. Curled up in a ball among the ash and dirt mixed with the translucent stone marking the beast's passage, I alternately screamed and sobbed for longer than I cared to remember, drowning in fear and panic of an event that had already passed. Waiting for someone to help me, to comfort me, to tell me everything was going to be okay. Just like every other time.

    ...but no one came.

    Alone in that desolate waste, I cried and cried, with nothing but the sounds of distant nature to accompany me. The creature did not return, and neither did any of the men that had been with me.

    With no one to pull me from my panic, I spiralled downward and downward, until my mind itself fell apart. Like a tree whose roots had withered and died, I had only stayed upright because my branches had been caught in other trees. So when those trees disappeared, there was nothing left for me to do but to crash to the ground.

    My mind had shut down. And when I finally came to, I was still lying there among the ashes.

    In a way, I guess I had expected to die. Even after the danger was gone, I had seen everyone else die, and just expected the same thing would happen to me. But after lifting my head, after my fear had exhausted itself, I realized that no one was coming to take my life. And neither was anyone coming to take me home.

    At that time, the soothing voice of the Great Mother finally returned to me, heavy with relief, as if She Herself had been afraid I would not return. Though I had felt my world was collapsing entirely, I had managed to pull through, and She was there to greet me on the other side.

    To tell me I wasn't alone.

    To tell me She was always, and always had been with me.

    ...to tell me I had to stand, to keep walking forward.

    In a daze, I had weakly picked myself up off the ground, leaning on my now transformed walking stick, and had begun sifting through the ashes. Even in that state, I knew searching for traces of Kapanti, Etsa, and the others was little more than a formality. My mind would not recall the events I had seen just before, would not draw the image that had burned itself so unforgettably into my memory, but even so I knew it would take something far greater than a miracle to find any of the men alive and well.

    And sure enough, never mind finding them alive, I was unable to find any trace of them at all. After a few fruitless minutes of searching, I gave up and turned back to the path through which we had come. It felt strange how easily I was able to accept the fact that they were gone, but I didn't have the composure to even consider the strangeness of it.

    After all, they were just human. Humans died all the time.

    That thought gave me pause. Did I really think like that? Was I really so callous? True, death was common to every human, but that did not make their lives any less valuable, their parting any less sad. Maybe I had gone a little crazy. I don't think anyone would blame me for it, all things considered.

    At any rate, dazed and listless as I was, I knew I couldn't stay in the crater. Nevermind the thing that had attacked us, being out alone in the jungle at night was begging for death. By the time I had managed to push myself out into the forest, it was getting late into the afternoon. If I wanted to make it back before sundown, I would have to move quickly.

    Of course, that had just been wishful thinking. Once again, I tripped over a high-sprouting tree root in the dark, falling hard. The sun had set what felt like hours ago. I had no idea how far away I was from the village, or how I expected to get back to it. Taking a moment to breathe deeply, I propped myself up with my walking stick, now a shaft of translucent stone. Gripping tightly so as to prevent my hands from slipping down its smooth, wet surface, I pulled myself back to my feet and continued on, ignoring the sounds of water dripping on leaves as I passed them.

    Just as my walking stick had been transformed, so too had my clothes. The soft, comparatively light grasses I had been wearing were now mostly stone, jagged and broken both by their nature and from cracking and breaking every time I fell. And though I couldn't see it, I could feel that they were slick with blood, as those jagged pieces dug into my skin in a hundred places every time I moved.

    Listening to Her voice, I stepped cautiously forward, this time remembering to test my path with the walking stick. While I was hopeless at navigating the jungle alone during the day, let alone at night, with Her voice guiding me, I had no doubt I would make it back to the village. As long as I was able to do so before something else found me.

    If only the moon was out...

    Through the haze of mental exhaustion at my prior breakdown and the physical exhaustion of having to forge my way through the forest alone afterwards, a single lucid thought slipped through. Clouds had apparently rolled in sometime in the early evening, blocking the moon and stars from illuminating my path. In the inky darkness, I had nothing but the Great Mother's voice to guide me. Not that I didn't trust Her, but there was something to be said about seeing where you were going, even if you had faith in the path.

    For a moment I paused. No, I couldn't think like that anymore. Wishing things were better wouldn't help my situation, wouldn't get me back to the village. I was Nantu. I was the moon. I was the Guiding Light in the Dark.

    In one afternoon, the village had lost three of the Honoured and our Wisdom. It was a crippling blow that would take many seasons, if not a full generation, to recover from. As Etsa's apprentice, and now the only person in the village who could hear the Great Mother's voice, they needed me. Even if I felt helpless and weak, even if I felt like the next time I fell I wouldn't be able to stand again, I had to keep moving. Because if I didn't return, they would have no one.

    They would never know how dangerous the fallen star was. They might even send more people to search for it, might lose even more precious lives.

    They would never know how brave Kapanti had been, sacrificing himself to save me, resisting to the last against that impossible monster.

    They would never know how the Great Mother herself stood up to protect me...stood up to protect us.

    Though I stumbled again, I was able to catch myself. Whether my dizziness was from the loss of blood or the sheer exhaustion, I had no options but to push through it. Even if I couldn't make it back, even if I were to collapse out here in the jungle, I needed to get close enough that the villagers could find my-

    Suddenly, I broke free.

    Stunned, I blinked, for a moment not understanding what was before me.

    I had broken out into a clearing. Not a natural one, but one man-made, cleared out by humans. Far away, the faint glow of firelight illuminated wood-and-grass huts, huddled closely together around wide open spaces. The voices of a few people walking by, faint enough that I had mistaken them before for the sounds of the forest, gently hung in the night air, carried on a gentle breeze that made torches waver and flicker. The glow of dying cooking fires, their mission long fulfilled, lent a poor but sufficient light for recognizing that I too was standing among the ruins of old huts, damaged by the earthquake caused by the falling star.

    I was back.

    Before I even had the chance to fully process that fact, a group of villagers walked by me. In the weak light of distant fires, I was able to hear their approach before seeing them, but even without raising my voice it seemed one of them recognized I was standing there.

    "...Nantu?" A faint, incredulous voice called out to me in the darkness. "Nantu?! Is that you?!"

    Without warning, the young girl ran up to me, struggling to see me through the dark.

    "...Puyu?" Though I couldn't see her either, her voice was easily recognizable. As soon as I managed to squeeze that one word out, Puyu leapt at me.

    "Nantu, you're back! You're okay!"

    An intense
    revulsion
    pain
    shot through me as the sobbing girl grabbed me in the tightest hug I had ever felt, pushing the jagged pieces of my clothes deeper into me.

    "I'm so glad! I'm so glad! I'm so...glad...!" Unable to contain herself, Puyu broke down crying on the spot, holding me tighter and tighter.

    "Puyu...please...." Unable to manage more than a faint wimper, it was nevertheless enough to get Puyu to let me go. Though she was sobbing, her face was still beaming with happiness almost enough to light up the night air.

    "I knew you'd come back! I knew you wouldn't leave us!" Grabbing me by the hand, she pulled me in toward the center of the village with enough force I likely would have fallen if I hadn't had my walking stick for support. Oblivious to my near fall, Puyu turned and shouted at the top of her lungs. "Everyone! Everyone! Nantu is back! Nantu is back!!"

    Almost immediately, the fevered sounds of villagers
    crawling
    running
    out from their huts and taking up Puyu's cry filled the night. Dozens of footsteps accompanied by excited and worried voices raced towards us as I struggled to keep up with Puyu's pace, struggled to ignore the pain of dozens of deep cuts and gashes all over my body finally catching up to me.

    In no more than a dozen breaths, the whole village was in an uproar, half of the voices calling for the Honoured and the Elders to assemble, the other half coming to see for themselves. After a few moments of growing fervor, a large group of villagers, curious, concerned, excited, and relieved, gathered around me, and one by one torches made their way closer, lighting up the area around me.

    "Nantu is back!! Nantu is-!" Now that there was sufficient light to see, Puyu turned to look at me and we both froze. The tear-filled horror on her face mirrored my initial reaction perfectly.

    Puyu was covered in blood. Her arms, her torso, her face, all of her was smeared with a thick red, as if she had been mauled by a great jungle cat. As if she had been killed. As if she was-

    The first to break from the spell of fear was actually me. Of course she was covered in blood. She had just hugged me, hadn't she? She was covered in my blood. Though I didn't have the energy to laugh, I did manage a weak, self-deprecating smile. Partly because of how silly I felt, not noticing that it was my blood she was covered in right away, and partly at the
    satisfaction
    terror
    I had felt at seeing Puyu hurt, despite my own condition.

    Puyu, of course, was not so relieved. For a moment, as the villagers gathered around me saw the dirty, tattered, blood-drenched state I was in, a shocked silence settled over them. As they stared at me, a million thoughts racing behind their eyes, the distant sounds of shouting from those who had not seen me yet mingled with the sounds of the crackling torches filled the frozen air. Before long, an older woman's voice in the crowd called out.

    "She's hurt!"

    As if it was some kind of signal, the villagers snapped into action as one. Most of them immediately dispersed, organizing themselves spontaneously into groups to retrieve water, bandages, to clear a space, to set up a bed, to get food and medicines. Meanwhile, a smaller group set about to caring for me, inspecting my injuries with grim faces and gently picking at my petrified clothing, already removing chunks of translucent stone where they safely could.

    And all the while, tears still pouring down her face, Puyu held tightly to my hand. "It's going to be okay, Nantu! You're safe now! Everything is going to be okay!" The way she spoke, trying so hard to be strong for me while speaking mostly to convince herself, brought another smile to my face.

    As the villagers led me to a cleared area and sat me down on a fresh bed of woven grass, I sighed in relief. At the same time, I could feel in the gentle night breeze that She was sighing in relief with me. I was back. I had made it. I had come up face to face with that horror beyond imagination, lived to escape, and made it back home safely.



    In the back of my head, I heard a whisper so faint I wasn't even sure it was real. But as gentle hands picked the jagged fragments from my wounds, and firm yet gentle words assured me my wounds were not life-threatening and that I would be okay, as Puyu firmly held my hand and did her best to put on a strong face through her tears, I had forgotten it almost as soon as I had heard it.

    I was back. Despite all the pain, despite all the fear, despite how weak I knew I was, I had managed to make it back. I knew that the village needed me, needed to know what I had saw, and so I had pushed forward, and I had made it back. With the Great Mother's help, I had managed to get back in one piece, against all odds.

    And now, that desperate determination was being answered. I had struggled so hard for their sake, and without asking a single question, without a single moment's hesitation, the whole village jumped into action to take care of me. Though I had never really felt like I could closely relate to any of them, they still cared for me as if I was their own daughter.

    Because I was.

    Though I didn't have the energy left to cry, tears began to pour down my face. Though I knew they wanted to hear reassuring words from me, I was so tired, so exhausted, the best I could do was offer them a smile. And though she didn't know why, even Puyu's ashen expression soon broke into a smile to match mine.

    I was back.

    I was home.

    Though many other men had died, though Etsa was gone, I was still here. The following days, weeks, and years would no doubt be the most difficult of my life. But I could be strong. With the Great Mother behind me, and the people of the village around me, I could be the Guiding Light in the Dark that the village needed.

    As the villagers tended to my injuries, and as the Great Mother's soothing voice encouraged me from the dark of the jungle, I knew everything was going to be fine.


  2. #2
    Hey, I ainít no lizard! Draconic's Avatar
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    I've been away from this part of the Lair for far too long.

    I can finally leave a review. And I found my original review for this, and it's better than the one I initially left:

    - - - Updated - - -

    Whoa… just… whoa.
    That was soul-shatteringly brilliant.

    It took me a while to realize what was going on in this story, or who the characters were. The author does a good job of leading the reader astray with the apparent allusions to Grain and the Type, but he hints at the truth several times, with both the title of the story, and with Etsa's position being Wisdom. The reveal of exactly which people the story is following is executed brilliantly.

    From that point forward, there is a creeping sense of horror that's comparable to anything that H.P. Lovecraft wrote, and it grows stronger and stronger the more certain the reader becomes of the identity of what they're unwittingly seeking out.

    The only thing I'm not entirely clear on is why the main character seems to have two conflicting personalities at the end. Has the creature she encountered embedded a part of itself in her, using her as yet another tool to carry out its will?

    Overall, an excellent story. I tremendously enjoyed reading this.
    Last edited by Draconic; June 12th, 2017 at 09:21 AM.
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    That makes me think of Rin as a loan shark.
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    Admittedly, she'd probably be the hottest loan shark you'll ever meet. She'd probably make you smile as she sucked you dry.


    Oh dear, that doesn't sound like yuri at all.
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    Not with that attitude.

  3. #3
    Presia messe noce yor tes mea TwilightsCall's Avatar
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    I don't think its really necessary to put this behind a spoiler, but in case anyone out there is reading the comments before the story I guess here you go.

    Spoiler:

    Both the creature in the dream and the creature that fell from the sky are the same - they are both Type Mercury, or ORT. ORT came to Earth because he thought Gaia had died, and he was there to wipe out Humanity, but Gaia would still survive - and thus the call to the Aristoteles to wipe out Humanity wouldn't come - until eight thousand or so years later. Nantu's dream was a flash forward to the events that would happen in that future, and it was brought on (unintentionally) by ORT because ORT himself thought that that was what he was jumping into.

    The last line, in case it's undecipherable, reads "Everything was going to be okay." The glyphs interspersed among the letters are meant to show the corrupting influence ORT was having on Nantu. Since she was 'designed' to interface directly with the Planet, or more specifically Nature, something like ORT who transforms reality (Nature) around him to conform to his will (consciously or not) has the same effect on her. So while her clothes and her staff physically crystallized as a result of ORT's presence, her mind was similarly warped, though to a much less catastrophic degree. As she maintains close proximity to him and the things he's changed, however, that warping in her mind gets worse and worse, as evidenced by violent and repulsive thoughts unconsciously poking in towards the end of the story. The last line is the overt signal - yes, ORT has changed her, and contrary to what she thinks, she is not going to get better. As her condition worsens, she will turn from an interface between Gaia and Humanity into an outlet for - and tool of - ORT's hatred towards Humanity...though that's a whole other story.

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