* Prologue *
The old mel laid his quill down on the writing table. Slowly he re-read what he had written. He still only half understood the dream that had come to him and the words that had been etched into his mind. When done with the reading he quietly and almost with a reverence closed the old withered journal and softly stroked its cover. He could feel the symbol of the Beacon that was engraved on its wooden coverings. He traced the circle of life and the sign of light, his gnarled finger almost blending in with the oldness. In this journal he had written down all the dreams, all the thoughts that the Evensongs had given him. Softly he touched the book with his fingertips. Closing his eyes he called to the Evensongs. His body felt a quickening, then as soon as it started it was over. He opened his eyes. The book looked unchanged, but he knew differently.
"It is done," he said aloud to himself, as if the mere spoken words would set it all in action. Slowly and with great difficulty he raised himself from the hard wooden chair, picking up the journal as he rose. With his free hand he reached for his walking stick and with its help made his way to the nearest book-covered wall.
Without care he swept a pile of books from the middle shelf, where they fell in a heap onto the floor, a cloud of dust engulfing them as they hit. Then with great deliberance he wedged the old journal against the back wall of the shelf. He bent and picked up a couple of the ill-treated books he had dropped and placed them on the shelf in front of his hidden treasure. He arranged the books a couple of ways until he was sure that the journal would not be noticed.
He then turned from the wall and maneuvered his way to the only door the room had, hitting books out of his path with his walking stick. At the door, he laid the walking stick down in order to use both hands to pick up his pack.
It was heavy and he had difficulty arranging it on his back, but finally the chore was completed. Reclaiming his walking stick, he squared his old shoulders as best he could and started out the door. But he couldn't do it; he had to look at what had been his home for most of his life once more. He turned and as the first tears he had shed since the death of his father made their way down his wrinkled face, he took in all he could of the room and its contents. He knew every nook and cranny of the small room. The books, oh the books; how he would miss them. They were too heavy to take with him on his journey, but he knew each book by heart. He may not be able to have them with him to touch and feel, but he had them forever in his heart.
His many piles of books lay everywhere, on the shelves that covered every wall, on almost every inch of the floor space. They were stacked on the foot stool in the corner, and in disarray on the old wooden writing table.
He let his gaze linger on the table. His father had built the table many years ago, when he had left their hovel in the city proper and been taken in as a scribe to the Blue Robes. And after he had been appointed a High Blue Robe of Niula he had kept the old table and the small room deep in the catacombs, instead of rising up in the temple of Light to the beautiful chambers above, as his new station allowed him.
It had been here, only here, that he had ever felt at home. He wiped the tears from his face.
"The time has come: it has begun," he mumbled to himself as he moved back out of the doorway. Decisively he pulled the heavy craved wooden door shut behind him. With his age-worn hands he tightly gripped his walking stick and touched it gently to the door. Eyes closed, he raised high his head and spoke the words of Evensong to seal this place until the time had come. A faint cerolean of color radiated from the top of the stick, casting odd misshapen shadows about the old mel.
It didn't take long, even with his diminished powers.
"Regenna, forgive me," he murmured sadly under his breath, another tear dripping from his eye. Then he turned from the door and, using the walking stick to steady himself, he began the long walk out of the deep catacombs and into the void of the world to find the beginning.
The lightover was warm, uncharacteristic of the weather in the last Highyear. It had been raining and storming for many seasons. But over the past Highyear it had gotten worse. At first the storms would last for only a few lightovers, to be driven away by the Suns for a week or so. The Luzts, the dancing winds, that once were a thing of wonder had become something perverse. Where they used to be something to look forward to—to watch them dancing over the cliffs, bouncing, twisting, curling in delightful circles—had all changed. The storms were demons with the Luzts as their warped fingers that destroyed all they touched. The storms had beaten the Suns; they would or could only show themselves for a lightover every few seasons. This was one of those lightovers. It was calm; quiet. The villagers were sure that this time a new season of warmth would finally begin.
The meadow was hushed except for the birds in the surrounding wood, their singing adding to the feeling of rebirth. The wind was blowing, a normal wind; the taller trees showed signs of it but down on the forest floor and out into the meadow it was calm with just a hint of a breeze.
Overnight the grasses in the meadow had flourished. They were standing straight and tall. Flowers of all descriptions had sprouted and bloomed in the light of the Suns. They grew fast, as if they too knew that time was against them.
A flock of birds erupted out of the forest, flying high. The young fel burst from the undergrowth at a full run, her long hair blowing behind her. She ran through the tall grasses until she reached the center of the field. There she stopped and spun around, her arms raised to the warming Suns. Dizzy, she let herself fall backward onto the soft grasses.
The grasses were tall; she was completely hidden from sight. The only thing she could see from her self-made hideaway was a patch of violet blueness and a small cloud, the only reminder that a storm had been here just hours before. A hawk came into view; it circled high above her, then dived down out of her line of vision to prey on some unseen creature.
She closed her eyes. The grasses were still damp from the rain, but she didn't mind. It had been so long since she had been able to leave the village. It was such a lonely, dead place. How she had yearned for the Suns’ bright light!
The Suns were growing weak; she knew it. In the last Highyear the Suns had only been seen a handful of times. It had started with the Deadness. Slowly at first the Deadness had come, then faster and faster, stronger and stronger, ‘til it sucked life from all: the land, the sky and even the people, everything except the high meadow. The deadness had stopped at the Village, never going beyond the start of the rocky path that lead up to the woods above. But what it had done to the village was enough. It had taken all.
The village had once been filled with more people than there were cliffs in the distance. But now, few remained: some Elders, just two Mothers, and herself, the only youngone left.
All youngones had died right away when the Deadness had crawled up the cliff wall to their ledge in the clouds; all but her. She felt so alone. She should have withered up and died with the other littleones. It added to her feelings of strangness as if her difference in appearance or her bonding with the crystal wasn't enough. She wasn't lean of build or tall like most. Instead she was smaller by a full head measurement of the other fels and her body ran to plumpness. Her face was full, with deep dimples. Her hair wasn't a shining black, but a dull brown color, missing the rich luster of ebony. Even in bright light from the Suns her hair was still without any sheen or beauty. Only her eyes were the close to the same, a soft black with just a hint of violet. She had been named for her eyes. At her birth she had opened her eyes, the sunslight hitting them just right for her mother to pronounce that her name was Vila…a strong name to give honor to the divine color. But if the hint of the godly color was meant to bless her it hadn’t seemed to help; not that anyone even saw them much. Where all the other villagers had bright open eyes hers were hid by fatty folds of skin and thick lashes.
Then there was the crystal. Avma had returned to the HighSuns only a few Sunscycles earlier and she had been the bearer of the crystal for more Lifeyears than any could remember.
After Avma's passing, as she laid cold, each fel and Mother left in the village had had to submit to the last walk. One by one they had passed the cold lifeless form of the old Mother and touched the crystal that still hung from around her neck.
And one by one they had cried out in sheer agony as the angry fire of the crystal repelled them...until her. It was her that the crystal allowed a touch. She was torn. To be able to be the bearer like Avma had been made her feel more a part of Avma, but the “Bond”' scared her. Everyone knew of the "power", but none knew what it was. Even Avma really did not use the stone. It only allowed her to wear it. And the Bonding. She knew that Avma had loved it, but couldn't explain it; it brought great responsibility to the wearer. She just didn't feel ready for it; Avma should have lived many more Lifeyears. But then it wasn't Avma's choice to passover, nor hers whether she’d worn the crystal or not.
She was compelled to submit to the Bond whether she wanted to or not. In other lightovers there would have been a great feast and ceremony to embrace the new wearer. But the Deadness had sucked the life out of their customs too. The neckcord, heavy with the crystal, had been dropped over her head and that was the end of it.
Many had told her she was their only hope left. But it was spoken with such sadness that told their doubts that this fat odd fel could in any way help. And she didn't know how to help. The tales of the crystal's powers didn't tell how to use them, only that they were.
She tried to get the old ones left to leave the dead village and come to the high meadow, but they refused. The high meadow was hallowed, they couldn't live there. No matter how hard she tried to persuade them, they stood firm, even as they one by one dried up and left for the HighSuns. She spent most of her lightovers like the others, huddled around the life fire in the MainHall. But even its warmth did little to alleviate the cold and death that crept in under the doors and light holes and through the cracks in the grass walls.
Before the Deadness the villagers would come together around the life fire and tell the stories of the village. Avma would stand, her long black hair glowing in the fire light, the crystal proudly displayed around her neck and recite the tales: of the Old ones from the High Meadow, of the Lights, of the other cliff people, of great feats of Cliffmovers and many others, but the one of the Traveler was the best. The young ones had begged almost every night to hear it. She too had loved it. The tale of the Traveler, the stranger who was said to have walked the whole world. He supposedly knew great wonders and was a crystal wearer also!
"The Traveler," she thought, "Wouldn't it be wonderful if I could find him and bring him back to the village? He would know the use of our crystal." She sighed deeply.
She knew there was no way. The last time he had been seen had been before her birth time, before her Mother's birth time and even before her Mother's. They thought him to be everliving, a HighBeing from the Suns. It had been at least more lifeyears than anyone knew how to count since he had left the village towards the high meadow and was never seen again. They had looked for a way for him to have left the cliffs that blocked any normal mel's path. But there was no path to the cliff top, no way even for the cliffmovers to climb up the smooth cliff sides. Not that she hadn't still looked for how the Traveler had made the climb.
With the other youngones she had ran all along the cliff wall looking for a hidden path or a cave or foothold, any means he could have used to go from their ledge to the one above, but all they ever found had been the same things. The strange drawings in the caves and the odd stones in the High meadow and other such things were found, but none had ever discovered a way to go up. And after a time all had given up the quest.
That is, until the Deadness had started. Then she had looked, again and again, for some way to go up, some way to get away from the Dead, the fog, the coldness, the eternal nothingness. But still she had not found it. Lightover after lightover, turned into Sunscycle after Sunscycle and now after almost a full lifeyear she still, when the weather allowed it, would search the wall's face, although she had stopped going into any of the caves. There was something about the cold silent black that stopped her at the cave's openings.
There were many small caves here and there to be found in the cliff wall. Most were small and could barely hold a small woodchuck let alone a full grown Elder, while other caves went deep into the cliff wall. It was in those that most of the strange pictures were to be found. None in the village understood them, though none would think to harm them. They knew they were important, just didn't know why.
The cliffs themselves were straight up and down, black and old, just like all the other mountain cliffs that could be seen from their shelf in the rock of the mountain side.
The shelf that the village sat on was large enough to hold it and the fairly large wood that sat a little higher up. There was a small pond that sat at the base of the cliff face. Although small, it was enough to feed a stream that made its gentle way out of the wood, through the meadow and down the low hill to the village below. It continued past the village and eventually disappeared off the ledge, down the cliff to the rocks far below.
The pond was the result of a streamlet that flowed evenly out of a crevice high on the cliff, above the trees, descending down the face of the black stone. There was a large boulder sitting directly below the falling water, that over the years had been eroded down to a perfectly flat ledge. It was a ideal place to play.
She and the other youngones had loved to stand on the flat stone, with their backs against the cliff wall and letting the water flow over them. They made up games and would play for hours in the water, taking turns jumping from the stone into the pond. The pond itself was an oddity; it had no known bottom. It was small in size, but none had ever been able to find its floor. None thought of it; it just was. All youngones learned to swim at an early age, and as far back as any could remember no one had ever drowned. She remembered the fun times she had had, the laughing and splashing. The memory brought a smile to her face.
A gnat buzzed around her nose, bringing her back to the present. With her eyes still closed she listened to the creeping things moving in the grass. Other than the birds and the insects there wasn't another creature to be heard. All had left the area when the Deadness had come. Where they had gone none knew. The animals had simply disappeared—one lightover they were there, the next they weren't. And with them gone, the villagers’ foodstuff supply had gone too: until the other things had begun to come out of the fog or dropped by the dancing winds. They had begun to eat those. She had refused, keeping to the berries and roots to be found in the high meadow and wood. But the other villagers thought nothing of it. A shiver ran down her back as she thought of what she had seen the old ones eat last night. A foul taste came to her mouth at the thought.
Opening her eyes, she rolled over onto her stomach. The grasses reached a good three feet above her. She reached out to touch a small winged bug that was walking on a blade in front of her. It spread it's tiny wings when she was almost to it, and flew slowly away, just out of her reach onto another blade of grass and resumed what it had been doing before. She pulled a blade of grass and slowly began to chew it, savoring the taste of goodness it brought.
She folded her arms and laid her head down on them. It was so very peaceful here this lightover. She wished the others could make the walk to this meadow with her. She knew it wasn't possible though; the ones left were just too drained of life.
So, as she had done many times before, she enjoyed the peacefulness of the meadow alone. She wished she could tell them tonight at the life fire of the freshness and beauty that was still only to be found here. But she remembered very vividly the last time she had tried to tell them: she had been met with cold, sad eyes, too tired to move even if they had wanted too. So, here she came by herself, whenever the Suns won a battle with the dark, to enjoy what was left of life.
She closed her eyes and thought how nice it would be to find the old one... The Traveler... he could help; she knew it: only he could help... and with that thought she slumbered, her dreams full of hopes and wishes.
The young girl tossed in her sleep. She saw the old one walking in darkness, yet there was light. She saw blackness roll over the village; it took all. The HighSuns were gone, the sky blotted out! Vila, Vila, they yelled! Louder and Louder!! The pain, stop the pain!
Vila awoke to the sounds of her own screams and found herself standing. She sat down, trying to calm her fast beating heart. It was only a dream. She wiped the sweat from her face. The meadow had grown quiet, the birds and insects leaving the meadow to herself.
How long have I slept? she thought. The damp grasses had made her long hair wet and sticky. She stood again, feeling she must be doing something, her legs shaky from inactivity. Her body felt stiff. The dream...
The old one... she remembered the dream, but it wasn't the dream that had scared her, it was the strange feelings she had as if she had really been there... no, that made no sense either, she thought. She wished she could tell Avma about it; she would have understood its meaning.
She tried to straighten her clothes, then gave up in dismay. They were too wet, too old. She looked up at the indigo blue sky: oh, it was beautiful. Why couldn't it stay that way? She stood for a moment trying to decide if she had enough time to visit the pond: standing under the falling water sounded good. But she had been gone too long as it was. She looked longingly towards the cliff wall where the pond was, then turned away.
Silently she began to walk back the way she had come. But she hadn't taken more than three or four steps when she tripped on something and fell, the grass breaking her fall. She searched though the tall grass till she found what had made her fall. It didn't take long; the stone was easily spotted once she patted the grasses down. She had forgotten about them. Normally the meadow was filled with a soft down of green moss, instead of the tall grass and the stones stood out. She had loved to play on them when she was little, until she had been discovered by one of the Elders, who had soundly punished her.
This was hallowed ground; those stones were not to be played with, but respected, he had told her. When she had asked why, he wouldn't or couldn't tell her. She had asked others in the village about the stones, and other things that she had found in the caves and on the cliff face, but none had the answers. All they knew was that these things were to be respected and kept. After that time she had been intrigued by the stones and when she was sure none of the villagers would see her, she would come to the meadow and solemnly inspect each stone.
The one she had tripped on was one of the smaller ones in the inner circle. She had discovered that the stones were placed in circles. There was a large circle of five flat stones spaced about ten paces from each other. All of the stones had a small protrusion about the size of her hand facing towards the center of the circle. On each protrustion was a small cavity in its center.
The inner circle was different. There were more stones than fingers on her hands, each one crafted perfectly round. They made a tight ring and in the center of the ring the ground was lower. The outer stones looked just like stones to her, but the smaller ones sparkled when the Suns light hit them.
She stood and looked around herself. The grasses had successfully hidden the stones, but now she could tell where she was in proportion to the other stones. She wouldn't trip on another one unseen. Safe in that knowledge she continued on her way back to the village.
She left the meadow and entered the wood, there following the path ‘til she reached the ledge that sat directly above the village. She had a clear view of everything from here, the village as well as the mountains. She looked out over the mountains. It was so very beautiful up here, even with the Deadness. Standing here you could see forever. The high peaks of every mountain could be counted from this one cliff. None were as high, or as covered in woods.
There was no name for the mountain range; as far as any knew it the only one, so there was no need to give it a name. The mountains themselves were barren rock, black and smooth. As far as the eye could see in every direction there are the black mountains, and there are no soft peaks or rolling green hills; only the pointed, jagged ridges of the cliffs. The mountains were high, and the clouds lived almost halfway down, enveloping the lower cliffs so that most of the time they were invisible.
She thought back to before the Deadness. The mountains had looked different then. Greenery could be seen on the other cliffs from small meadows that had flourished on the flat ledges that jutted out from the sides of the black rock. Here and there in the view, green patches could be made out. Trees, that had little soil for roots, made up for it in their size. They towered upwards to the HighSuns, as if their only aim in life were to touch the golden spheres that brought warmth to their lives.
After a rainfall, the grasses and flowering bushes would grow overnight, their bright colors adding beauty to the surroundings, only to die after a few lightovers from the intensity of the Suns.
The village sat on the highest mountain, on what they knew to be the largest ledge. Every dark season, when the rains and coldness would come, part of the ledge would slip away down the mountainside, never to be seen again. But even with the loss every season, they still knew theirs to be the best and the largest.
There had been other villages of cliff people, each making a different ledge their own. Each filled with happy, industrious people. There were strong mels, with muscles forged from Cliffmoving, the climbing and rappeling of the Cliffs. Even the Mothers and felyouth could Cliffmove, but to be able to climb to the Highest of the High, the main village, was something that only the Elders could do. So Vila had never seen the other villages up close, only from this vantage point. She could have made the climb down to them, but would have been unable to get back.
But that was before the Deadness had taking them all. When there had been color and beauty in the mountains, the Cliffmovers to watch, and things to do. But then the Deadness had inched its way over all, killing everything it touched. The woods that had once been green and lush on the other cliffs in the distance were now dried up and dead, as were all those that had lived there. Only this ledge was left with life, though it too was almost gone.
She looked out over the horizon; it looked as if a great fire had burned all, leaving twisted and mutilated reminders of what once had been.
The lightover was drawing to a close. The HighSuns were almost hidden by the far mountains. Vila's attention was drawn to a black cloud in the far distance. As she watched it grew in size, ‘til the mountain it had been sitting atop was completely hidden from sight.
The storm is coming again, she thought, I knew that the good season couldn't have come this early. She turned and made her way along the ledge's rim until she was at the top of the path that led down to the village.
She stopped at the top of the path to look down on the village. Some of the Elders had ventured out and were sitting in the remaining light cast from the HighSuns. It looked almost peaceful down there. It reminded her of happier times. She reached up and touched the green stone that hung from the cord around her neck. She missed Avma who had raised her. The crystal was cold to her touch. It sleeps, she thought. The touch of it calmed her.
Her eyes were drawn once more to the horizon. The beautiful lightover being sucked up by the approaching blackness. The black cloud was closer now, hiding mountain after mountain as it moved. It was really moving fast...too fast, she thought. A panic took over her.
She realized that it wasn't just a storm coming, it was a giant dancing wind: a Lutz. Only this one was big, bigger than anything she had ever seen before. As it traveled over the mountains it swallowed them, devoured them. Its blackness seemed alive as it consumed everything.
Her instincts told her to run. But run where? As she stood there trying to decide what to do, the black cloud raced towards the village. It held her mezmerized as it swallowed mountain after mountain; she could see the winds swirling and twisting as it went. Part of a cliff on the next ridge broke off and crashed down the mountain, its sounds lost in the wind's howls.
When it had reached the closest mountain range, the HighSuns were blocked from sight, and the sky above them turned sickly black. That was when the villagers took notice of it. The Elders who had been outside stood and faced the oncoming torment with little regard. The old Mothers came out of the MainHall and stood with their mates.
Vila was aware of their acceptance of whatever was coming. They had no will to fight or even to be alarmed. Steadfast they stood, the wind that had come up preceding the black cloud, almost blowing the half-starved people over. But still they stood, watching and waiting, silent as the air around them.
Vila was torn; she felt so alone up here. More alone than she had ever felt before. She wanted to run down the path and join them. But something held her feet planted to the spot.
The black cloud that had disappeared down the side of the mountain cliff in front of them into the deep valley below had begun to show itself over the ridge of their ledge. It slowly crept up and over, tentacles of blackness inching their way around and over anything it came to. Vila couldn't move, not as the blackness encircled the first hut, wrapping it in a blanket of black fog. She couldn't move, even though she could see it wrapping its fingers, black fingers of fog, around the legs of the old people standing there, watching. Then the screams. Agonizing screams that pierced Vila through the heart. The black fury of the wind took the villagers up into its wild center, tossing them like dead leaves. Vila watched what was left of her village and her home disappear in the Lulz's hunger.
Vila felt that it wasn't just a storm, but somehow it was the Deadness taking on form. Not just the sucking of life from all living, but a tangible thing moving and feeding on everything that had the misfortune to be in its path.
She had to run! The meadow. With one last look at where her village had once been, she found her courage and turned the way she had just come from and ran. The path was narrow and rocky; she had never had problems before, but now she was running for her life. She lost her footing several times, once falling and rolling over the rough rocks. Her leg was hurt, but she didn't have time to feel the pain. She was up again in an instant, running along the ledge and into the dense wood. No sounds met her as she ran though the underbrush, all things living in the meadow gone into hiding.
She felt a coldness from behind her, but she dared not turn and look. On she ran, though the woods out into the meadow, and on through the deep grasses, missing all of the stones, towards the pond. As she reached the stream that flowed from the pond, the air around her became dark and dank. It smelt of death. The smell was nauseating.
On she ran through the water, giving no thought to the water that splashed over her legs. Suddenly the ground gave out from under her and down she went into the deep water of the pond. It was so unexpected that she hadn't had time to even close her mouth and she’d swallowed a large amount of it. Struggling against the water she forced her way up. Coughing, her head emerged out of the water into the black air. It took her a minute to regain her breath. She could hear the water falling near her from the cliff face onto the flat stone. She swam over to it and tried to pull herself out of the water onto the stone, but it was slippery and her strength was gone. The blackness seemed to grow even darker; she looked back towards the meadow.
The cloud was coming. She could see a movement of dark rolling over the meadow; it didn't stop for anything, and on it came. There was no place for her to go. She held onto the rock as best she could. The wind was whipping about her; the gentle pond became an angry thing. Great waves of water pounded her against the rock. She tried to hold on, but it was impossible. Her fingers slipped off and she found herself under the water. It was calming underneath; the water was warmer. She fought to hold her breath, her lungs beginning to burn.
She needed air, but couldn't go up, the violence of the storm making the water her enemy. She knew that she couldn't survive. The stone was against her back; she turned to it and blindly pushed herself down its side. The stone was safe, her muddled brain thought. Her lungs were about to give out, her head felt light. But she continued down: better to die here than by the blackness above.
Unexpectedly the stone was gone. Seeing had become hard, not because of lack of light, as there did seem to be some, but from her own lack of air. She was in free water. Reaching up she found what must have been the bottom of the stone, and using it she pulled herself under the stone, the weight of the water pushing her up flat against its underside. Her head was pounding, sounds of wind and birds seeming to come from nowhere. She wanted...wanted so much...but she didn't know what, she had never known what. She had been so very different from the others. She had longed to master the art of Cliffmoving, had wanted to know what lay beyond the cliffs, but she hadn't been allowed to climb down. Her body couldn't have climbed back up and the memories of the Elders laughing at the thought of the fat fel trying to do so had stopped her from trying on her own. All the felyouth had dreams of becoming a Mother, but she had never been asked for. When melyouths from the other villages had come seeking mates they had took one look at her and moved on. The humiliation was unbearable. She had stopped going to the ceremonies for mates after only two times. Avma had comforted her, saying she was meant for something more. What more? It never came and now the water was going to take her to the HighSuns. It was okay; she didn't mind going this way. With her last bit of strength she pulled herself along the underside of the stone, back towards the cliff wall.
Her head was spinning; she couldn't think clear anymore. It seemed as if a current was pulling her along. She was floating, so peacefully. The stone had disappeared and she floated on into dark peacefulness.
Vila woke abruptly to darkness. She knew she was awake only by the sound of her breathing. She didn't know where she was; there weren't any sounds of the wind, or any sounds of any kind what so ever. Besides, it was pitch black. She searched her memories for a clue to her surroundings, but her confused mind drew only blanks.
Then, in a rush, it came back to her. Running from the Lulz, the storm, into the pond. Then her memories failed her, and only the sensation of peace and at last, safety remained.
Motionless, she laid, listening for any sound of life, but all she heard was her own shallow breathing and the sound of that seemed all too loud. Her body hurt all over. Her chest felt as if a heavy weight had been dropped on it, making it difficult to breathe. There was a ringing in her ears and her head was pounding. All she wanted to do was sleep. Her eyes tried to close of their own accord, but she forced them back open.
She didn't know where she was, but she felt no danger from the blackness that blanketed her as it seemed calm and safe. Her eye lids were so very heavy; she gave up and let them close.
When she finally awoke it wasn't suddenly like before, but slowly, her thoughts arranging themselves before changing from dream to awakening. She relived the living blackness, crawling and winding towards the village. She saw the villagers, her people being engulfed by the Lulz, as its powerful winds tore through the village. She heard the screams of the old ones as they were swept away by the wind. She remembered running through the wood and meadow and falling into the pond. The Pond...the water had been fierce, then had become so safe, so comforting. She could recall the feel of the stone as she pulled herself down its rough side, to its bottom and then being drawn under it. Her dreaming ended there, only the feeling of loneliness remaining.
Her eyes gradually opened and she knew she was not in the village or even in the wood. It was dark, so very dark. And somewhere different; somewhere she had never been before. Though how she had gotten here she didn't know.
Her body felt stiff from inactivity. She had instinctively curled up in a tight little ball to keep the cold at bay while she slept and now she felt cramped. She moved to stretch, her muscles rebelling at the movement, only to realize that most of her body was laying in shallow water. She cautiously reached out to feel for solid ground. Soft sand met her searching hand. She pulled herself out of the water onto it.
She was beginning to shake: the water had been ice cold, but the air out of the water was colder. She straightened herself up and sat cross legged. She reached down, taking a handful of sand and let it drain out though her fingers. It was so fine and felt soft and warm to the touch. The feel of its warmth made her feel all that much more cold...and wet. She shivered in the frigid air.
All was silent blackness around her. It was a strange feeling, to be sitting with her eyes wide open and not to be able to see anything, so complete was the blackness.
It must be a cave, she thought. There was no sound. None whatsoever. The few caves she had ventured into had not been this quiet. Granted she had never gone in very far, but still there had always been the sound of water dripping or the wind as it whistled though the passageways. Here there was nothing. Nothing but the smell. It was peculiar, but still somehow familiar. It was a strong sweet smell, like old leaves in the densest part of the wood, but still different...older.
She looked about herself in every direction, trying to find any shades of light, but there were none. She turned her back to where she knew the water to be and reached her arms out in front of herself, searching for something solid. But from where she sat, she could find nothing. She wrapped her arms around herself seeking warmth. If it were possible, she was getting colder.
The coldness of the air and her wet hair and clothes were all adding to her discomfort. She had never been this cold before. She knew that she'd have to figure out where she was and get out soon or she would freeze.
She pulled her knees up close to herself and held them tight. She was shaking with cold. She laid her head on her knees and tried to relax. She was so scared. She wasn't prepared for this, for being this isolated. The darkness that surrounded her was almost unbearable. Even though there didn't seem to be any malice from it, she was still scared. She seldom cried, but here in the dark she allowed herself the release, her hot salty tears running down her fleshy cheeks to drip off into the darkness.
Only her sobs could be heard for a long time. She thought of all the things she had never done, now would probably never do and the tears continued to flow.
Suddenly, a light appeared… then... was gone. Even with her eyes closed she felt its presence. Sluggishly she eased herself up onto her knees, using the back of her hand to wipe the remaining tears out of her eyes. All of her joints were stiff and sore. She sat listening for a short while. But the silence and darkness were all that met her. Then so fast she almost missed it, the light flashed again. In the instant of its light she caught a glimpse of the cave and the water. The light came from a crack in the wall from where the water seem to come from or maybe went to.
She was undecided on what to do now. She couldn't stay here, but what was there? She sat for sometime, the light coming and going in long intervals. She let out her breath, which she realized she had been holding and slowly rose out of her crouched position and stood. She knew the direction of the light now; she would have to enter the water once more and swim to it blindly. Whatever courage she had she decided she better put into use. It was stay and freeze, or look to the unknown. She choose the unknown.
The water made no sound as she walked into it. It gently swayed around her; again the peaceful safe feeling came to her, if not warmth. She stood still for a minute when the water was to her waist, waiting for the light to guide her. She didn't have long to wait. It appeared off to her left, faint and soft.
She turned to it, and waded in the water, careful of where she put her feet. The bottom felt of soft mud, but her footcoverings were old and not much protection.
The water began to feel warmer as she neared the cave wall; she reached out with her hands to guide herself. The light came suddenly right in front of her, the crack in the wall not inches away. She saw that it was the water lapping into the crack that hid the light. She reached out and touched the wall: it was smooth and warm to the touch. It was moist with water and some kind of soft moss. It even smelt good... clean.
She had to turn sideways to fit into the crack, the water and the moss almost helping her slide in. The water was deeper inside. It reached almost to her neck as the water moved in and out about her. But even with its movement it did not hinder her. She made her way slowly for what seemed like a long time, but it was hard to gauge time or distance in the water and in the semi-dark. Her hands were her guide. They felt the smooth stone in front of her—her back was pressed up against the other side—as she edged herself along. Abruptly the wall was gone, allowing her body to sink in deep water. She fought down the urge to panic as she floundered trying to rise to the surface. She ceased to fight the water and allowed it to carry her up. She broke the water with a loud gasp for air.
She could see the shore line, so with short strokes she make her way ‘til she felt something solid under her feet once more. She could feel an incline, and, using it to guide herself, she slowly pulled herself out of the water to lay in a heap on the hard ground. She was breathing hard and her ears felt full of water.
She shook her head ‘til the water dislodged itself, then looked at her surroundings. It was a large cavern, the walls smooth and polished looking in some places, golden like the Suns at first light and rough and jagged in other places. The ceiling was high, the sounds from the water gently lapping against the stone echoing over and over. One side of the cave had an odd shape to it, flat and at an odd angle to the rest of the chamber. A design was etched into the golden surface. It resembled the drawings of the outer caves, but different in that it was part of this strange colored wall. She wanted to look closer at it, but it was on the other side of the water and she did not want to go into the blackness again. It appeared to be made out of something other than rock, a metal of some sort. The rocks surrounding it looked like they had melted over it concealing its edges. She tried to focus her eyes to see it better, since she couldn't make out the full details from this far away. If only the light were brighter. That thought made her look for the source of the light. She found it to be caused by curious green stones lying about the cave floor and embedded in the walls. They were giving off a soft green glow that bounced off scattered golden spots.
Looking around the area she noticed something in the back corner; it looked like a pile of rags. She stood and made her way over to it, dripping water as she went. There was a circle of green rocks, as if someone had once had a fire there. A pack of some sort laid just back from it, against the wall of the cave. She reached out, grabbing its bulk and tried to pull it towards her.
That was when a part of the wall crumbled in a cloud of dust and the sounds roared in the empty silence. The spontaneity of it caused her to scream and fall backwards awkwardly, her head hitting the ground hard. She sat up as the sounds of the disturbance died away. Her head hurt where it had hit the rock.
As she lifted her head she looked to her side just as a skull rolled over towards her, its empty eye sockets staring at her. She screamed and, rolling, found herself at the edge of the water. Once she reached the water, the sounds of the disturbance had died away and she was ashamed of her reaction.
She looked back toward the pile of rags. Now it seem to take on new meaning. It had been a person once. Her heart was racing; she tried taking deep breaths to calm it. She knew that bones couldn't hurt her: she had helped many times to clean the bones of the old ones after they had returned to the HighSuns and had been burned on the alter. It was an honor to be allowed to handle them.
Calmer, she returned to the pile and reverently uncovered the various parts of what had been a person. The bones were old, dry and brittle to the touch. It was the remains of a mel. It didn't take much deducing to figure out it was what remained of The Traveler. So, this is where he had gone to spend his last lightovers, she thought to herself. He hadn't been a HighBeing, but a mortal mel, one that passed just like them. She was disappointed, but somehow not surprised. And to think, he had been so close to them all this time.
She piled what remains she could in the manner of her people, with the skull on top, in a formation of rocks nearby. Then she did the rite for the old one. She hoped that he could still find his way to the HighSuns after all this time.
After taking care of the body of the old one, she went back to the pile of rags, to see if there was anything that she could use. She felt no remorse of looking though his belongings. After all, when an old one went on to the HighSuns in her village, all of their belongings were given out to others. So Vila decided if there was anything she could use, it was hers. As she dislodged what looked like a back pack a rock came loose and rolled onto her foot. She left out a little cry, more of alarm than pain. Rubbing her foot she angrily pushed the offending rock away; as she did so she noticed the stick. It was covered with stones and dust. She swept the debris away looking down at it. It was beautiful. A walking stick, she thought. Someone had taken the time and care to carve it. She had never seen work like it before. It looked like one piece of branch, the top the original knot of the wood. The carvings had not changed the knot into something else, but had enhanced the beauty of the knot’s curves and grains.
Where had it come from? And the pack: it looked almost new.. but that was impossible. The walking stick wasn’t made from any wood found in the cliffs, it had to come from far away…
“Oh!” she yelled outloud, then as her yell echoed back at her in the cave she jumped, but her excitement was so overwhelming that she wasn’t shaken for long. She’d forgotten whose it had to have belonged to. It could only have been the Traveler's, though the pack itself looked like one the Elders in the village would make.
She went over to the pile of stones his remains had been and shifted in the rocks and dirt. There wasn't much to show anyone had been here other than the remains of the firepit, what could have been a drinking cup and a few small bones of a ground rat. Why did he come to this cave? How did he know it was even here? Did the villagers from his time know of it? Questions… and no answers. She shook her head in wonderment, then remembered the pack.
She went over to where it lay, sat down and pulled it onto her lap.
A strange sensation raced though her body and the green crystal that had been laying cold against her skin unexpectedly emitted a burning heat. She grabbed at the crystal to hold it away from her flesh. Just as quickly as it had burned, its fire died and it was cool once more. Puzzled, she released it and turned back to her chore.
She looked at the bundle she held in her hands. It was similar to those she had seen before, but it was of an odd shape and made with an even odder material. She inspected it closely. It had two ropes attached on one side and in the front was a flap that was secured by tied string. It was in this way similar to the packs that the Cliffmovers used as they traveled the cliffs.
She sat back down and fumbled with the strings but she could not get them opened. The knot was strange to her, though she knew all of the special knots for Cliffmoving. With great care, she worked at it. Finally it started to work loose and then was apart.
She threw back the flap to uncover the treasures inside. She pulled out an oddly sewn shirt, that had ropes on the middle and front. She laid it aside to pull out what must be another part of clothing, made of the same dark blue material as the shirt. It looked like the pantaloons that the Elders had worn, except it had a draw string at the waist and more at the ankles. There were some curious looking footcoverings next.
At the bottom of the bag was a dark blue, almost black, cloak. It was beautiful; she had never seen one like it before. She put it back into the sack. She didn't need to wear it yet. It crossed her mind that the clothing, as well as the pack that held then should be dust after all the time it had laid here, but just as quickly dismissed the thought as ungrateful to the HighSuns. One should not question one's good fortune.
She looked down at what remained of her clothing. The tunic was torn in numerous places, unrepairable. It was soiled from lifeyears of wear. Quickly she removed it and what remained of her footcoverings, letting them drop unceremoniously to the ground.
All she had left on was the cord with the green stone. It hung low between her breasts. Her young body was beyond being just plump. But for all of her excess weight she still was small and definitely a felyouth. She wasn't large boned; her extra weight made her breasts close to unrecognizable. She didn't like to stand unclothed. It had always brought cruel remarks from the other youngones.
She picked up the clothes and hurriedly pulled on the pantaloons. They were big on her, but the draw strings held them on her hips, and the ankle drawstrings held the excess pant legs off the ground. They were baggy, but warm and comfortable.
The shirt was a different matter. She couldn't figure out how it went. The ropes in the front didn't make sense to her. She tried putting it on and wrapping the rope around her; it worked for one side, but on the other side the rope was stuck inside and couldn't tie with the other one. She took it off and inspected it again. On the left side, she discovered a small hole left in the seam of that side.
Once again she donned the shirt and this time threaded the right rope though the hole. That seemed to work; she wrapped the ropes around herself twice and tied them. The shirt was as warm and comfortable as the pants. She looked down at herself. Oh wouldn't be Elders be shocked? she thought. A felyouth in pants. It just wasn't done. No clothes at all would have been less shocking.
The arms on the shirt were too long, so she started to roll them up, when she discovered drawstrings on them too. In a good humor she tightened them as well, making her outfit a snug fit, if not a customary one.
She was warm now and except for her feet being uncovered, she was better clothed than she had been for many lifeyears. She walked over to the pool to have a look at herself. What she saw amused her. She looked so small in strange clothes. She had never looked small before. Her weight was undetectable and her breasts barely pushed against the material at all. She could be taken for a melyouth, if her hair was pulled back. She ran her fingers though her tangled hair, not making much of a difference without a comb of some sort. But she kept at it ‘til most of the knots were out. Then she broke off one end of the string on her pants that was hanging long and used it to tie her hair back.
She looked at the result in her refection and liked it. It looked a lot more functional than hanging in her face, just like the clothes were a lot more functional. Running and climbing in a tunic that the Mothers and felyouths had had to wear was always hard.
She went back to the pack where she had left the footcoverings. They were different than the ones she had worn. Her's had been little more than hides cut and shaped to her feet, then fastened with string. These had hard bottoms and the coverings were in the shape of a foot. She put her foot in one and pulled the top of the covering as high as it would go. It was a snug fit over the pantaloons, but when she stood her foot fitted nicely in the covering. The hard bottom was bigger than her foot. She wiggled her toes; there was more than enough room in them. She would need to somehow cut the bottoms down, but didn't worry about it now. She pulled on the other one quickly. The tops of them reached up just over her knees. She was sure that they had been meant to be worn this way, over the pants. Since they were designed for a larger person, it was convenient that the pants were too big also and took up a lot of space. She walked around, getting used to her new finery. She liked it. She could walk freely in this.
Her stomach grumbled, reminding her that she had gone without foodstuff since the dawning of the storm and she didn't know how long she had been asleep in the outer cave. She had to find a way out.
She reached down to pick up the walking stick and instantly the green crystal around her neck came to life again, searing her skin. She quickly pulled the cord, freeing the crystal from inside the shirt. She put covered the stone with one hand. It was still hot. Holding the crystal away from the shirt so not to burn herself again, she reached out with her right hand and took hold of the closest part of the stick, the top knot. The shock was immediate. The world around her exploded in lights, the force knocking her to the ground. Her hands were welded to the green crystal and the stick. She couldn't let go if she had had the strength to do so. She was only vaguely aware of what was going on. She screamed; her face contorted in agony. She could feel the ground beneath her. Her eyes were open but she was all but blinded by an intense spectrum of colors flowing around her. Her body felt on fire; the velocity of whatever energy that held her was vibrating every nerve ending. She felt as if she would explode.
Sounds, voices, screaming; all rushed at her out of the colors. They made no sense, no meaning to the voices. The words did not seem to be in her tongue. Over and over the screams continued. She didn’t know if it was her sceams or another’s. Her vision was a mixture of confusion and beauty. The screams started to sound like words, loud and demanding. The colors swirled around her, no shapes or forms within them. The pain was all consuming bolts of fire. She was frozen where she was. She had only two options, to endure it or hope for quick release to the HighSuns.
After what seemed eternity, but in reality was only seconds, the colors calmed into a soft whiteness, the sounds calming also. Her body felt as if it was solid rock.
Out of the confusion of colors and pain, a hand, pale and sur-real figure reached out towards her. Vila could only stare in horror at the apparition that beaconed to her.
"Vila?" a voice beyond age asked quitely. She couldn't respond. The hand did not seem to belong to a body. "Vila, lookatme." The words had no meaning, but Vila was shocked when she looked into the whiteness beyond the hand. A form was starting to take shape. Surrounded by agony she could barely make out the form of a fel. Her hair was pure white and braided loosely down her back. She could see the braid hanging by her knees. She didn't seem to be of this world. Formed of spinning colors, swaying with soft coils of white clouds. She closed her eyes to stop the spinning.
"Vilado youseeme?" the calm voice asked. "Focus on me, lookfor me" Then another voice, screaming again. Deranged and angry…angry at who? Vila was paralyzed with fear, as much as with the intense pain. She couldn't breath, fighting for control over herself she concentrated only on swallowing. She closed her eyes trying to make it all stop.
Then the voices combined, both loud and furious. “Stop!!” “But she can hear us!” “You will kill her…let me…” The voices argued, then others joined them, some loud, some barely audible; they were hard to understand. Some words felt familiar but sounded wrong. Then silence… a pause.
"Vila?” A question, spoken softly. “Vila, look atme.” The voice was pleading, but gentle.
She forced her eyes open. The fel was more solid. The colors were still spinning, but the fel stood out from them.
"Doyouseeme?" The fel asked in a anxious voice.
The words came in a slur of sound. What did she say? The hand was still reaching for her.
"Give..meyour..hand" She hesitated as much from fright as the fact that she couldn't move. "Youcan.do.it, Iknowit..hurts..Ican..help ..Focusonmy..hand.. andlift yours."
She could make out some of the words. 'do it', 'hurts', 'help' and 'hand' Not sure of what she asked she didn't know what to do, just wanted something to stop the pain. She forced herself to think. 'Hand', she had spoken that word. Did she want her hand? She concentrated on her hand. Then putting all her energy into the movement, she fought to lift her arm. As if in slow motion it raised, shaking all the way. Her fingers closed around it. As her hand was embraced the pain eased into a slight hum within her. Her hand was warm. She hadn't expected that, though she didn't know what she had expected.
She held her hand gently, but firmly. "Wedo..not..havemuch..time. The..Evensongs..aretoo..strong..foryou..tobehere..long." Her voice was full of urgency, though the words were heavy with fog. "Youarethe..chosen..one. Youarethe..wearer..of ..Dawn...the..Beginning....Andyouarethe..one..called..by..Guard..to..walk..besidehim ...The..Evensongs.intoneofyou..thepreserverof.deuce..Youarethe..one!"
Vila heard her words, not understanding any of it. She felt as if in a stupor; a blackness started to settle in around her. The fel's hand began to lose its substance of touch. Her eyes closed of their own accord.
"Vila!..Don't..letyourself..go!..Weneedyou!..Fight!" The words were filled with panic and heartfelt concern, only part of them made sounds she knew. Roughly her mind was wrenched open, all her feelings exposed to whatever forces were at work. She felt a darkness begin to take hold of her; it was cold, repugnant like the abnormalities that lived inside the darkness at the village. Panicked, she pushed away from it. She didn't want to go there! Mind racing she forced the blackness away. In her mind she sought out the exquisite colors...and the fel. There was no pain, only her own fright of being lost within the blackness. That thought endowed her with added strength. Slowly the blackness grew weaker within her, lessening its hold.
She could feel the warm hand once more. The voice invaded her consciousness.
"Evensongs..arestillveryalive..asisthe..Dark..Youarenotready..forthemyet..The.. fight.hasonly..just.begun." Her words were hastily spoken, but lost in the spinning clouds of colors. "VilaYoumust..find..one ..wi..knowledge! ...Theonewith ..Storm ..Makethe ...Joining...Trey...Rekindle...set usfree..longtime..longtime." The fel's voice was fading. Her hand was slowly released and in her mind she heard the echoes of her words. "Find...Storm...find...one...with... knowledge. Wewillbe...with...you. You are ...not ...alone...." The sounds and colors gradually faded away. The vision floated out of her thoughts like a dream.
I must have slept, she thought as she opened her eyes to the faintly glowing green cave. Her body hurt; the ache went deep. Her mind was in torment. Did I dream all that? she asked herself. Slowly she looked about herself: nothing had changed. The staff was still clutched tightly in her hand, but had slipped down to the knot of wood. She hurriedly let loose of it and pushed herself away a bit. Sitting up slowly, as to allow her throbbing head time to adjust, she examined the staff. What had that dream fel said? Something about deuce? And names that sounded familiar. Dawn... that was it. And.. something else... her mind felt like mush; it didn't want to work. Absently she rubbed the green crystal around her neck.
“Dawn,” she mumbled under her breath. The green stone warmed in her hand, sending what felt like gentle waves through her. She looked down at the crystal and said the name again. Once more the crystal responded gently to her. “That's your name!” she exclaimed out loud to the stone. Her voice echoed off the walls of the cave, creating a wave much like the sensation that the green crystal was sending though her.
She sat there for a long time, absorbing this discovery, when a thought kindled inside her mind. There were some other words... There was something about finding something... or someone, but that was all she could remember. She looked down at the walking stick that she had dropped. It laid innocently before her. She tucked the newly named Dawn inside her shirt before she reached for the staff. Laying it across her lap she inspected it closely. There were carvings of the Suns, the moon and the bright dots in the night covering almost every part of it. There were other carvings too that reminded her of the ones in the outer caves on the high cliff and... She looked up. Yes, the markings on the wall. They were just like it.
She stood, still holding onto the staff and walked over to the wall. This side of the cavern was dark, but up close she could make out in more details the carving in the wall. Someone had spent much time on it, just like the walking stick. It looked like the Suns with many little dots surrounding it. In the center of the carving were five images, like flowers, round in shape. There were other images, not recognizable, all around the flowers and the carvings of the Suns. It was a great piece of work, but Vila could find no purpose to it. She glanced at the staff in her hand. It felt right, as if it molded itself to her. She liked the security it gave her. Her eyes traveled the shaft to the top that reached as tall she was. At the top it was rounded, but to one side of the knob on top there was a notch that had opened. From inside came an odd gleam. She reached up to touch it and instantly knew that there was another crystal there; the feelings that the green sent into her were duplicated. With great reverence she wiped away the filth that had collected on it, hiding it from her. She wasn't shocked to find an inset of a beautiful blue crystal. It hummed to her touch much like Dawn had. Oh Suns! she thought, what is this?
Her stomach growled again, forcing her mind to focus on more practical matters. She turned from the wall and walked back to the water's edge. She knew she needed to find her way out; the storm was surely over with now. Was that all a dream? No, it couldn't have been. Her mind wouldn't settle itself. Absently she leaned towards the water to take a drink, when her eyes focused on herself. The shock of what stared back at her forced a shrill scream from her throat. Aghast, she reached up and pulled her hair to the front for her to see it. It was white... white as the white rain that fell in the cold season. It was longer too. No, it hadn't been a dream The pain had been real. She had been gone... gone a long time... long enough for her hair to grow. But the color!? Why had it changed? And her eyes! She looked again towards the water. Her eyes were changed too. They were soft violet blue, the colors of the sun woven in them. It was as if their true color had been released.
She sat back. Wrapping her arms about herself she sat rocking. Oh Suns! What was happening to her!? She was so scared! And the fel... she had told her something. Find the one with knowledge? Her whole body shook. Tears streamed down her face. Oh Suns!! She was... changed. Time stood still as she sat there, her mind trying to hold onto reality. The village was gone, the people were gone, even the other cliff people were gone. She didn't want to live alone. She sat contemplating what she should do. If only there was someone to speak to. She could remain on the cliffs... alone, or she could travel... travel like the old one had done so long ago. He had to have come from somewhere... somewhere where other peoples lived. 'Find one with knowledge.' The words rolled around in her mind. Was there someone out there that could help her? Someone with the answers that she needed? What else had been said? 'Storm?' 'Guard?' 'Not alone?' That didn't make sense. Yes, she did indeed need to find one with knowledge. That is what she would do... what she had to do.
Unconsciously she reached for the crystal that hung around her neck, slowly rotating it in her hand. It was warm to the touch. Dawn, the name, Dawn. She rolled the name around in her mind as she caressed the stone. She felt at peace... with her decision to leave the cliffs and even somewhat with herself. She tucked the crystal back inside her shirt and turned back to where the pack lay.
Once she had made the decision she was in a hurry to begin. She retrieved the pack and took the cloak from inside. She put it on, then decided to put the pack on first under the cloak. She took off the cloak and tried several ways to wear the strange pack before she found a comfortable fit on her hip. She secured it over one shoulder and around her waist with the rope. This way she could reach it without it having to come off. She put the cloak back on and pulled the hood down over her head, fastening it tight. All she needed now was some of the Cliffmoving tools and she could make the descent off the cliffs. She hoped that something had been left of the village that she could savage.
She turned and walked to the pool's edge, holding tight to the walking stick. She geared herself up for the cold water and walked into the pool. It was deep and she had to swim to the crack in the wall. Her clothes and the staff should have hampered her, but she made it to the opening without much trouble.
Vila let the current help her move back into the outer cave. It was more forceful than it had been before; she fought to keep upright, using the wall for support. As she left the crevasse for the openness of the outer cave she held tight to the moss-covered wall and pulled herself along its side until she was out of the water and on the soft sands.
She found that although it was dark in the cave she could now see faintly, everything having a slightly blue hue. The outer cave was barely a round hole in the rock of the cliff. The water took up half and the other held a dark beach of sand. She could see the impressions she had left before in the beach. The cave was low, just above her head.. an Elder would not have been able to stand upright. The water was dark and deep, bubbling and churning though the small cave, then disappearing though the crack into the larger cave.
Leaving the water, she walked to the other end of the pool, to the wall where the water mysteriously seemed to begin. She inspected the wall and peered into the water trying to see where the water was coming from, but the water was black; she couldn't see into its depths. She leaned out over the water as far as she could, holding onto the wall. The wall was slick and her hand slipped off, throwing her off balance and into the water. She fought to keep hold of the staff as she shrunk deeper into the pool.
So that's how I came in, she thought, as she looked down and saw an opening, There was a large hole in the cave wall, about four meters underwater from which the water was flowing in from.
The current had been strong enough to push her into this cave. She could feel it pushing against her now. Swimming against it was going to be hard.. There was no other way out that she could see, and getting out was mandatory; it was cold in the cave and she needed foodstuff.
Vila allowed herself to be pushed back into the pool and raise to the surface. It wasn't hard for her to paddle to shore to the soft sandy beach. She looked down at her finery in dismay, just now thinking that she should have not entered the water in the first place dressed. Also she knew that she couldn't make the swim in it. Piece by piece she undressed, carefully folding each item as small as possible, wringing as much water out as she could, then stored it in the pack. If it was cold before, it was colder now standing wet and unclothed. Dawn around her neck was cold also; laying against her flesh it was uncomfortable.
She tied the pack as securely as she knew how onto her back, then picking up the walking stick, she plunged into the iciness of the water.
The drop off was immediate, the water pushing her back away from the opening. She tried several times to swim though the opening, but gave up each time as the walking stick got in her way or her lungs cried for air. But she was determined: she had to get through. She held onto the wall for a moment, to catch her breath, the current fighting her even there. Without thinking she steadied herself with the walking stick, securing it into the muddy bottom as a wedge to hold her where she was.
It wasn't until she caught her breath and was ready for another try that it occurred to her to use the staff in the same manner as a wedge to get though the opening. She filled her lungs with air, then quickly submerged herself.
She found a good handhold in the wall and held on, using the walking stick behind herself. First moving one hand, then repositioning the walking stick, she moved down the wall towards the opening. The full force of the current caught her off guard, but the walking stick held tight in the mud and she pushed against it and moved into the opening. It was just large enough to allow her to move freely.
She couldn't hold her breath for very long, but she made good progress through the hole. She found the rhythm of moving her hand then the stick, so that it became fairly easy chore. She came to a point where she couldn't find anything to hold onto with her hand the rock around her was so smooth, so bit by bit she pushed with the stick.
The current began to ease, then was gone completely. Her lungs about to burst, she pushed herself out of the opening into the free water of the pond and rose to the outside.
She broke though the surface gasping for air. The pool was filled with debris, bits of limbs and leaves floated on top. She pushed them aside and awkwardly with the walking stick, swam to shore. Pulling herself out of the water onto the familiar ground she took note that the wood was quiet. A dense fog floated around her. The time of lightover was unrecognizable as the blackness merged with the fog. The fog lay about two meters off the ground allowing her a limited view of the meadow. She wondered only momentarily how she could see in this semi-dark, but pushed the thought from her mind.
She dressed quickly, refastening the pack on her hip, then surveyed the damage to her meadow. The winds had flattened the tall grasses that had stood so proud. They laid on the ground, grey and brown, all life gone from them, the old stones rising here and there, through the fallen masses.
She walked through the meadow. It looked as dead as all the other cliffs now. There was no green left in sight; the grasses were moist from the rains that always followed close behind the Lulzs. Her feet sank in places along the trail. As she neared the wood, she could see the extent of the damage to it also. Many of the huge trees had fallen beneath the strong winds and laid like kindling all throughout the wood. All the leaves had been stripped off of the trees. They were as dead as anything else.
The few trees left standing were of the Eubu wood, strong and almost uncuttable. But even the Eubus left standing looked like they had had the life sucked from them. Another layer of fog floated high above, hiding the trees’ uppermost reaches.
The old ones in the village had fashioned many tools out of the hard wood of the Eubu's. That thought made her think of the village. She knew that the villagers were all gone back to the HighSuns, but she hoped that some of the Cliffmover tools could still be found; she would need them to get down the cliffs to the low lands.
The path was blocked in many places by fallen trees or rocks that had come loose from the high cliff and rolled down, smashing as they went, leaving a trail of splintered wood in their wake. As she made to climb over yet another dead tree, she noticed the vine of a tuber near the uprooted end of the Eubu tree.
She climbed down and using the end of the staff, then her hands, she uncovered the large fleshy colored tuber. Hungrily she bit into it, the sweet heavy juices exploding as she broke the skin. She didn't stop to wipe the juices that had spayed onto her face, but continued to eat until the tuber was just a hollow shell. Her hunger abated, she sat down and leaned against the large root of the tree.
How many lifeyears had she along with every other villager hunted after a heavy storm for any old Eubus that may have fallen so that they could get to the hidden treasure of the tuburs that grew only in their roots? It was almost impossible to dig to them with the roots protecting them. The mels could dig them out, sometimes taking days to accomplish that even after a rain had softened the ground. But there were creatures that burrowed deep into the ground that could come up under the trees and get to the sweet tubers also. Vila, along with the other youngones, had used slings to kill the groundhogs that had been dull-witted enough to bring the tubers back up to the surface to eat. It had meant a feast of groundhogs and tubers for everyone... but it was very rare.
And here she sat with a wood full of uprooted Eubu trees. The prized tubers hers for the taking. It would mean a lot of work, but if she collected the tubers... and could find a cookoven still standing, it would mean enough foodstuff to last her for many Suncycles, even longer if she was careful with them. It was the foodstuff favored by the Cliffmovers, since it took up so little space and was so good at giving the Cliffmovers the energy they needed for their climbs. She couldn't believe her luck.
It would solve the problem of obtaining drinkable water too. Even cooked hard the tubers could give off moisture enough to quench a thirst in even the most overworked Cliffmover.
She dropped her pack by the tree root and removed her cloak. She went from tree to tree digging with whatever she could find to uncover the tubers. There seemed to be an unending supply. As she pulled the tubers she laid them on the cloak, pulling it along after herself. She didn't like using it in such a working fashion, but it was necessary. She had to leave off digging when the cape was so full that she could barely move it.
She retrieved her pack and tied it around herself. Pulling up the corners of the cloak she make it into a large bag, she then fitted the staff through the top of the bag. It was bulky, but she was able to lift it up and over her shoulders. The weight was heavy, but she had carried heavier before.
Squaring her shoulders, she started back down the path to where the village had been. There were still trees to climb over, and now and again she had to detour off where the path should have been but were now just gaping holes; part of the cliffside had slid off during the storm.
The lightover had been dark grey and cold when she had risen from the pool, but now a heavy darkness had settled on the cliff. Vila was left walking down the once well known path, in what should have been complete darkness. Once more she gave it little thought that she could still see. Everything was faint, but it was like a dimly moonlit night.
It took her more than twice as long as it used to, to descend the cliff's path to the village, or what remained of the village.. There were no huts left standing. Some were completely gone, others were flattened to the ground. She had to get out of the cold. Her body was stiff and her head was pounding. There was a small cave set in the lower cliff side that the villagers had used for storing. She hoped that the cliff had held.
Trees had fallen down here also; there was even a few of the large Eubus that must have been tossed down the cliff by the winds, lying about and hindering her way. She was more than tired and she was hungry again. It took her a long time to find the cave. It had been completely hidden by the fallen trees. But because of that, the cliff wall had been protected and the cave had held.
She crawled in the low opening, pulling the bag of tubers and the walking stick behind herself. It was cold in the cave, which she had expected, but luckily the fallen trees outside had protected the items stored inside from any destruction by the winds. She found the extra firemaking tools that the Elders had made last new season.
There were many of the little twisted pieces of Pibla grass. Each bundled neatly in bags of skin from various animals. She opened one bag and took out one of the sticks. There was a splinter of flint rock hidden deep in the center of it. She pushed on one end until the flint was just level with the grass.
Then she went to the cave opening and gathered as many pieces of wood as she could without going far outside the cave. There seemed to be a good supply scattered near the opening.. Taking the pile of wood back inside, she laid it aside while she formed a fire ring in the dirt. She knew how to lay a fire in a hut so that it would burn hot and the smoke would go up and out the smoke hole. There was no smoke hole here, so she positioned the fire not too far inside the cave; the smoke could go out the cave opening instead.
She sat down behind the fire ring, deeper inside the cave. The wood was laid out easily; she had no dried grasses for the kinder, but there were some old baskets in the cave that she pulled apart and used instead. She took hold of the Pibla stick and stuck it against the cave wall. The sparks from the flint instantly ignited the dry Pibla grasses that surround it. She blew on it to make the flame surer, then placed it on top of the kindling inside the fire ring. Soon she had a warm cheery fire burning.
Finally warm, she ate one of the tubers, then, curling up with the walking stick held tight to herself, she laid her head on the bag of roots and fell quickly asleep. A faint glow emitted from the staff's top knob, enveloping Vila in a soft blue glimmer.
The dreams came again... Darkness... so much darkness... voices calling her... falling light, hot burning light... dead, everyone was dead... eyes, beautiful eyes... calm waters, running smoothly though darkness. Warm arms, laughter...
The dreams were no different than they had been ever since she had started wearing the green crystal, though stronger and clearer than they had been before, but they didn't stay with her. Her mind pushed them out and she slept peacefully the rest of the long night.
Vila awoke to a void of sound. The storm had emptied the area of birds for the present. Yet she felt good even before she opened her eyes. The cave was warm and she had slept soundly, the dreams forgotten in the new lightover. She opened her eyes and turned so that she could see out of the cave opening. It was blocked by the fallen trees so that only a small patch of openness could be seen. But it was enough to show her that the lightover had dawned to a deep gray blackness.
She stretched, then rose. Her body needed release; she moved out of the cave into the cold air and found a place of soft dirt. She dug a small hole; relieved herself into it. Out of habit she covered the place and marked it, though there were none left that cared if she followed the customs or not.
Although the lightover was dark, she could still see well enough as she went back into the cave. The Mothers had worked hard at stocking it most seasons, but in with the deadness and their illness they had used up all of the foodstuffs. There was a large skin of a cliff goat that had been stored here to be cured when there was time. The long shaggy fur was still attached. It was light enough for her to carry, she decided. She would need something to lay on at night.
The rest of the stores were useless to her. No Cliffmoving tools or cookovens were in the cave. She hoped that there were some in the fallen huts, or she would never get down the cliffs. She did not have the skills to weave the ropes or fashion the foot and hand spikes.
She emptied the tubers out of the cape and dusted it off as best she could, then put it on. With a shiver she left the warmth of the cave once more and, climbing over the trees, made her way to the destroyed village.
It was a sad sight. Nothing that could be recognized as a village remained. Just piles of wreckage lay about. The piles weren't even where the huts had been. The huts must have been picked up, then thrown back down as the Lulz had a mind to do.
She neared the largest pile. It could have been what remained of the mainhut, but it was on the wrong side of the ledge. She had left the walking stick in the cave, so she picked up a small branch and used it to poke around in the ruins. She cried with delight when she uncovered a cookoven. It had one side smashed, but she could still use it. The cooking had always been done on one side of the huts and the work of the Elders on the other, so she abandoned where she found the cookoven and walked around the pile to the other side, and began to dig there.
It didn't take long before she found what she had been looking for: two long lengths of rope. The strongest ropes to be found anywhere. Loalg had won many Cliffmover games with his ropes. No one in any of the other cliff villages could weave the fibers from the Delba bush as tight or as strong as he could. Vila knew that she was lucky to have found Loalg's ropes and not someone else's.
Nearby she found a small bag of tools. She couldn't tell whose bag it had been; all looked the same, but it had the stone hammer and the foot and hand spikes, and even a small sharp skinner's knife in it. She had what she needed now.
Taking up the items she had found, she went back to the cave. It would take her most of the lightover to dry the tubers down to Cliffmover foodstuff. The oven was easily set up next to the cave opening. Vila used rocks to patch the smashed side, then gathered a good supply of hard wood and kindling.
She set a fire in the bottom of the small oven, starting it with an ember from her fire of the night before. While it burned down hot, she used the knife to slice into the tubers. Since she hadn't taken time to eat yet, not many pieces were piled up for the first few tubers, as most of them found their way into her mouth. Fortunately, when it came to tubers the fact was that it didn't take a lot of the meaty flesh to fill a person up, and she was quickly sated.
When she had enough for the first batch, she opened the top of the cookoven and arranged the pieces so that the heat could reach all, then closed the doors tight.
She spent the rest of the lightover slicing up the tubers and baking them hard. The result of her work was a pile of black ugly pellets the size of a Eubu nut. They looked inedible, but she knew differently. Since to eat a fresh tuber was a rarity, she had saved a couple to eat before she left in the morrow. She had enough to last at least six full Sunscycles. She hoped that she found people or more foodstuff before they ran out.
Her hands and face were black from the smoke, and her fingers were a sticky mess from the tuber juices. Even her finery had not gone undamaged by the work; it had a heavy film of soot on it also.
The lightover had begun cold, and had become even colder, but working by the fires she hadn't noticed. Now walking down the path to the streambed that laid off to the side of the dead village, she was thoroughly chilled. By the time she reached the water, she had almost convinced herself that it was better to be dirty and somewhat warm, than clean and frozen. But habit prevailed. She undressed and waded into the water. It was colder than she had ever remembered it being.
All of the villagers had bathed every morning, until the illness came. They were a clean people, enjoying the strong smells of the Highcliffs, but hating the odor of unclean bodies. Vila used sand from the stream bottom to rub her body and hair clean. She had no soft animal fat to really clean herself with, so this would have to do.
When she was done with herself, she left the water shivering. Naked she knelt by the water's edge and washed out her clothes, then raced back to the cave. The fire ring had died out, but the heat from the oven had made the cave almost too hot. She laid the wet clothes out on the rocks in the cave and, using the left over wood, made up a fire in the fire ring.
She wrapped the goat fur around herself and ate one of the fresh tubers. She sat staring at the fire ‘til her eyes closed on their own.
The darkness had a strong hold of the cliff when she woke. It could have been time for the Suns to rise, but the fog was heavy outside and the blackness hung thick. She wondered if the Suns would ever shine again. She dressed in the now dried and stiff clothing. The boots were the only piece of clothing that didn't seem to change even when wet. She pulled them on last, then set to packing her gear.
The pack was large and now empty since she was wearing the clothes it had held. She found a sound skin and put the dried tubers in it. She then piled all of her necessary gear in front of herself so that she could decide the best way to pack.
There was the skin of dried tubers, the tools, the knife, the Pibla fire sticks, the two lengths of rope, and the fur. She packed the foodstuff first; then the fur. The fire sticks she divided into three parts, packing them in skin pulled tight around them. One she packed with the foodstuff, then one after the fur, then the last bundle she tied to her waist with a piece of rope. She didn't wish to be caught without a way to make a fire. The land was getting colder and she knew she would need it to survive.
Next she put in the Cliffmover tools. The knife she wanted to have out where she could reach it. Cutting off a piece of the flap of the pack, she made a crude holder for it, then secured it around her waist on the drawstring of her shirt.
She put the pack on, tying it as tight as she knew how. The opening of the pack was easily reached so that she wouldn't have to take the pack off and on to get something out of it.
Her long white hair had become tangled in the night, so she tried the best she could to comb it out with her fingers, then tied it back out of her face with the cord again. The ropes she put over her shoulders; lastly, she donned the cape. Her packing complete, she put out what was left of the fire and, retrieving the last fresh tuber along with the staff, she left the cave.
She took care of her bodily functions, then started the walk down to the lowest cliff where the Cliffmovers had always descended from. The lightover had still not dawned. The fog blanketed her with a fine mist. The walk was slow, over more fallen trees and rocks, the darkness making her footing unsure.
By the time Vila had reached the cliff's edge, the lightover should have been well underway, but the darkness held on. She took the tools out of the pack and put the tuber she had been carrying in. Excitement had killed her hunger.
It was an easy matter to put the foot spikes on; they fit well over the footcoverings, tight as they should. They would not come loose. Then she took the longest of the ropes and found the end. Tying a loose knot in it, she put the rope around the Eubu tree that still stood proud and strong near the edge. She slipped the other end of the rope through the knot she had made. To finish the line off she twisted a large knot in the end of the rope, securing the other end onto it. Holding her breath she dropped both of the ends off of the cliff, into the black fog below.
If the rope was long enough, she would be able to climb down the dual ropes to the next ledge, untie the rope and bring it down to her. She hoped it would be long enough; she would need this rope many more times before she left the cliffs behind. This was the deepest drop-off; if the rope reached the ledge below it could reach all the other cliffs too.
She tied the pack close, then awkwardly tied the walking stick to her back. It would not be the best arrangement, but she could not possibly leave it behind. Somehow it was a vital part of all this and she knew she needed it with her. Lastly she put on the hand spikes. Now she was ready.
Standing on the cliffs edge, she looked out into the blackness of the fog. It didn't allow her much view, but she knew what it looked like. It didn't scare her; being alone forever was what terrified her. She could feel warmth from Dawn around her neck. She approves, she thought, smiling to herself.
Before she had time to change her mind she grabbed hold of the rope and lowered herself over the side.