Avril crouched, waiting, listening in the silence of the mist. He turned his head slightly and held his breath. About ten yards ahead he heard the scratching of feet as the squirrel scampered higher up the tree. It was careless, too noisy. It was frightened. That must mean… yes. Inching nearer to the squirrel were the soft, slow steps of boots against the pine needles on the ground. Avril waited for about three steps before beginning to move forward himself. Each step was in time with the step footsteps of the one ahead of him. While the hunter closed in on its prey, Avril kept pace with the hunter.
The squirrel scampered higher until it was far enough from the ground that the mist was slightly clearer. Then, when it saw what it wanted, the small beast took off. The squirrel raced toward the end of the branch running with an agility born as much from memory as it was from sight. With its last steady step, it jumped into the air. For a moment, it seemed to be gliding weightlessly forward then its front feet caught the end of another branch. That branch bowed under the weight of the sudden impact. The fleeing squirrel found its balance and scampered onward into the network of branches in this misty copse of trees.
Kayeen had not been ready. He had lifted his hand as he turned toward the sound above, but it was too late. The mist had already shrouded his prey and he could hear it scolding him as it retreated further into the distance. Kayeen muttered a curse and began to run after the little beast.
Doing his best to maintain an even distance behind, Avril focused on timing his steps to those of his twin brother’s. Although born only minutes apart, Avril’s lithe frame was nothing like his muscular, slightly taller, older brother. Kayeen might have an edge in strength and reach, but Avril’s speed and agility were much better suited for this shrouded forest. Avril continued to time his footfalls to match his brother ahead as both chased after the squirrel. As he ran, Avril reached up, closed his fist, and pulled it toward the ground. The fog down at ground level seemed to thicken when he did so but overhead, where the squirrel ran, visibility was slightly improved.
After a few minutes of following the hunter at this steady pace, Avril smiled and veered off to his right, increasing his speed. The squirrel continued on for a while but then began to slow as the density of the trees started to thin out. Below Kayeen ducked as he ran by a low branch that appeared suddenly out of the mist. He slowed when he noticed the thinning and stopped suddenly when he noticed that he could no longer hear the squirrel overhead.
Kayeen closed his eyes and tuned into the rhythm of the forest. High overhead he could hear the unprotected wind screaming by. Far to his left, there was a slight hissing of steam coming up from the ground. Slightly closer a family, raccoon or perhaps skunks, was drinking at one of the warm pools. But there, above and to the right, he heard his prey inching slowly back and away. In his haste, he had overshot and now Kayeen turned slowly so that he was once again facing toward the squirrel. He brought his right hand up to his lips and blew. As he did so eddies of wind swirled in the mist creating pockets of visibility. He saw nothing of interest so Kayeen took a few steps forward and blew again.
Avril slowed to a stop when he was twelve yards away and where he was directly facing his brother. He had to duck behind a tree when one of those first swirls almost revealed his presence. As soon as the fog closed back around him, Avril peaked his head back out from around the tree. In order to protect the hunted, Avril either had to see it himself or prevent his brother from seeing it. The trick was to do something to find the squirrel that would not, at the same time, give away his own position.
The matter became a moot point when Kayeen spotted the squirrel himself. He muttered in pride at the find then slowly he brought both hands up as if in prayer. When they reached eye level he pulled them quickly apart. Just as suddenly the mist around the squirrel was parted. The squirrel used its sudden visibility to make a dash for a distant branch. Just as it launched itself, Kayeen slapped the back of his right hand against his left palm. It was if the squirrel ran into an invisible wall.
On the far side, Avril watched the poor thing fall to the ground. Thinking quickly he made a fist with his left hand and with his right he backhanded the air around him. The squirrel was slapped twenty feet to the side but the thick fog near the ground, which had not completely cleared away, betrayed no evidence of the squirrel’s flight.
Kayeen ran, dagger out, to where he thought his prey should be, but nothing was there. For a second he paused, confused, then his face curled into a snarl. “Avril” he growled. Quickly turning, Kayeen began blowing swirls into the mist behind him. Far from the direction Kayeen was searching, Avril put a hand up to his mouth. Even if Kayeen was listening, he would not have been able to hear his brother creeping away.
Later that afternoon a very angry and tired Kayeen ducked his head and walked through the low tunnel into their home. As he straightened up, he saw his father reading in his chair. The older man only half saw his son as he continued to read. “Didn’t catch anything?”
“Nothing.” Kayeen cast a suspicious glance around the room and looked accusingly deeper into the house. “Somehow they kept eluding me.”
Andrei chuckled as he marked his place in his book. “You know, there are easier ways to hunt than trying to pull things out of the trees.”
Kayeen jumped when his brother said from behind him, “But few that are more fun. Right, Ky?”
Avril straightened up as he came out of the entrance. In his right hand were three squirrels. He winked at his older brother and asked, “Where’s yours?”
Andrei pushed down his smile as he watched the obvious tension between his two oldest sons. “It’s fine.” He said, “We’ve already had a pretty good haul this summer and there’s very little we need to trade for anyway.”
“Except for more books of course,” Avril said.
Andrei blushed. “There is that.”
“I’m going to check the east traps.”
After Kayeen bulled his way past Avril, there was an awkward silence as the other two watched him leave. Andrei almost spoke up to say there was no need but he held his peace. Kayeen needed his space. There had been a growing darkness around his oldest son lately and more and more often the boy just wanted to be alone. The twins were just a few months from turning eighteen and it seemed that their northern shelter had grown too small. Andrei turned to his other son, “You really shouldn’t pester him so much.”
“What do you mean?”
“Don’t play coy. Everything with you two is a competition. He’s been bottling it in, but one of these days you’re going to push him too far and he’s going to hurt you.”
“He’d have to catch me first.”
Andrei pushed his glasses further up his nose and looked square in the eyes of his son. “He knows where you sleep.”
Avril blushed. “There is that.”
Deeper in the house, young Sevi sat alone at the table. His face was scrunched in concentration as he pointed at a small rock. On the edge of the table, the rock wobbled then slid half an inch and fell to the ground.
Kayeen headed off towards the east, but he wasn’t interested in checking the traps. Although there was only one inhabited cave, this area was peppered with many others. Some had become the home to various beasts of the forest and others the family used for storage. These would have traps set up right at the entrance to discourage any curious scavengers. Far more numerous were the caves that had entrances so small or so well hidden that Kayeen was unaware of their existence.
It was one such cave that first began calling to Kayeen in the deep of last winter. This far north, winter was harsh. Temperatures, even at the warmest part of the day were cold enough to kill a man in heartbeats. The mist and the hot springs protected the forest some, but even here no one would want to be outside long and most animals had long since migrated or gone to ground. The problem with remaining inside, however, was that even though their cave could house far more than the five people living there, it could still become quite cramped when one is seeing the same five people for months on end.
It was while he was out seeking a familial reprieve that Kayeen first heard the humming. The sound wasn’t so much audible as it was something that he felt in the back of his head. At first he barely noticed it but as he wandered further to the east, the sound seemed to pick up in intensity. Kayeen spent as long as he could that first day trying to track down the source of that humming before the cold finally drove him back inside.
As often as possible over the next two days he was back out there trying to narrow his search. This was a difficult thing to do because he could not hear the direction the humming was coming from. All he could do was move forward and try to gauge whether the sound was increasing or decreasing in intensity. Another difficulty he encountered was the headaches. The closer Kayeen came to the source of the humming the worse his head seemed to hurt. It was near dusk on the third day that the pain became unbearable. He leaned back against a tree and began to rub his temples when the humming stopped. There, directly in front of him, was a small hole in a ridge of ground. Had the noise in his head not stopped right at the instant he saw it, Kayeen probably would have walked right on by, but as soon as the noise was silenced he knew whatever was making this noise was calling to him from inside that hole.
Ignoring the biting cold, Kayeen dropped to his knees and tried scratching the hole larger. It was no use. Between his numb fingers, the darkness, and the semi-frozen ground it would not be accomplished that night. Reluctantly he returned home, but he could not sleep. All night he lay awake feeling that something was calling to him more urgently than ever. When false dawn first began to lighten the mist, Kayeen was up. He grabbed some supplies for digging and ventured back out into the cold.
The small hole turned out to be an artificial cave made to appear like one of the small steam vents that peppered the landscape. It only went about six inches back before exposing a true cave about two feet high and wide and about eight feet deep. Inside this cave were two long boxes clearly of his father’s making. One of these boxes called so strongly to Kayeen that he barely noticed that it was not the only one there. Kayeen pulled the box out into the open then, using the same trowel he had been digging with, he pried off the top of it. What he saw inside left him speechless.
It was a sword. That statement, however, did not do the weapon justice. With both hands, Kayeen lifted the bastard sword out of the box. A blood red ruby served as the pommel and the sword’s grip was black leather widely wrapped around ebony. The grip rounded out at the center and was a length that would be comfortable to wield with either one hand or two. The crossguard was black steel that flowed into the shape of two open-mouthed wolves. The black necks of these wolves formed a ricasso that came to an end on both sides in a diamond shaped like an arrowhead. The diamond facing up was reflecting rainbows of light into the mist. This diamond fit perfectly against the v shape of the gold locket that began at the scabbard. That locket was a beautifully crafted flame outlined in red. This outline broke into wavelike streams of crimson that ran down the black steel all the way to the chape where the streams recombined beautifully to highlight another crafted gold flame. In spite of the cold all around, the sword was slightly warm to the touch.
When Kayeen first gripped the sword it sang to him. It whispered of his future and spoke to him of his dreams. For the three and a half months from that day to the present, he patiently waited for the day those dreams would begin to become a reality. Today was that day. Today was the day he would grab hold of his own destiny. Today Kayeen was heading back to claim his sword. Tomorrow… he would claim the world.
Rowyh sat on a brick by the riverbank as his heartbeat slowed. The wide, shallow river was already moving slowly but as the young man watched, it seemed to slow even more. The ripples of current did not disappear into a glassy stillness but rather slowed to a stop as if the river before him was the canvas of a brilliant artist. It was not just the river that had stopped. The one wisp of a cloud maintained its shape and position in the azure sky. Near the far bank, a heron’s beak was still halfway out of the water. The fish it had not quite caught remained motionless in its flop back into the safety of the deep. Just to his left, Rowyh saw the wings of a dragonfly. He never realized how beautiful the pest could be.
It was not just motion that had gone still. Sound had done the same. The slow whisper of his final exhale sounded deep and rich in his ears since there was no other noise to drown it out. His heartbeat drummed long and low. There was too much time between that first beat and the second. It seemed to be minutes from that bass beating until the next which sounded so low in his own ears that he could barely register the sound. For an eternity Rowyh waited to hear it beat again. It never did. His eyes were still open when the world around him faded to black. Then he saw.
Malik loved to come down to the river. Here, there was far less of a reminder that his once great city was now a shadow of itself. The Mitsrem were the first people, the oldest. Now the young world around them had grown up and passed them by. He had been in his prime when that slow decline became a rapid decay. He was a young man when the Great Tree had been killed. Those sad thoughts were for another day. Today Rowyh, his grandson, would become a man.
As he waited, Malik breathed in the fresh air of a peaceful spring day. He watched one thin cloud meander across the sky moving at the same slow speed as the lazy river. The splash of a heron pulled his gaze down to the far bank. Malik smiled as he saw the bird bob its head in frustration after a near miss. A dragonfly came buzzing at him and he swatted it away. While he watched it fly off, Malik heard the thump of a body hitting the ground.
Immediately, the man was covered in shame and remorse. Had he been held up, Rowyh could have lived a lifetime in the dream. Malik’s failure meant the boy had experienced a few hours, maybe a day or two at most. How was he to have known that the dream would have been entered so quickly?
Malik helped his grandson recover consciousness and return to his seat. He said, “My pride in you is overcome by my shame in myself. Please, my son, forgive me.”
“There is nothing to forgive.” The young man said, “I saw what I saw and that is enough.”
“But you would have seen so much more had I not been so lax in my duty.”
“No, greatfather. What I saw was brief and most of the time I was waiting to wake. I thank you for not making me wait a lifetime.”
Rowyh saw that his grandfather was confused and at a loss for words so he continued, “I saw a great storm brewing in the north. It is a darkness that threatens to take over the world. Behind the cloud, a sun was rising but the light from that sun is still in the future. Only one star was not yet swallowed up by this darkness but without help, it soon will be. I felt stirring inside me a need to help this star when a voice said to me, ‘You must go north.’ And that was all.”
Malik took a moment to process this. He was thinking aloud when he said, “We must go to Aatzaz immediately. It will cost us immensely to end your apprenticeship but somehow we will manage.”
“No, greatfather, I must go. You know Aatzaz as well as I. He will never end my contract and if I ask it will only give him a reason to have me watched. There is a star that needs my help. I will not risk waiting and I cannot risk prison.”
Malik’s thoughts ran wild inside him. He said, “You do not realize the shame, the trouble you will cause for us.”
Rowyh searched vainly for an appropriate response. Finding none, he said, “I’m sorry.”
Malik’s vision blurred and he wiped away the tear running down his cheek as he watched his grandson walk away.