Chapter Three: When Time Stops
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Record Keeper’s Note
I must pause here to introduce you to another set of characters so you will know who they are by the time you meet them. Their setting is the same planet Kiyā-tachi were born on. As for the time… it is in the past of the events we started with, but the scenes I will share with you occur at various times, so it’s not all that important. But that you learn about it now is very important. To present them, I must ask a question.
When you look into a mirror, what do you see? To most, the answer appears to be a reflection. “A reflection” –tied to reality in inexplicable ways: a perfect mimicry. They are right: a perfectly empty mimicry. “A mimicry” –an imitation; an incomplete copy made out to be the original. An imitation cannot be the original. An image reflected in a mirror does not contain the life of the original; it has no presence. So long as they are divided, reality and its reflection cannot truly be one.
Time changes the reflected and the reflection, and the gap between them widens; Time introduces events, making changes to the original which cannot be reflected. If you set a chest in front of a mirror, the contents will never be reflected. If the contents change a million times, the reflection will stay the same. When something obstructs the view, the obstruction becomes the focus and the subject is lost. What is on the surface, and what is beyond, cannot be touched by a simple reflection. There is no depth. It is too limited. Focusing on what is seen.
Scars are visual stories about the scarred; obstructions which frequently distort the subject –failing to capture their redeeming attributes. Few are aware of the significance in the depth of scars: they are not limited to the skin. While you may misjudge a person for their external injuries, you can at least visually distinguish injury from subject. But internal scars disfigure personalities –injury indistinguishable from essence- changing who they seem to be, but not who they are. These scars are scars, separate from identity, but hard to discern and written off as the original. When scars run deep enough, when they become all-consuming, what becomes of the scarred? It is said time can heal all, but what about when time stops?
Record Keeper of The Eternal Realms
Chapter Three: When Time Stops
Into the canyon which normal people cannot enter, a lone woman walks. Next to her on each side, holding her hands, two children follow –their wispy child-hair is a curious white, nearly translucent, and their eyes are a watery pinkish –if not for the usual fairness of their skin, the canyon people would have thought the identical children lacked all pigment. The woman heads directly to Kyouju’s house, ignoring the fearful glances. She waits outside after rapping on the door thrice.
A young boy breathlessly opens it, eyes full of excitement, expressing how much he desires to meet new people. He looks up at the woman and slowly works his way down to the children. “Twins!” he exclaims. The girls hide behind their mother’s legs at the boy’s loud voice.
“Mi-chan,” a firm male voice drifts from down the hallway, gently re-minding him, “do not raise your voice to such a degree while inside, you are being inconsiderate to those working.”
“B-but Kyouju, there are twins!” he insists, already quieter than before. “Do you understand the significance of this, Kyouju? I can have three times the amount of fun when we play together!”
Kyouju chuckles as he approaches, “I see you have already added ‘significance’ to your vocabulary, not surprising since you’ve known it for a full hour.” A light smile plays over his lips while mirth fills his eyes, treasuring the youth so much like his past self.
“Of course, because I learned it.”
“Who is at the door?” Kyouju enters the woman’s sight. The lines on his face describe the heavy weight he carries, making him seem much older.
Mi-chan looks up at Kyouju, realizing he doesn’t have an answer. Immediately, he bows his head, apologizing, “I’m so sorry, I have been rude to you!” The woman nods her acceptance and smiles kindly. The boy is momentarily mesmerized, lost in thought.
Kyouju thoroughly assesses the woman who should not be there, searching for her intentions. “I do not recognize you Miss, what brings you here?”
“By the command of our Heavenly Father, I seek protection for these two girls, His chosen servants,” the woman responds softly. Kyouju’s eyes widen, recognizing the presence of higher authority in her words. Her face pales and she coughs lightly.
“Mama!” the girls cry out concernedly.
“Daijoubu,” she consoles them. They cling tighter to their mother’s skirt, as if holding on with all their strength could keep her mortal life intact.
“How much time do you have left?” Kyouju asks simply, fully comprehending the state of her health, not by her cough or her children’s embrace, but by her request ‘for these children’.
“No more than ten weeks.” She coughs again. Reaching out to the wall of the house, she supports herself as she slowly sinks to the ground, ceaselessly coughing.
“Mama! Mama!” the twins cry out again.
“Oji-chan,” uncle, one child starts.
“Please, please help Mama!” the other finishes. Tears fall from both girls’ eyes as they look up at the stranger.
“I-I’m fi-ne,” she says through gasps, her coughs calmed for the moment. She forces herself to stand.
“Come, let us rest inside while we speak,” Kyouju offers. The woman simply nods her consent. “Mi-chan –”
“H-hai!” y-yes, Mi-chan stutters his answer, startled by Kyouju’s tone.
“-Go ask the kitchens to prepare beverages and snacks.”
“Understood!” He runs off. As he turns to leave, the twin girls see some-thing furry on his shoulder, but he moves away so quickly, they cannot determine what it is.
“This way,” Kyouju motions to the left. They walk down a hallway with many doors on either side. Many of the inner walls are made of paper set on wooden frames; some walls are more solid to keep noises out. They reach an open door on the right, to a room which can only be called an organized mess. Maps and similar such posters cover the paper walls lined with sliding doors. In the middle of the room, a low table rests; at the back, a large desk sits, proudly buried in papers. “What is more comfortable for you? I ca-”
“The floor is fine,” she interrupts with a polite smile.
Kyouju nods his head in acceptance and indicates the room with a sweeping motion. She gracefully sits on one of the cushions at the low table, her back to the door they entered from; the twins sit next to her on each side, Kyouju across from them.
Mi-chan appears in the doorway, staring hungrily at the backs of the twins, happily exclaiming, “Kyouju! They said they’ll be here soon!”
Kyouju nods and replies, “Mi-chan, you are free to leave, we’ll resume our lesson tomorrow.”
“Aww. I wanted to play more!” Disappointment fills his eyes like a bottom-less pit, but nonetheless he turns to leave, a deep grief of parting surfacing as his eyes pass over the girls.
“Miss, do you mind sending your girls to play with Mi-chan? Despite his small stature, he’s five years old and very responsible, I can assure you they will be safe with him and more comfortable than sitting with adults.” Mi-chan’s eyes light with excitement as he awaits the answer.
Her eyes widen slightly –though almost two years older, the boy is smaller than her girls, though they are large for their age. “Sou ne…” she acknowledges, considering. The girls look at Kyouju fiercely, then turn to their mother, eyes pleading to let them stay. “That may be a good idea,” she concludes. “Diamond, Crystal, why don’t you go play with that onii-chan?”
“Yada,” don’t want to, one girl cries.
“Yada,” the other follows suit.
“This man and Mama have many important things to discuss. Wouldn’t you get bored waiting? You don’t want to wait with another adult, do you?” Shock flits across their faces as they realize they will have to leave one way or another, begrudgingly they stand up.
“Mi-chan, leave Sakin with me.” In response, the small creature jumps off Mi-chan’s shoulder and climbs up Kyouju’s; the twins don’t notice, focused on their mother.
“Mama ok?” the first girl questions.
“Mama ok?” the other echoes.
“Mama is ok.” She tips her head to the side and smiles warmly, pulling the two girls into a hug… and pushes them lightly towards Mi-chan. “Go play nice, ok?”
“Hai,” they agree, objecting with their tone, still unwilling to leave their mother’s side. They reach the door and turn back. Their mother nods and they mournfully step into the hallway.
The boy grabs one hand of each girl and drags them off. “I’m called Mi-chan, the Mi from midori, for green, because my eyes are green you know…”
Kyouju wastes none of the woman’s time, “Is there a cure for your ailment?” She shakes her head solemnly. “What of their father? Any other relatives?” Once again, she shakes her head. His hands curl into fists; fighting the despair of all the loss in this world.
“All will be well. The girls are strong, intelligent. They were made for a special purpose: to become the saviors of this pitiful world. Josyf of the Ryoko-sha, I ask you to watch over these girls in my place.”
Josyf stares into the unknown woman’s eyes. Her words resound within him; he relaxes as a testifying spirit fills him: All will be well. All might not be pretty, but all will be well. “I understand, I will look after them and keep them safe.” Josyf accepts the mission before him, understanding God has entrusted him with this responsibility. He realizes this might be his way to atone for the war he caused– the war he feels responsible for causing. He did not know, he did not realize, accepting this would take away his ability to raise his own daughter.
Six weeks later, Mi-chan brings the girls back to Kyouju’s house after another day full of play. They run all throughout the house, but cannot find the professor or the girls’ mother. Mi-chan leads the way outside, along a short path-way through the shrubs. At the end of the path, an arch leads into an area of flattened land mostly used as a garden. Josyf stands at the far edge, past the garden, shoveling the remains of a mound of dirt into a hole. Mi-chan runs up to him, staring intently at the size of the nearly filled hole. The girls close behind, catch up swiftly.
“Kyouju, what’re you doing?” he asks.
“Oh, nothing really,” Josyf responds. His voice is hard, as if he is trying to hold back emotion. Mi-chan looks over to Kyouju, and upon seeing his ex-pression, turns to the twins and whisks them away before they can understand what happened.
“Why Mi-chan cry?”
“I just– got some dirt in my eyes.” He rubs his eyes fiercely, willing the tears to stop. He can’t let them know. He doesn’t let them stay in the house. He doesn’t leave them alone. That night, Mi-chan has the twins stay over at his house. And the next day too. On the third day, they return to Kyouju’s house.
When their mother is not waiting upon their return, the girls barely exit their room, and an unfamiliar melody floats through the two villages. When they finally come out a week later, the light in their eyes has faded. They barely speak. They don’t smile or laugh. They don’t want to play. They don’t want to eat. For the next moon, there is not a single spark of interest for anything within them.
During that moon, whispers tear through the canyon as the incessant tune plants fear within the suspicious canyon people: are these really just children, look at their unsettling appearance, they could be spies –people don’t just end up in the canyon. Those twins cast a mysterious aura, only Josyf and Mi-chan aren’t affected. The girls must be causing the strange events.
Upon hearing these whispers, Josyf officially adds Crystal and Diamond to his classes –making the number of pupils three. Every day when Mi-chan comes over, they have a one hour lesson, after which he proceeds to stick to them.
In class one day, curiosity overrules her melancholy and Diamond asks, “Kyouju,” Professor, “why is that animal always with him?” She points at Sakin.
“That little creature is an ayudar. The word ‘ayudar’ is derived from a word meaning ‘to help’; ayudar are lifetime companions or helpers. They are animals born from a person’s soul, formed from various experiences, good or bad: great happiness, loneliness, needing help with something that cannot be done alone. After an ayudar has formed, it will stay beside its partner, or ‘aibou’, however needed. Mi-chan’s ayudar is constantly present, but ayudar can also rest within their aibou until called.”
“What does ‘duh-rived’ mean?” Crystal questions.
Their teacher, momentarily taken aback, responds with a sheepish grin, “‘Derived’ means ‘to come from’.”
“Why don’t you just say ‘comes from’?” Diamond replies crossly.
With a light smirk Kyouju answers, “Well, what’s wrong with using ‘derived’?”
“’Cause we don’t understand it,” Diamond and Crystal object together.
“But you do now,” Kyouju points out, and they realize he’s right. “Now, on with the lesson.”
The twins’ curiosity leads Mi-chan to believe they have recovered; he relentlessly follows them, dragging them around the canyon, ignoring their refusals and pestering them to play, until they finally ask, “Why do you bother us?”
“Because we’re friends. And friends have to stick together,” he insists. Upon their dubious looks, he explains, “We are all the same –you see, none of us were born in this canyon and none of us have our original family here. The house you visited and the people there weren’t always mine.”
“If you’re the same, how are you happy?” Diamond challenges.
Mi-chan looks at her blankly. “I’ve been given a chance to start over. I lost what I had and was given a new chance. I don’t wanna lose what is before me now. I wanna hold onto it and never let go,” his response filled with wisdom beyond his years. “Families should always stay together and should always be there for each other. I’ll stay with you and be there for you. So the four of us should make our own family.” Sakin stands tall in agreement. “No matter what happens, we should always be together,” his tone implying it is an inevitable matter rather than choice.
“A family with you?” Crystal asks, unaware families can be made.
“Yes,” Mi-chan replies happily. “I decided.”
The end of the hot and dry season came and passed with much quite the same. Leaves start changing color and begin to fall, marking the full harvest season. A new season, a new chance, a new change.
People hurry about as they make preparations for the coming cold. Small groups leaving the Moonstone Canyon through one of its few exits to harvest food and gather supplies are commonplace. Crystal and Diamond frequently observe Mi-chan’s eyes dance eagerly as he watches the villagers leave. He tries to follow them but is always stopped by wary adults. Those who see him after such events swear he has been hideously and unbelievably wronged– his face quite emphatically stating his opinions on the rules. For the next five minutes.
After which he faces the twins, a familiar strange glint in his green eyes accompanying his mischievous smile. “Well. Who wants to play with adults anyway? I want to spend the day playing with my favorite twins.” Catching the girls’ hands in his own, he drags them to a place right outside the village before they can stop him.
Although they aren’t far away, the change in the atmosphere is incredible. The shrub-trees and bushes are already more numerous. The differing colors of the leaves, and the ones already fallen, amaze Diamond and Crystal. The seasons are rapidly changing. The plants know. The sun knows. All life knows.
Mi-chan picks two flowers, still intact, and offers them to the sisters. After they refuse, he sticks them in their hair. They try to chase him down, but since he is faster, they never catch him.
The cold season brings many adventures of ice and sliding. Along with many bruises.
In the growing and wet season, they discover a cave in the canyon wall. Mi-chan instructs them to bring old barrels, broken stools, a small table with a missing leg, and various tools there. He builds these into a secret hideout.
The dry and hot season means being pulled to the lake and the river which flows through the canyon. Along with a few cuts and scrapes.
Before they know it, it’s the time of the harvest again and the twins can’t help but start to look forward to the adventures Mi-chan will drag them on.
Diamond and Crystal sit on a natural step; behind them another ledge reaches the top of the hill, flattening out very much like large, shallow steps leading to the village outskirts. Diamond recalls the words her mother had often spoken to her: It’s okay. We’ll always be together. She doesn’t know what to do with these words. To believe them means her mother lied, to disbelieve them means her mother lied, to store them away is to give up, to discard them is to disbelieve. In this endless circle she is trapped, and Mi-chan is an escape. He offers them many things: new words to believe in, gifts, adventures they’ve never seen, and a world they can’t understand. He decided they are friends. He decided they are family. He decided they would go on adventures almost every day. His bold proclamations leave her even more confused. She wants to hope that she can believe his words. That he won’t disappear. That they could be a family. And he would never let them feel alone again. Diamond looks up as Crystal speaks.
“Dia think Mama a liar?” Crys asks, slipping into speech reserved for Diamond.
“I don’t know. Mama left us here alone.” Dia holds her hands in little fists, not looking at Crystal.
“Dia think Mama abandoned us?”
Abandoned. Diamond didn’t like when Kyouju taught them that word. “I don’t know.”
“Dia, I’m scared.”
“Forgetting Mama’s face. Forgetting Mama’s warmth. Forgetting Mama’s voice.” Crystal leans over on Diamond’s shoulder as a few tears run down her face. “I don’t wanna forget.” She sobs for some time. “Do you think Mi-chan a liar? Or disappear?”
“I don’t know. I don’t want him to disappear like Mama did,” Dia murmurs.
“Maybe we should–” Crystal stops, not putting the rest of her thoughts into words.
There is a long silence before Dia speaks as she considers Crystal’s intentions. “Mi-chan is family now,” she whispers, pausing in search for words, but fears them; instead saying, “even though he was an unwanted friend.”
“Who’s an unwanted friend?” a voice nearby demands.
The twins stiffen, they know this voice. They slowly look up to see Mi-chan standing over them as if his life’s goal has been achieved. “No one.”
“Oh. I was hoping Ruby came,” he looks down, disappointed. “I guess it can’t be helped.” He recovers his smile and declares, “I can’t wait until it’s your birthday! We’ll all celebrate as a family.” He jumps down to stand next to them.
“But we don’t know our birthday?” Crystal and Diamond wonder in unison.
Mi-chan faces them innocently, “I decided.”
“What?” the sisters exclaim together again.
“Mi-chan decided…our birthday?”
“Yep!” he replies happily, jumping down again to stand in front of the girls.
Crys peers at Dia, eyes asking: you can decide those too?
Dia’s eyes narrow in reply: I don’t think so.
“Why?” they ask.
“Kazoku,” they echo. “Because we’re family?” they query, faces unreadable. Maybe we can be a real family. Maybe he won’t leave like Mama.
“Tomorrow marks the first anniversary of the day we made our family. So that will be your birthday. To make it fun, we’ll make it my birthday too,” he explains.
“What about Mi-chan’s real birthday?” they chime.
“I don’t know something like that, sillies,” Mi-chan responds, scrunching up his face.
“Mi-chan doesn’t know his birthday?” Crystal questions.
“But Mi-chan’s older than us,” Diamond insists.
“Didn’t I tell you we’re the same? I only know my name and my ayudar. It’s always been the two of us, just like you two,” he pauses, “but we’re four now!” Even though he speaks of an obviously painful past, his eyes remain clear and gentle as if he really has dismissed it, then he continues, “Anyways, that’s in the past and doesn’t matter anymore. From now on, let’s keep moving on together as a family.
“Meet me at our secret hideout tomorrow evening an hour before sundown; I’ll have a surprise waiting for you.”
That day– tomorrow, is the day that never ended; the day Mi-chan vanished. The day Crystal and Diamond became solitary girls.
Amythyst is a reliable girl. Her parents work a large farm in Faymyst Valley and leave her younger brother in her care. She has always looked after him and the other workers’ children. As she loves to look after little ones, she has never resented her position. She calls them her siblings as much as her own brother.
The Faymyst Valley exists to support the Great Northern City –Kita, led by the Great Josyf. Josyf-sama posts veterans from his Glass Lake to protect their borders and Kita provides finished goods in exchange for Faymyst’s resources. For each of the three sections of the harvest season, Josyf-sama’s handpicked steward, ‘the Regulator’, and the two best off families make the treacherous, two day journey. Treacherous, not because the road is difficult, but because it takes them through unprotected areas.
The harvest season: the three seasons things can be grown and collected for the cold season, a time where people are bustling about to gather wood, wool, and meat, while waiting for the crops to mature, signaling their trip to the city. A caravan is sent off under a six soldier escort, and returns under a new six. So far, no incidents have occurred while people were traversing the pass.
The last trip of this harvest is moving on schedule; departing tomorrow. Amythyst’s family and the others making the trip, total fourteen citizens –five being children. Overall, a group of twenty moving across the pass. An excited buzz flows through the town: whispers of well-wishers and prayers for a safe journey. The following day they leave, traveling until night and resting in the semi-permanent lodge set up in the pass. Another day of travel brings them to the city, without incident.
The subsequent days are spent exchanging supplies. The children run around as the adults do business. Amythyst’s favorite part about visiting the city is the amazing sensation she feels every time she passes the boundary gates marking Kita’s edge. Her brother doesn’t seem to notice it the way she does. No one ever can. The time set to stay in the city passes and they depart. Though she loves her home, Amythyst always feels a little sad when they leave Kita; and as always, sets her sights on the next visit.
Their return trip goes a little smoother, and they reach the lodge a bit earlier than normal. Three hours before sundown. More than enough time for two little heads to be unseen for a while.
Amythyst takes her brother to a spot she found a few years ago. A place unlike any they have seen in the Valley or even Kita. It is only a short distance from the campsite, but as they are in the middle of the mountains –which contains many obstacles- forty-five minutes of their self-allotted two hours are taken up traversing it. They intend to be back within the last hour of nightfall. Running around as children will, some twenty minutes pass; leaving fifty-five minutes to return.
Amythyst senses something strange, something nearby not quite right. She calls that they should return now. He complains they still haven’t played enough. That is when she hears it: the sound of voices drifting. Tiptoeing over, she tells him to stay quiet, deeply wishing they will not get caught away from camp. Curiosity flaring, they move toward the voices, hiding behind some trees and bushes, careful not to make a sound. They listen closely:
A defiant growl.
“Oh really, you don’t want to? Two days’ time. Go to the Valley. Terrorizing the locals does them good.” This voice sounds slightly familiar, but Amythyst can’t place it.
Another growl, more fierce than the last.
The one speaking starts moving, presumably to leave. “Have fun.”
This is big news. Betrayal. If she really knows him, then the enemy –those who refuse Josyf-sama’s salvation and oppose him- must have already infiltrated; how many people could she trust? Her excitement peaking, she has to know who the familiar voice belongs to. She dares to take the chance. Peering around the tree, she sees two men: one returning to wherever it is traitors dwell, while the other remains, standing dazed by a forcefulness within the infiltrator’s words. The retreating figure looks so familiar… where had she seen him? Amythyst’s heart pounds –knowing about an attack aimed at her people means she can warn them in advance and save many lives and much grief. Uncovering the mysterious betrayal… would she be allowed to join Josyf-sama’s Chosen?
Returning to reality, Amythyst peeks at the man left behind, wondering if she can identify him; he appears human, but there is something odd about the way he stands. He is hunched over, letting his arms sway as they will. Unkempt. Greasy. Unclean. His existence unnatural. When he crouches down on all fours, she sees it. Undoubtedly the embodiment of nightmares. Tanigh. Tainted creatures with unmistakable features separating them from humans on sight. Filthy. A putrid layer of oil stains their skin in shadow, giving them a dull shine. Their hair is lank, home to many parasites; bodily fluids and meal remnants are smeared about them; and their high body temperature surrounds them in a thick blanket of decay. Animalistic. Their gait is staggered, as if they are drunk, unable to properly balance on feet alone. They travel on all fours with a dexterity they do not possess while standing, using their innate strength to leap much faster than running. Their rational intelligence is gone, completely controlled by desire with no recollection of their former existence.
Tanigh are born from the Taint within the human heart; their outside trans-forming to match their inside when they are fully consumed. Taint is something that exists on every planet, corrupting beings from the inside. But only on certain planets does this corruption reach the outside. Azeshio has the ability to stop the Taint’s one-sided invasion; even so, when people embrace Taint, it ceases to be one-sided. Tanigh are repelled by azeshio, unable to get near it, or perhaps, fearing to –fearing it will awaken the host’s consciousness to reclaim itself.
What most don’t know, is tanigh have another form, a more advanced form. One that cannot be identified so easily. The deyaeir can blend in with normal people. Like the alpha wolf dominates his pack, deyaeir stand over tanigh. Disobedience? There isn’t. Deyaeir are formed when tanigh encounter corrupted azeshio. They regain their intelligence, memories, and appearance, but remain cold, cruel, self-gratifying beings, capable of wielding their own tainted magic. Azeshio cannot reach deyaeir, they are humans without hearts; the only way to identify one is by its actions, if you can see through them.
Amythyst notes the tanigh is still dazed, the perfect time to escape the likeness of a wild animal that is otherwise inescapable. She motions her brother to follow; they would tail the one walking away. And move away from the tanigh. She could find out if what she saw would be truth. Someone commanded a tanigh. As her breath catches and her heart skips in apprehensive eagerness, she wishes to be like Josyf-sama’s chosen, who wield ‘magic’; she could make herself and her brother invisible and unheard. They only walk a few paces when the bushes behind them rustle. A feeling of dread washes over Amythyst as she turns around to see what made the noise. Her brother had caught his tunic on the smallest of branches. Snap. He looks at Amythyst, tears welling at the corners of his eyes, knowing what just happened. He has given away their position. One second of silent conversation passes between the siblings’ eyes; they run.
Just an hour ago, if you had told Amythyst what would take place, she would have never believed you. If you had told her this would be the day scarring her for the rest of her life, she would have never believed you. If you had told her that the tanigh they had seen would follow them; that they wouldn’t be able to run away fast enough; that her brother would stop running, smile, and tell her to keep going; that she would stop and scream as the tanigh severely wounded him; that as she screamed, a blinding light would flash, and within that light was the power to drive the tanigh away; that she would not be able to bring her brother back in time to save his life; she would have never believed you.
If you had told her this day would never end, she would never have believed you.
The Regret Plains is a place the bitter gather. The Plains lay by the river, drawing the lost and weary toward it, a place of shelter where food can be grown. But these plains are not such a pleasant place, infested with a mutated tona, named ‘shio’ for the earth they dwell under. The vicious shiotona build tunnel complexes under the plains, laying their thin, slicing webs above ground, waiting to reel in the shrieking, unsuspecting prey.
A man who focused on living brought refuge to those consumed by their own despair. He noticed shiotona never ventured near lavender –spiders are not fond of lavender in general, but the mutated tona are repelled by it; gradually he transplanted enough for a safe area. Those in the Plains rejoiced at first, but swiftly, quite swiftly, returned to their grudging state, moaning over the lavender rampantly taking over the plains, of the spiders that would consume them should that lavender not exist, of the tanigh that would attack if there were no shiotona to eat them. They took all of their regrets and blamed the plains, the plains of regret.
In an unfamiliar place, during the war which has separated many families, Jahira seeks refuge. With the nature of the times, it isn’t unusual to see a stranger with two little children in tow, and most are willing to help, but only so much. She encounters a family with minimal supplies to offer as she builds a safe house. Baby Ruby is three seasons old before she meets her father, Josyf, for the first time –her eyes light up at touching the man whose voice she heard daily.
Though he has finally arrived, as a key figure in the war, he cannot dwell with them… neither can he take them out –the Miento’s dissarya patrols are too tight and Jahira refuses to chance losing another child to him. She decides to remain in the Plains until the Ryoko-sha finds a secure path; so a little after a season, he departs, unaware that the next time he met his daughter she would no longer have the ability to love him. About two seasons pass; a route is decided. Several weeks early, a panicked Jahira gathers her children and sparse provisions, set-ting out from the Plains in the same manner she came –riding upon her bearcat ayudar. A day later, they find the Plains far behind them as they follow the river west. Their destination, a meeting point between the river and the Ruby Desert, still a day and a half away.
It was not to be: the patrols were too tight. Jahira hides her children and fights. Vainly. And is captured.
Ruby’s brother brings them to the only place he can: the house they just left.
A week passes and no word of Jahira comes to the Ryoko-sha. Two more days bring a stranger to town looking for a woman and two small children. He makes his way to Ruby and her brother, introducing himself as their father’s comrade, Ayuro, and asking what happened. Ruby cries, her brother proceeding to explain. A deep shadow falls over his eyes as he listens, his muscles tensing up, but his hands remain gentle as he comforts the children, assuring them their mother is still alive and will be recovered. With no one to rely on, he approaches the family who once offered Jahira minimal supplies, tasking them with looking after the children; until their father can retrieve them, they will receive significant compensation. But the dissarya patrols are tighter than ever.
Ruby is a fiery girl. Flaring brightly in the shadows of those she has lost and those who do not love her. She refuses to leave her mother’s house, staying there with her brother. He eagerly does chores for their guardians, and she fol-lows him around, doing her best imitation –she excels at scattering birdfeed for the grouse, quail and pheasants. Even this was not to last. Two and a half years pass. Ayuro returns, carefully explaining it is no longer safe for both of them to stay in the Plains. The dissarya will find them if they stay together. He can safely take her brother out, but Ruby must wait a little longer. Ruby, although only four, understands well enough. Her brother will leave with Ayuro to protect her. But she cannot help feeling abandoned by her family. Not one member has stayed by her side, yet they have done this to protect her.
As a farewell gift, her brother shows her, as he has for the last couple years, her memories of their family together. As he walks out the door, he promises Dad will come for her.
She is forced into her guardians’ house where she must work or be ‘abandoned’. She isn’t really loved by them or attached to them, but they are her ‘home’, at least until her mother, father, and brother return or her father comes and takes her away.
Nine years pass. The feeling of burden incensed by the years of stress grows on the family. With Ruby as the only one left to shoulder it, she bears the constant weight of judgmental eyes. Such pain initiated by circumstances outside her control has caused her to lose hope that any salvation will arrive, yet she holds onto her brother’s final promise. She often returns to her former home for solace. In those times when she’s about to break, it calms her. Though it rouses many bitter memories, it is where the three of them stayed as a family with the number changing to four on one occasion. This is the house where mother, brother, I, and papa once lived. This is the place where we were a family, where I could be happy. But, this is the place papa never came back to. This is the place where mother could not come back to. This is the place where brother had to not come back to. This is the place I was left alone by my family. One by one they vanished.
As she watched them leave, that day’s end never came.
Saphyre is a self-contained girl. As a child of undercover Ryoko-sha, her parents have limited her access to the city to protect her from falsities; she doesn’t know much about the war. The less she knows the safer it is for her to live inside enemy territories. Though they’re trying, she has been able to do whatever she wants because of their duties as Regulators of the Rayue mining village just south of the city. As they often come home late and leave early, she has lived much of her life in solitude. And having never interacted with the other children her age, having always known this as normal, she never noticed the absence of people in her life. Or rather, she is incapable of realizing how lonely she is.
In order to occupy her time, Saphyre has taken classes of all sorts –from basic combat to survival to cooking to sewing. She often visits one of the few places she’s allowed freely: the library. There, she reads all kinds of books and learns many things about the world. She has familiarized herself with various weapons, honing her innate ability to discover the mysteries of any type she encounters. Without ever having seen or trained with it. Saphyre regularly sneaks into the veteran and mid-level trainee posts to watch the soldiers’ drills, returning home several hours later to practice with crude wooden versions of their weapons. On days she doesn’t go to the posts, she observes blacksmiths at work. She could watch a single blacksmith for weeks while he completes a project he’s working on.
Once, as she did this, it didn’t go unnoticed. The captain of the guard posts witnessed the various expressions crossing her face, her look of fascination at every step, arriving as the blacksmith began for the day, leaving only when he set his work down for the night, until the project’s completion. The day she did not return, he was slightly disappointed; that is, until he saw her sneaking off to the western outskirts of the city –a place none but guards should enter. He watches as she slips past the sentries, through the fence, into the practice grounds. As weeks pass, he discovers the rare ability this child possesses. Something that man would want to capture to turn into a key, like the others. As this would take away his fun, he masks it.
Some time later, though it appears no one is around for him to speak to, he states, “Apple french toast.” Saphyre winces at the sudden sound of his voice. And though she is positive he cannot see her, she nods once. The following day she brings apple french toast with her, but remains hidden. After a moment, she notices a short stool set next to him, nothing atop it. She sidles forward and places the carefully packaged order on the stool and stands back.
Moments later he calls out the next class for their practice. She notices an open space inside the formation. “Ah, we’re a person short today,” he comments.
Saphyre moves forward to fill the missing space. Throughout the drills the Captain never takes a step; on her way back, he says, “Spaghetti.”
The following day, “Chocolate cake, with white chocolate-dipped strawberries.”
This cycle continues for many moons, until her parents announce a trip to the mining village. The Rayue Mines are much like Faymyst, providing re-sources for the Great City Minami and Josyf-sama’s army; every week the Regu-lators bring the people’s voice back to the city. Occassionaly these trips take longer than a day and sometimes her parents like to bring her along, and she doesn’t complain. She hears interesting stories at the mine: of evil creatures called tanigh, they prey on anything alive without hesitation. Some say they look like humans. Others say they were once human, but now live as a tainted existence as punishment from God. And others say they work for the ziel. Stories of a demon of a man trying to rule the world. Of a people who try to resist. Of the evil race of ziel who want to rule this land and suppress its people. Stories of the tragedies faced eveyday.
While contemplating these stories, Saphyre reflects on the last few weeks in which she discovered a mysterious part of herself. Strange things happen when she becomes excited. When she learns a new move and gets it just right, when she prepares a dish well, there’s something almost magical in those mo-ments. A week ago, she thought her crude wooden weapon turned into the real version of itself, but everything was normal before she could really see. Another occurance: as she was practicing her sword movements, her wooden blade sliced the tree. Her surprise convinced her into believing the mark was present before she arrived. But what if it wasn’t?
After two nights in the town proper, Saphyre is restless. She wants to confirm whether something really is happening, or if she is trying to live in a dream. With a small knapsack on her back and a solid plan, she exits the town borders; she doesn’t see the shadow follow her out. Veterans moniter the large flat area of the mines and town to protect from wandering tanigh, but within their circle are many open spaces where people can ‘disappear’. Saphyre finds one of these and delves within the depths of the woods. No one would spot her easily.
She reaches into her bag for her favorite playsword and begins some basic drills. As Saphyre moves, she thinks back on the times strange things seemed to happen, attempting to discover the secret to unleashing this power, should it really exist. She really wanted a result each time, so perhaps this occurs when she focuses her desire. She stands in front of a sequoia tree, famous for its thick bark, tall trunks, and brittle wood. She swings her sword with the intent to cut the tree in front of her. Nothing but the sound of wood making contact with spongy bark. Another swing. Nothing. She feels slightly disappointed. She again swings her blade; this time with closed eyes and a mental image: the tree in front of her is a creature which must be dealt with, one she must deal with. A strange feeling envelops her; her movement is more precise, her mind clearer, everything feels in its right place. She opens her eyes. Shock. Where there were previously no marks, a slice appeared, cutting through the two feet of bark all the way to the tree.
“Shouldn’t have done that,” a familiar voice speaks from behind her. She spins around, but cannot locate him.
“I can’t hide you anymore. You have to leave. You cannot return to his cities. He will make you his puppet. I cannot accept anyone touching my interesting toy. So, you must run, hide.”
“Cannot save you.”
“Where can I go? You know it’s really hard to go anywhere.”
A bearcat already equipped to travel appears from her right, packed with various protective clothings, a crude map, and several days worth of dry rations and water. Typical all-terrain traveling gear. “Head north, toward the Plains.”
His departing footsteps echo in her ears. She looks at the drawn course on the map: a journey of about one hundred eighty miles. “Well, this’ll take a week or more.” Taking the reins, she rides away from the life and home she knew, thinking nothing of it. Yet as she does, she wonders if her parents will be able to move forward despite her sudden disappearance. Will they find an end for this day, or will they be trapped?
Within one week, news had spread around the city. The tragedy of a defenseless young girl outside the protected areas, with no traces of what happened to her. The very reason people needed to stay inside.
The Miento’s reign is established upon his information system, with control no past Miento has had. Thus the Ryoko-sha must be even more thorough. The five Watcher cities are a noncombat division, organized explicitly to observe all the Miento’s movements, fighting his masterful deceit with greater deceit. The Miento expects outside resistance, but the Ryoko-sha has attacked from within: his southern supply town, the Rayue Mine, siphoning off ores and softwood; the northern supply town, the Faymyst Valley, passing along hardwood and food. The Ryoko-sha stretches even within the Miento’s Glass Lake, posing as his soldiers and opening eyes to the truth.
A voice whispers in the small, rectangular room illuminated with flickering red light. Or perhaps the room is red and is illuminated by flickering light. Shadows slink through the cast light. The draft curls its fingers around those who enter, seeking. It plays with its fellows, luring. It latches to things similar to its nature, growing. It rejects light, preying. With walls made of stone, the air stays cool and damp. Many objects with no apparent purpose sit upon a table taking up one wall directly to the right upon entering. At the far end of the room stands a lone chair fashioned like a throne. Behind it a mostly concealed door is closed, sealing off the way to the tower and its rooms.
A dissarya cradled with the draft enters the small room. Its daily report due, it moves, closing the distance between itself and its master. The dissarya projects images flashing in and out of focus, to all present in the room, even the child huddling behind the throne. She shudders from the danger this information possesses, knowing what the man in the chair would be thinking as he smiles darkly. He will send word of this to the northwest. They had no more than one week.
The message arrives five days later. The receiver sends the messenger to the one in command and continues on to inform the others to prepare. They move tomorrow. A dark look crosses the commander’s face as he listens to the instructions. Once the message is finished, he raises an eyebrow, as if contemplating some mystery hidden within it. He sighs and moves to issue special orders and to prepare. The youth with burned black eyes descends slowly. The commander finds it odd that he would want to go too…
They set out at ten the following morning to reach their intended target by nightfall.
The Emerald Forest is named for its ever-green nature: always growing, perpet-ually in spring. There are many groves of a peculiar, tall tree, whose excessively leafy branches only grow at the top, forming tight knots you can’t see through. When damaged, bright red sap runs, as if bleeding, to close the wound; they have come to be called ‘dragon blood trees’ for this reason. In early spring, the tree blooms and bears a small berry which birds love.
A peculiar people built a village in these peculiar trees –loving nature and living with it. They excel in the art of grafting: transplanting young boughs. As a slight pun, they are renowned as masters of the bow, and use their prowess to protect their forest. Even so, the forest’s perimeter is receding –particularly the western and southern border. Some whispers claim the land itself is dying; others say his influence is too great.
The Forest people have immense honor. At age fourteen, youths are eligible to take the Master test: essentially the rite of passage to adulthood. Proof one has mastered all the necessary skills of a Bow Hunter. Most wait until fifteen or sixteen, polishing their skills so as not to tarnish their honor with failing. A few brave ones struggle at fourteen, but most are simply assessing themselves without plans to pass… but not all. Emerald is an enthusiastic girl. She loves her family and village; everyone looks after her. At twelve, Emerald refocused her efforts, outpacing all her age in learning the carving, crafting and accuracy skills of a Bow Master. Emerald is about to turn fourteen, she’s already mastered many bow types and arrow making, knowing how any variation can affect the arrow’s fly. She is well practiced in crafting her people’s unique, flexible metal for the bow’s metal components.
Emerald aims to take the next test –shortly before her fourteenth birthday. A special recommendation from her father, mother, and brother, realizes her dream. She rushes to polish two last skills: hitting a moving target and field survival training –of which she’s already mastered her people’s unique skill of traveling through the trees. Five days ago, she finished her field survival lessons. For the next four days, she practiced on moving targets. Three days ago, she attended the Joining of her older brother. Her brother and new sister left two days after the Joining, tasked with a special mission. No matter the occasion. There. Are. No. Breaks. In. War. ‘One day’ ticks down to zero: it is her turn now.
The exam has many steps and levels, with a set time for each goal through-out the day. The final test –the Field Test- focuses on combat and reaction based abilities. Where one proves that one can move through the trees, hit moving and stationary targets, and deal with surprise attacks from both “animals” and “tanigh”. It is the only segment which needs to be prepared: a different course for each candidate.
Emerald waits patiently as they set up her Field. She had wanted her bro-ther and sister to see this, to know at once if she became a Master, but her pride at them receiving such an important mission defeats her melancholy. If she can become a Master, she will take on missions too; a lot of responsibility for an almost fourteen girl, it’s a weight she deems worthy.
Her concentration breaks as a dark-skinned man entering the room inter-rupts her thoughts. His blackened tan is a remnant of one line of the Forester’s ancestry. “The test course is ready for you. This is your last chance to back out if you’re having any doubts,” he announces matter-of-factly.
She nods, responding, “I’m more than ready,” with absolute confidence. There is no wavering to be seen in her eyes.
“Report back to the Council when you finish. They will tell you what to do from there depending on your percentage completed and finish time.”
“I understand. Thank you.”
Hidden in this man’s eyes is the doubt that Emerald should take the Field Test. It might only be several weeks early, but it is unheard of for a thirteen-year-old to take the test, with or without special permission. Passing is unthinkable. This girl has talent, but she’s not one of the rare geniuses managing to pass at fourteen. All of his doubts are left unsaid as she walks out the door. She has two hours to find fifty targets, six “animals” and an unknown number of tanigh, all within four square miles.
One hour and thirty-six minutes later she finds the last target. On her way back to the village, she finds the last “animal” and is ambushed by two “tanigh”. She makes it back with five minutes to spare and without a scratch. Emerald heads to the Council’s room.
The Council convenes in one large room with a thin wall and a sliding door set up through its center. As Emerald is completing her test, the Council receives a message from Emrod, a partner of the Bewakers, assigning Emerald a Rook rank mission. They immediately summon her parents to discuss the matter, and shortly after receive notice of Emerald’s return. They finish dis-cussing and her parents vacate to the other half of the room before Emerald arrives. Alone before the council, Emerald reports her return time and course completion. And is met with astonishment. None of them actually believed it was possible for a thirteen-year-old to have perfect content and time completion. But someone else did –as evidenced by Emrod’s letter. Expecting to leave, she is surprised when her parents appear and an immediate briefing ensues.
Fifty minutes later, bestowed with her title, the newest Master has left the village on her first mission. One hour later, the fox messenger arrives with news from the scouts to the Northwest.
Emerald loves the atmosphere of the forest, being surrounded by living things. It makes her feel alive. Despite this, the dangers are many; therefore, people with common sense know to keep their preferred weapon at hand, ready. She carries two bows: a specialized recurve and a shortbow of her own making. With an even more specialized quiver at her hip, she has a variety of flying objects at her fingertips. She moves through the forest at a leisurely pace to an area she discovered when she was little: an outcropping –about three quarters of an hour’s walk from the village- with a small cave hidden inside.
As she nears the place, she wonders what kind of man Emrod is. Kind, courteous, brave and young, but not too young? Scarred by this world and war? Does he have some special trait to make him one the Bewakers chose? Emerald scales the outcropping and strides toward the cave. A young man in his late teens or early twenties rests outside the cave entrance –his pack next to a log and a fire pit she set up many years ago. She approaches slowly, surprised by his youth. She had not expected one this young to be trusted as a messenger for the Bewakers. “You are the one who sent the message,” she states with an un-known sureness. His eyes assess her as she speaks: her movements, her speech, her confidence.
“I am.” He observes her relax the fingers holding the bow and her right hand move away from her quiver. But not too much. Still on guard, but not threatening. “And you are the one I sent for.” His tone implies no question. He obviously knew who she was before they met.
She is disarmed by his reply. “I was expecting someone a little older.”
“I wasn’t,” he states with a small chuckle.
Emerald, taken aback by his playful manner, deems it her duty to see how serious he is. “I have been training since I was born,” she says intensely, as if she disapproved his lightheartedness.
“As have I.” The experience of many years of hard decisions, pain, and suffering; the honesty of a man trying to find and reclaim the things he’s lost; the determination of someone with a plan to fight for; passes through his eyes. He watches her read him. Sees understanding flash across her features and she relaxes further. “As you already know, I am Emrod, emissary of the Bewakers. I am here to assign you, Emerald of the Emerald Forest Watchers, your first mission as an official member of the Ryoko-sha. By the order of the Bewakers, I was sent to guide you, the last individual we need, to our base, Anzen, where you will participate in this Rook rank mission.”
“And as you know, I am Emerald of the Emerald Forest Watchers, named after the forest I was born into, and newly appointed Master. I request permission to ask further details before we depart.”
“Granted, but keep it brief.” Emrod gestures to enter the cave.
As they move into the cave, Emerald thinks over what she wants to know, which depends on… “What is the projected duration?”
Misunderstanding, Emrod frowns slightly at her choice of a first question –time is a sensitive issue depending on her resolve. “The length of this mission is determined by several factors: the movement of the Bewakers, the movement of the Miento, the pace of the destruction, and how quickly the solution to the problem is found; at minimum, a few years.”
“You expect me to be out for years?” Emerald searches Emrod’s eyes for any sign of mockery and finds no trace of humor or hesitation. “You’re serious. This is a Rook rank mission, personally assigned by the Bewaker’s, and you men-tioned factors that pertain to the war, what is the basic outline of this mission? Will we be able to free our people with it? That’s the reason I became a Master so young.” Emerald’s eyes light up.
“This is indeed a mission to free all our people, the details of which you will learn at Anzen. Now we must go,” Emrod insists, an underlying urgency emanating from him.
As they prepare to leave, Emerald comments, “Most people would ques-tion your intentions. They would ask why they should trust you –a man they’ve barely met who promises they can play a role in the freeing of our people- but, I can see the honesty in your eyes. You earnestly seek to find that which is lost. You have seen much.
“Though I am young, I wish to save my people from the fear. We should quickly–” Emerald feels something amiss within the forest. As the sun begins its final descent for the day, a certain familiar, yet unpleasant, scent lingers on the breeze, the sounds of the forest unheard, and the birds flying overhead should be roosting. “Something’s wrong.” A pause. “I…I have to go back to my village, something’s wrong to the north.” Emerald grabs her pack and exits the cave, or intends to, until Emrod catches her hand, holding her in place.
“Emerald, wait a moment,” he speaks softly. “You already have a mission; your people are far from helpless, and–” his words are cut off as something darts in front of the cave entrance, passing by in a manner difficult to see. He senses the essence of the being as it passes. A feeling of dread wells up, overflowing. Something is indeed, very wrong in this forest. “And I have a time limit.” Kiyā had warned him, if things went wrong… “Emerald will die.”
For Emerald, will there be a tomorrow?
Her world reels at the unthinkable: “Tanigh? In my forest? Why now?” Emerald’s forest: the area she explores on a regular basis and knows everything about. Eyes slowly losing their light, Emerald’s vision becomes clouded with uncertainty and indecision as fear for her people and village pile up. All her life, she knew the varying levels of missions required different levels of prioritizing; the moment one was assigned a mission or was selected for special missions, priorities were set into effect. With an assignment such as this one, there are no other priorities. Only the task’s completion matters. No one’s life is important enough to sacrifice the mission. Not even one’s own. Under the regulations, now that she has accepted this mission, she is not permitted to prioritize actions irrelevant to completing it. In a harsh world, the rules are harsh as well. A war rages within this child, as she tries to find a way to check the situation which no longer concerns her. If she abandons her ideals and denies her purpose, she can search the forest for answers. If she follows Emrod without knowing, regret will prevent her from moving forward, locking her within this time. The battle builds while she remains undecided.
Emrod watches the light fading from her eyes and witnesses the war playing across her face. Though no noticeable movement is made, he can see the slight changes in body language. He knows Emerald must reach the decision herself. It cannot be decided for her. She must find the resolve to follow either path laid before her. And she must do so quickly. “What do you want to do?” he quietly asks.
She looks up. “Huh?” confusion consuming her features.
“What do you want to do? Do you want to find out, or proceed with your mission?”
“I–” She pauses and despair dances around her eyes once more. “I don’t believe there is a right or wrong decision at this time,” she speaks slowly as she determines how to explain. “If I cannot go to my people and discover their fate, I cannot prove useful in this task; if I follow the code of regulations, I will regret it. If I break them, I will tarnish my honor as a Master. But the one which has greater affect upon my performance should be the right choice.” Strength returns as she discovers a different perspective on the paths which lay ahead of her. “So now I must ask, Emrod, emissary of the Bewakers, will you accompany me?”
Two shapes moving across the forest floor. The sound of feet hitting ground. One floating, the other a skillful echo. The scent of smoke rising above the trees. The few remaining creatures of the forest retreating. The taste of ash mixing with moss and wood. The footsteps slow as others approach. The twang of a bow and two dull thuds ring out, announcing the fallen state of some creature. A foul stench emanates near the ground where two bodies lay. Their appearance human, yet disfigured. Two shapes continue forward, one pausing to retrieve an object from a fallen creature. Minutes later their footsteps falter as they reach their destination. Above the two figures is a raging fireball where a town once was. A red, sticky substance drips to the forest floor, staining it. As it burns, black scars are left behind. The smaller one slowly sinks to the ground, the other reaches out in attempt to support. They do not notice the silhouette standing in the distance, observing. His task completed, he no longer cares what happens here. After several moments, he turns and walks in the opposite direction of the two.
Emerald is stunned. She cannot cry, speak, or move. She looks around at her forest, her home. She doesn’t know how this could happen. Her people are so careful. They would never let a fire get out of control. Tanigh aren’t smart enough to start a fire. Deyaeir. It had to be deyaeir.
She analyzes possible courses of action. Even if there are still people trapped inside the village, the flames prevent entry and breed smoke too thick to breathe. If she tried to save anyone, she wouldn’t make it out. She cannot douse the fire without proper means, people, and time. She follows the only logical conclusion. “Emrod, let’s go,” her emotionless voice lingers. He examines her closely, finds determination there, and nods once. She stands. “Where to?”
“North. We’ll head to the northern section of the river. After we’re far away from here, we’ll set up a camp for the night. Beyond that,” he thinks for a moment about how wise it is to continue, “we’ll discuss later.”
They set up a simple camp long after dark. The midmoon giving them some light. The next day, Emrod explains they will take the river to the ocean and get to Anzen from there.
As they move closer to their destination, days passing, Emerald finds solace that not all her people had to have perished from the fire. The emotional damage remains visible. The set of her mouth, eyes, her posture. The dark aura attempting to completely consume her in grief. The amount of words she will speak each day grows smaller.
A silhouette can be seen off in the distance. Anzen. Shrouded in the ocean’s mist, it remains a mystery. As they draw closer to the northern shoreline, things come into focus. Lush, green, alive.
“This landmass is an accumulation of every kind of terrain in the world,” Emrod says as they reach the shore. “Some fifteen years ago this place was crafted into what you see now. This island is where you will train for the mission.”
He leads her through a simple archway; yet when they step through it, the lush ground around them changes. Emerald’s awe is contained within her eyes: the first light within them since she left the forest. The land stretching before them does not have a definitive end, nor can it be described as a single terrain. Circling them is a ring of five mountains, each peak very different: forested, glacial, barren and rocky, volcanic, and lush.
“As you can see, there is a valley between each mountain. Each place here has its own climate, vegetation, and wildlife. Beyond this ring are plains, hills, oceans and various bodies of water. There are caves and tunnels in the mountains that extend throughout the terrain as well. Deserts, canyons, arctic plains, swamps, salt flats, all can be found here,” Emrod explains.
Simple terms cannot express what Emerald senses; it’s more than amazing scenery. It’s something which feels almost alive, feels a part of her: an unknown missing piece. “Emrod, why must I train? I am already a first level Master; if you need someone with more experience, why not pick a second or third level Master? What about the other individuals you mentioned?”
“The level of Master would not have mattered, none of your people know what you shall learn here: magic. And while there are many skilled people among the Ryoko-sha who know magic, you are the only one who can complete this task. The others are the same as you; they’re just ahead.”
“Ahead,” she echoes.
The thick bushes and trees recede as they step into the clearing just beyond.
Emerald observes Emrod, who has been so fluid with her, have difficulty forming words. “I’ve returned, everyone; this is Emerald,” he motions to the girl beside him. Five pairs of eyes look at the new arrival.
“No, really?” A girl with hard eyes spits, stalking off, her bangs –pulled back in a sleek little flaming red ponytail- bouncing haughtily with her steps.
Two girls with distant eyes silently return to their task; their somewhat translucent, white hair intrigues her, but the shoulder length cut and its flat straight bangs framing such unsmiling faces gives them a glum air.
Next is a girl with emotionless eyes and hair so exceptionally short it nearly disturbs Emerald –is she disguised as a boy for their mission? Excitement quickly appears in those emotionless eyes as they glance toward Emerald…sparkling? A war plays across her features as she looks between the flame-girl and the new arrival. The retreating figure wins as she prances after her.
The last girl’s eyes tell a difficult story: of deep wounds still trying to heal; but even so Emerald’s eyes widen over her disorderly hair. Even four-year-olds and the heartbroken are disciplined enough to tightly bind their own hair… these ‘teammates’ are two-year-olds.
“Are they always like that?” Emerald questions.
“There are…many problems which remain to be solved,” he responds. He moves deeper into the camp area, leading the way to a raised platform. In the center, a map is carved into a table. Pointing to the various places, he explains each location. “These are housing; everyone here gets his or her own room.”
Examining the shapes and locations, Emerald murmurs to herself, “So they really don’t build their houses in the trees.” Without bothering to look at them all, she immediately points to a unit right on the edge of the forest. “May I build my own house beside this unit?”
“No. It is crucial for you to feel comfortable in buildings like these, it must become your ‘normal’; however, you may build a lounge for occasional down-time,” Emrod firmly denies.
“In that case, I want a room in this building.”
“Alright. Let’s go.” He leads her off.
It does not take long to walk to the building, but from it, they can no longer clearly see the central camp. A beautiful river flows no more than one hundred feet away. Although Emerald’s forest did not have a river near her home, she feels it a nice touch to the atmosphere of a house in the woods. Even though it isn’t her forest. She feels compelled to live in this house so near the trees, a per-fect escape route for those times one needs to run away. She once told me she thought if she made this her forest, her home, she might recover from her forest being destroyed.
With Emrod holding the door open for her, she steps inside the simply designed house. “So this is a building with a foundation,” the comment slips from Emerald’s mouth, uncharacteristically musing from a mixture of stress, excite- ment, and the unique air of Anzen. She quickly goes up the stairs to the second floor, her thoughts full of the completely even, open, rectangular floors, and the high, spacious ceilings. She looks into the empty rooms, searching for one with a tree right outside the window. Upon discovering a room meeting her require-ments, she calls, “This is the room I want,” and proceeds to wander inside the equally simple room. “It’s a real couch. It’s so squishy,” she mutters.
After a few moments of watching her explore, Emrod recalls her to the door. “Place your hand here.” Without touching it, he shows her. Following his instruc-tion, she feels a strange tingling as something in the door changes itself.
Her name surfaces at the top center, carved in a unique font. Patterns em-erge, fabric items change color, matching patterns springing up in embroidery, while carvings appear on the woodwork. It is an overall magical affair.
Emerald is dazed by the impossibilities. Emrod explains, “All rooms start out the same until someone who wants to reside there touches the door. It reads their flow and personalizes the room. These patterns and colors come from you. If you ever desire something different, the room will reread your flow on its own. If you want to change rooms, just place your hand on the inside of the door while thinking ‘clear’ and it will revert.”
“How- how can this even happen?” Emerald seeks an answer.
“Magic,” Emrod responds. Emerald’s eyes tell him she does not understand his words.
“What even is magic? How is it used?”
“Magic is desire, the ability to do; shortly you’ll take a magic affinity test to learn what you’re best at, but there are infinite…” Emrod leads the way back to the central camp. Once back outside, Emerald takes a deep breath of fresh air. This is Anzen. This is where she would learn of a world she never knew existed.