“Attack of the White Clouds” Chapter Six Part Two

As we climbed lower and lower down the grassy knoll, Ch- began to speak. “I understood you,” she said softly. “You wanted to investigate this village, and especially the deer. For signs of the White Clouds. Am I correct?”

I nodded hastily, my teeth clattering in my haste. She nodded curtly to herself in satisfaction. A sneaky smile flitted across her features, then vanished. She lowered her voice. “I trust you to tell you this: that I do not trust that seer, and I do not trust the others for trusting her. They are fool-hearted for doing so.” I startled at her divisive thoughts, and suddenly realized that she was seperating me from them for a reason. Her head dipped closer to me. “And I also know you could not tell them of this, even if you wanted to. So listen to me.”

I gaped, my legs slowing. Her hand gripped my shoulder and dragged me along. “Someone must have sacrificed that deer. It is no animal or beast who places things in such ways, or who does rituals of the kind. Do you follow? That means there is someone alive who did it- in the wake of the White Clouds, in the wake of our people’s disappearance. Look at it! It is not that old! A week at most. That is plenty of time for that seer to have found her way to where we met her.” At that Ch-‘s eyes drew narrow and her jaw set. She released my shoulder as we began to wade into the murky and filthy waters towards the body of the deer.

I fixed my eyes upon the deer. True, all the trappings of ritual lay about it. A hasty sacred cord, the throat slit the proper way. Yet how could one person have conducted it alone? A ritual such as this required three: a hunter, a butcher, and the prophet. I shook my head as we neared the animals’ hoofs. The beads in my head rattled and I touched Ch-‘s shoulder gently with the tips of my fingers. Her scales were warmed by the sun. Immediately, as if i had branded her with fire, she whipped around ready to defend herself. I held her gaze and shook my head purposefully. Then, slowly miming the speech she had taught me, I told her that we should not cross the sacred cord. Illness would befall us. Then, I lifted up the three fingers and pointed to the sacrifice. “Th-th-three,” I blurted.

“Three what?” she asked harshly.

“Th-three,” I insisted. But I did not know how to mime these words. I did not know how to force them out right now either, or how to convince Ch- that it could not have been the seer, and that the poor seer probably never came here because her robes were neither soaked in mud nor blood. And that meant that we were not alone. There was at least three out there- leaving sacrifices to spirits which were not eating. And what did that mean of our gods? Had they too been eated by the White Clouds?

I wrung my hands over my trident at that. Could it have eaten the gods as well? Were we truly that alone?

Ch- scowled. “I wish you could speak,” she snapped before wading away. Over her shoulder she said snarkily. “Gurgle or moan if you find something, you fish!”

The insult bounced off my careless scales and left me unmarked. Instead I wrung my hands and watched the floating and bloated body before me. What if… My mind scurried to conclusions and possibilities. What if the sacrifice was not done to our gods but to some other spirit? There was only one way to find out.

Wading around the corpse I stepped onto the jutt of earth it was perched upon. Someone had scraped up this earth so that the body would appear to float above the waters. Certainly not the work of one person. It would have taken a single person days to set up this alone!

Ch- would not have known this, but in these sorts of ceremonies the symbol of the deity to which the animal was sacrifice was inscribed upon a leaf. That leaf was then stuffed into the wound in order to summon the deity to their feast. That leaf, right now, was poking out of the deer still.

I bit my tongue. There was no crossing the sacred barrier. However, the leaf looked loose. With a sweep of my leg I sent a wave of water crashing over the body. The leaf trembled, wobbling in its spot. Again i swept my legs. On the third try the leaf came loose and swept away from me. I scrambled around the sacred circle and sloshed after it. It skirted away as if hoping not to be seen, but I caught it in the prongs of my trident as it rode the current away. Scooping it towards me, I could finally see it.

A deep green still, it was covered over its entirety in wax that protected it from the elements. Even the blood of the offering had not clung to it too tightly. Yet the symbol that was inscribed into it remained, burned magically so as to never be erased. It was one that was foreign to me.

Carefully, I scooped it up. Perhaps the seer would know, I thought. Perhaps Ch- would comfort me and scoffingly say it was one of the desert’s benevolent gods. Anything would be nice, I supposed. Because if it was not one of the gods of a tribe, then this cloud with an eye inscribed in its center could only mean one thing.

After that i did not go far. I could easily see Ch- angrily battling against the knee-deep waters and exhausting her fury against them. By the time she returned her legs dragged against the water’s hold and her shoulders slumped. “I did not find anything,” she called out. “But thanks for not looking.”

I held up the leaf I held carefully in both hands. “I looked. I found.”

Ch-‘s jaw dropped. She sloshed forward in a hiss of angry splashes and curses. I held the leaf aside as she floundered towards me, then offered it as she stood before me with water dripping down her face. Ruefully she wiped her face with a hand and snorted aside before looking at what I held.

“What is that?” she asked, but there was no anger to her voice. Only the cold tinge of fear could be heard.

I pointed to the deer. “Sacrifice.” I had had time to calm myself, to rehearse and choose my words. “In the deer,” and I pointed again urgently.

“Attack of the White Clouds” Chapter Six, Part One

The next day we rose as well to continue our travels. We trekked in silence, a thing that did not disturb me save for the scowling tension it bore. Usually silence was my friend. It was when my thoughts ran freely and my mind felt at peace. Not so when it was an angry silence like this. Ale was fearful, and watched all about her with tension, like a mouse about to dart away for a hovel within the trees. D- reminded me strangely of a mother watching over a rabble of children that were not their own, and so displeasure and silent scolding marred their features. Ch- led the way in an extravagant display of boldness and bravery, leaving H- in a huff at everything she did. I followed all, senses attuned to every speech their bodies gave. Their slightest angers could easily be heard from the tension in their gait. It was all dreadfully loud to my eyes.

We reached the village by nightfall. The moment we set eyes on the gouged out space I wished we hadn’t.

The scent of blood lingered in the air. Ale suddenly refused to stop walking. Crows flew high above in the sky. The wind was still, and crickets sang despite our arrival. What had once been a peaceful field turning into a marsh was now nothing but mud. Puddles oozed with freshly forming algae. The forest had long since stopped its trees and now we stood atop a grassy knoll- and looked.

“Well,” Ch- said.

“It is there,” h- said.

“What is there?” D- asked sharply, eyes squinting.

“Nothing,” ale whispered frightfully. Her hands clutched at her robe and she began retreating. “Nothing.” D- caught her gently by the shoulder and pulled her behind themselves. Ale cowered in their shadow but no longer tried to move.

But there was something and I knew that if we were all quite honest that we could see it. It was not the marks of the gouging white teeth that had sucked up even the houses and churned the trimmed land into despair. No, it was instead – quite plainly so – the dead sacrifice of a deer that floated amidst the wreckage. It’s corpse was not eaten, though the birds vied for it. It was a sacrifice, set aside for a purpose that had not yet been fulfilled. And so, as the spirits had refused to touch it, so would all else.

I pointed to it, words bubbling up within me. They churned and spouted out in an excited gurgle. Ch- raised her eyebrows at me. “Very interesting,” she mocked.

D- made a sharp snapping sound. “What is it? My eyes cannot see that far. What is she seeing?”

“There is a dead deer, floating amidst the muddy waters. Had you a nose you could tell it by scent as well,” Ch- bragged.

H- jutted in “It must have been a sacrifice, yet the spirit has not yet come to gather it. So nothing else dares to eat it.”

Ch- smirked ruefully. “Have you come by this way, seer? Did you leave a deer behind you?”

Ale shook her head in D-‘s back. D- gently looped an arm behind themselves to hold Ale tenderly. “Do you see what is in the waters?” D- asked softly.

“Are you blind as well?” Ch- asked with scorn.

“I do not see,” Ale whispered hoarsely. “I do not see,” but it was an unending sentence, a sentence like my own that was not ending itself. “I do not see-”

“What? Just a few days ago you said you did,” Ch- sneered, even though D- hushed her. The seer’s voice lifted in a wail and she bunched her hands up to hold onto D’s clothes.

“I do not see! I do not see! I do not see the man in the waters! I do not see him!” And Ale began shaking D- with all her strength, which was considerable when she was frightened.

Ch-‘s faces softened in pity, fleetingly. “It is but a deer,” she mumbled yet the seer would not listen. Now her wailings grew into screams and she shook herself more than she shook D-. D- turned round and wrapped their arms around Ale, holding her tightly to their chest. Shushing her, they threw an angry glare at Ch-. Ch- looked away proudly as if blameless.

H- cleared his throat softly. “Perhaps we will walk around the vil- the valley,”

My throat glued shut at how he’d replaced the word ‘valley’ for ‘village’. This was still a village, was it not? But as I looked over the muddy patch that spread before us I was forced to agree. This was a village no longer. Yet I shook my head. If we were to investigate anything, we must certainly investigate here. Questions arose within me, bubbling and too difficult to find words to. The best I could do was point and moan, urging us to look to the deer, to search out clues.

Ch- tapped at my wrist. “use your hands. Speak!” and she signed language to me. I mimed her motions, then tried to make my own. How could I describe this? Investigate! Search!

Ch- smiled ruefully. “We’ll try again, for now let’s go search out the deer- you two stay here and watch the seer.” And she nodded sharply to H- and D-. “make sure she does not run away.”

“Oh get on!” D- snapped harshly while stroking Ale’s head. The seer was breathing heavily and still whimpering. Ch- snatched at my elbow and pulled me after her.

“Attack of the White Clouds” Chapter Five, Part Two

D- stepped to her side. Her arm passed around the seer’s trembling shoulders and drew her in for a tight embrace. In a low murmur she spoke of how it was the season of the marsh’s red colouring. That in the desert, it was the season for travelling and crossing. How in the plains, it was the season for the first growth. “And it has been nine months since the White Clouds arrival,” she added softly. Her hands now rubbed up and down the seers’ shaking arms. “When do you last remember?”

“Nothing,” the seer said in a hollow voice. “Nothing.”

“You remember something,” CH- said sharply.

“Nothing, nothing. Nothing! No-”

D- shushed her, leaning back to hold eye contact. “We are the season of the marsh now. That is all that matters.”

The seer shook like a leaf in the wind. “Nine months,” she whispered brokenly.

I began stepped back from the seer. In a sidelong glance I gestured to Ch- to come with me. D- stayed, comforting her and keeping her mind in the moment. Ch- followed me, grumpy as she stamped over twigs and underbrush. Her hackles were raised, her fangs bared.

“That seer knows something!” she hissed as we drew to a halt in the clearing of the White cloud. “She must!”

“But what?” the words slipped from me. It took me by surprise. It had seemed so effortless. Now, of a sudden, it felt impossible to speak a sound more. I wrung my hands. I gulped and tried to form the stories, the words to frame every picture and thought. It was hopeless. I shrugged and lifted my hands in the gesture of not knowing.

Ch- scowled. “If I knew, I would tell you! She would have told us! But all we know is that something is not right! She has been missing- how could she not know that the tribes have united? Has she been in league with the White Clouds?”

Or she was one who was taken and now she’d returned. A shiver of excitement ran through me. COuld it be that we had met our first survivor? Wondering this I stared away from Ch-. I took in the trees with their red trunks. Took in the whisperings of the wind and H- stalkign towards us. “Here they come,” he murmured under his breath. we stiffened and turned. Indeed, D- was approaching. Their arm was around the seer, walking her as one would walk a frail or sickly person. As they approached D- beamed with pride and the order for us to echo their happiness. I put on a large grin in hopes that I would be right. Let this be our first revenant. Let this be a surivivor with some clues.

“Welcome the new member of our party, Ale,” D- said proudly, patting the seer on the shoulder.

“Welcome,” Ch- said most unwelcomingly.

“We-w-w-w-,” I nodded and gestured wildly in greeting. H- chuckled and greeted her.

“Welcome. As you can tell, our bravest and best can not talk very well.”

“Hm! I speak just fine,” Ch- muttered savagely under her breath. Somehow, that made me smile. Ch-‘s comment, albeit insulting, felt harmless and boisterous. Charming, even.

“Ale will be travelling with us,” D- said cheerily. “I wish us all to get along.”

“We will,” H- said solemly.

I nodded, once again stuttering through the words. My sweaty palms wrung over my trident as if squeezing the words out for me. “W-w-wwe will!”

“Hnh,” was all that Ch- said. “We shall see.”

D- drew in an exasperated breath at this breach of politeness, but what was to be done? The seer turned pale beneath her scales, but did nothing. if anything she drew closer against D- for comfort.

And so, Ale was added to our group. Little was known of her. She walked huddled in her robes as if cold or frightened. That first day, we left the tracks of the White Cloud and continued onwards into the forest. Our pace was much slower than the frenzied rush our tribe had fled with. Now, we’d not even left the reaches of the mountains and trees by nightfall. As before during the day, we drew camp hastily but not in the marks of the Clouds. This time we nestled the tent in shadowy safety and made sure to light no fire.

The seer was put in the tent to rest wholly through the night. Us others took turns in watches of two to dwell awake. It would have been a relaxing time if somehow it hadn’t been so fearful. The air seemed tinged with danger. The birds refused to sing, and the crickets wouldn’t play. H- was crouching a few feet from me while I stood and looked around for any signs.

“I can’t sleep,” Ch- said as she threw her blankets off her and rose ingratefully. Beside her, d- was sleepign fitfully. With a scowl and huff Ch- rose and walked soundlessly to H-‘s side. There she crouched next to his hulking form. “What’s the matter with this place? THere is no sounds, no breeze, no bugs.”

Indeed, I realized with alarm, even the bugs seemed to have fled in fear. Whatever was wrong?

“We are walking into a trap.” Ch- said. Then, pointing to the tent, she lowered her voice. “It is all since she has arrived. The birds flee our arrival. The animals of four legs turn away at the sight of her. Even the trees don’t want to touch her. Something is wrong, and it is her.”

I tilted my head to the side, but did not know what to think.

“Attack of the White Clouds” Chapter Five, Part One

In that way we passed the night. I was alongside the tent in the last blanket when the seer awoke.

“Come back! Come back!” she shouted, and the tent tumbled over from her thrashings. I startled, jumping to my feet. Seeing the tent tumbled and shaking I pulled it apart as Ch- rushed over.

The Seer began screaming the moment she was visible. Writhing, shielding herself with her arms, she obviously was terrified. I reached gently to comfort her but she darted away like a snake. Stumbling out into the clearing she slowed, turning on herself as she took in her bearings. D- slowly approached and the seer’s eyes rested on them a moment. Yet she was gathering up her skirts as if to run.

“Stay where you are,” D- said calmly as they began sllowly striding towards the seer. To her, they called out. “Do you remember me?”

The seer scuffed the ground, turned, and found one of the symbols that the white clouds left behind. One final glance was turned towards D-, then the seer began stubbornly walking away in the direction towards which the clouds had vanished. I paused, resting my head against the side of my trident. So she could read the paths of the white clouds. She knew of those symbols.

And she was getting away. “OI!” Ch- called to D- as the seer was beginning to walk out of sight. “Do we catch her now?”

D- turned around, ceasing their steady walk. “I suppose! Alright! Run!”

In a bolt Ch- and I were off. I, fiercely determined to not let someone who obviously knew so much get away. She must be our clue! Ch- well, Ch- would never let anything outdo her, even if it had a headstart.

The seer was fast. She leaped over the lip of the cloud’s gouging marks and sped into the forest. Branches whipped around her and for a flash I was frightened that she would be faster than I. Desperation was giving her speed- but we were desperate too. In a burning push I reached her, hands grappling at her shoulders. In a tumble we careened sideways. Rolling int he dirt. Tasting leaves and ducking her thrashing elbows as she – silently – struggled. In a blur of red Ch- was mixed in, pulling the clawing savage off of me with her arms locked behind her. Still silent the seer fought and thrashed, gritting her teeth against the pain.

“Be gentle! Be gentle!” D- called as they caught up to us in a crunch of underbrush. Too late. Ch- forcefully spun the seer to face D-. D- was not pleased. “Don’t hurt her!’ And D- wrapped their long arms around the seer as if to protect her from CH-. Miffed, Ch- released the seer’s arms. Immediately the seer snatched at D-‘s arms and bit them. Surprised, D- shrieked in pain and loosened their grip. The seer broke free, lunging past me.

I flicked my trident to the side. In a trip, stumble, and crash the seer landed in a roll in the underbrush. With a thud she crashed head-first onto a tree’s trunk. Certainly she did not have the grace of a warrior, or the knowledge of how to break a fall. Shaking my head I scurried to her side, trident first.

Already as I reached her side she was trying to get back up on her feet. With a shriek she fell back down. She clutched at her ankle, curling on herself. Already the limb was swelling.

Ch-, useful as ever by my side, drew her sword and stepped over the crying seer. “Don’t frighten her!” D- insisted just as Ch- pointed her sword at the seer and showed her fangs in a magnificent display of intimidation. The seer shrieked and smashed her foot onto Ch-‘s. I had to swing my trident and stop Ch- from hacking back in response.

“My foot!” Ch- howled, hopping in pain.

“Enough!” D- snapped before throwing both me and Ch- aside with a wide gesture. “Give her space!”

“Give her space? Give her space? She tried to run, she attacked us and now we must give her-”

I strode over and clapped my hand over Ch-‘s mouth. She threw my hand off, but I pushed her away from D- by the shoulders.

As Ch- hissed and growled, I turned round to watch the seer’s actions. Tear-streaked and scowling, she still had the nerve to hiss and bare her own fangs menacingly at D-. D- crouched down before her, making no move to touch her. “We found you yesterday,” they said softly. “Do you recall?”

“Leave me be!” the seer shouted, still hissing and spitting. “Leave! Go back to your clans! I must go find them, I must- go away!” and she began scrambling up on one foot. D- did not move.

“Our peoples have taken the boats and left. Whoever you are following has certainly gone with them.”

The seer froze as if plunged through with a shard of ice. “The b-boats?” she stuttered. Then, whispering in dismay to herself, “I do not have a boat.”

“They took the sacred boats, and are fleeing the white clouds across the sea. We have remained to fight it.”

“You are -” the seer turned and seemed to see us anew. She grew frightened. Cowering.

“We are fighting it,” Ch- said slowly, as if she was expecting the seer to react otherwise.

The seer laughed, high-pitched and falsely. Her hand clawed backwards over the tree and she took a stumbling step away. “I – am not a fighter. No use in me. Leave me alone- I must go -” and she seemed to freeze. Her mouth clamped shut tight. her limbs quivered.

Once more, she was the frightened seer we’d encountered last night. I tilted my head to the side, taking in this transformation coming through her. Gone was the brave one who’d kicked Ch- on the foot. Now she trembled. Now she was filled with fear and so pale she was ready to faint.

“We will not hurt you,” D- said slowly. “We are oath-sworn, the all of us, to protect our kinsfolk. We cannot bring you harm.”

If anything, this made her begin to tremble more. More and more until she nodded. “I- but I-” and again, that fearsome laugh. “I do not want to fight.”

“We will protect you,” D- said cautiously. “No one has asked you to fight. But you must come with us. We cannot let you wander alone. The White Clouds may find you, and we would not let them harm you.”

Her claws dug into the tree, piercing its bark. “I,” she murmured “I, I should, I travel alone. I, I do not want to fight.”

“No one asked you to fight,” D- repeated with patience.

Finally, the seer gave in. She slumped and nodded. D- cajoled her some more. “We will protect you as best we can. We are from the four tribes. We can feed you, and will travel you safely amongst us. We will protect you,” she insisted. The seer did not seem confident in the truth of her words.

“From the four tribes? All together?” and then for the first time she seemed to notice our scale color. It obviously struck her and she startled. “What are you all doing together?”

We paused. I wrung my hands over the grip of my trident. Where had she been trapped to not know of the unifying of the tribes? But before I could find a way to put those thoughts out to them, Ch- beat me to it.

“What rock has she been under? The tribes have been unified for months now!”

“A month,” D- said in a shushing tone. “No need to exaggerate.”

The seer blinked as if seeing anew. “I- I- I have been lost. I- I did not know- so they have united. And yet- they have taken the boats you said. And-” she sunk to the floor, her arms shaking. She hugged her knees and drew them to her chest, dropping her head forward. “What season are we?”

“Attack of the White Clouds”; Chapter Four, Part Two

It took us hours to calm the seer down – but she would not speak sense.

“I saw, I saw,” she hissed then moaned as she hugged her knees and rocked. Her face was buried in her knees and she would not look up. Night had fallen and we were clustered around a tiny fire in the ravine-like path of the white cloud. H- and I rested our backs against the cut edge of the earth. A root jutted out, tickling the side of my head if I moved anyways. It was dangerous to be here, Ch- had insisted. We had all agreed, but the seer was not to be moved. She’d screamed, clawed at us, and began weeping. So now we sat by where she’d fallen and now sat like a trembling leaf.

“I saw, I saw,” she repeated over and over. Now her hands clawed at her own face, pulling at her eyelids. D- hushed her soothingly and tugged her hands away from her eyes by the wrists. The seer looked up, and for a brief moment she seemed to see us and understand what was around her. D- reached slowly down to the bowls of mushrooms and roasted roots at her side. Lifting it slowly so as not to surprise her, D- offered the food. “Here. Eat this.” And she held up a mushroom to the seer’s pale lips.

“No!” she knocked D-‘s hand aside, her voice reaching a terrified pitch as she continued shrieking. “No! No! No!”

D- took her hands again before they could go back to her face. “Hush, hush, it’s over now. You’re here.” And they managed to bring her hands down, resting listlessly in her lap. Once again, the seer stared at D- as if they were an apparition that was piercing into her mind. D- slid an arm around her back and shifted to sit against the seer’s side. “Here, just sit a bit,” as if they hadn’t already been doing that!

But it worked. Little by little, D- calmed the seer down. It was almost possible to see each muscle that D- managed to relax as the time passed. First the ones that held the eyebrows so drawn up and tense. Then the one that held her eyes so wide and stressed. Then something seemed to stretch out in her shoulders. At that muscle, she leaned against D-. Rested her face against D-‘s shoulder. Now her eyes were still listless, but they at least seemed to see the fire’s light. D- continued their work, rubbing the woman’s back soothingly. Murmuring choice phrases.

In the middle of the night, D- held up the roots again. This time the seer opened her mouth and ate. I wanted to cheer and clap, but was too afraid of breaking the spell. Instead I turned to Ch- and H- who were sitting beside me. H- was to my right, and Ch- to his right. Swiftly, I gestured in the short motions Ch- had taught me.

She nodded, muttering a translation. “It is going well.”

H- hushed us. “Don’t disturb. This is important.”

And so we spent the rest of the night watching D- work their skills. We kept our ears strained for any sounds of danger. As our eyes grew tired we took silent shifts to watch for the white clouds and their eyes. But none came. Not a creature approached this strange clearing. Not even a twig or leave fell near us.

As dawn cracked and dew lay around us, the seer had fallen asleep. D- was still holding her and rubbing her back. With the other hand, she gestured to us. “Give me your blankets. We will make her a shelter to sleep in.”

“A tent? Here?” Ch- asked sharply. “We are better off in the woods.”

“Do you not think it strange she will not move? She will not leave the traces of the white wind. We must not move her. Now here! The blankets!” And they gestured impatiently while not moving the seer. I quickly tossed my blanket off and threw it at her. D- caught it, and began wrapping it around the limp shape of the seer. Cradling her head, D- lowered the bundled up seer to the earth. Rising to my feet, I picked up D-‘s cooking knife and went to fetch large branches to fashion the tent with. H- and Ch- shook out their blankets and began gathering their ropes.

It was a short matter of making the tent once I returned. Throughout, we held our silence so as to keep the seer sleeping well. D- raked the coals and burnt incense over it, waving with a broad leaf several gusts of it’s smoke into the tent. They let the blankets fall close, and gestured us to come walk away. We did, curiosity and eagerness rising within all.

Once we were out of earshot it was D- who spoke first. “Something is amiss,” they said, hands on their hips. Ch- snorted.

“Did you learn that all on your own? The clouds have been eating up the earth! What else is new? Tell us about the seer!”

D- shot her a dangerous look. “Something is wrong with her. She is a seer- one bred between two clans- but she is not all right. The clouds have done something to her.”

“Wh-wh-what?” I blurted, gripping at my trident. What could they have done? Wasn’t she alive and well?

D- shook their head. “I do not know. Something is wrong with her. She is affected by it in some way. The way she will not move, the way we found her on the path following the white cloud- wouldn’t you be afraid of it if you were attacked by it? Why would you chase after what you fear most? And she did not exactly seem happy to meet us either.”

“She is in shock,” Ch- said sharply. “I do not think we can guess at more.”

“She has seen,” D- said firmly.

“She is a seer,” Ch- answered nastily. “I certainly hope she saw something.”

“Enough!” D- snapped harshly. “Leave her alone! For now she must rest. Tomorrow I shall try again to make her speak.”

“And we stay here?” Ch- barked. “We are on a mission, we have no time to spare!”

“We have lives to spare,” D- hissed. “and we must care for this one.” Turning, they made to stomp away but paused. Instead they gave us each curt instructions to stand in a triangle around the tent in watch, one sleeping beside the tent in order to rest.

“Attack of the White Clouds”; Chapter Four, Part One

Ch- stayed behind, chattering with the others. “Wasn’t that easy?”

“Only for you,” H- grumbled.

“She can talk now! Now all we have to do is understand what she says-”

“It’s about the same as before, it’s just that now you are listening,” D- said sweetly, like a knife no one saw. Ch- silenced suddenly. The plodding sound of their feet caught up with me. H- and D- came to stride at my sides as if protecting me while Ch- sulked beside H-, then lagged behind. She no longer seemed bursting full of ability.

When we reached the forest’s edge she turned her back to me and began looking away in her own directions. This track of the cloud was large, a wide chasm of nothing that had been torn up from the earth. Bedrock had been bared, and torn apart sections of roots jutted up from its crevices like arms searching for their loved ones.

The damage we stood in was thirty feet wide, the edges cut and jagged like they’d been sawed with a dull knife. There, sometimes several feet deep, the topsoil could be seen from the side. Roots had been shorn clean. Stones had been cut in half. Up above, the canopy had similarly been sliced away. Not even a twig extended beyond the edge of the carnage. Not one splinter littered the ground we now stood in.

It was an aching emptiness. A void unlike any of us had ever seen.

“What can we hope to find here?” H- murmured. “There is nothing.”

Exactly, I thought to myself, crouching to scour the earth. These cuttings, this sharpness- it was the work of those sharp sand-like particles that had blasted us when we braved its attack. And yet- hadn’t it been pushing, not drawing up?

I straightened, the question suddenly strange. If it had blown its attack, where did everything go to? As I looked around, it seemed strange. All this work- it was the work of cutting, of a vicious blade plunging forth- then how had it drank everything up? How had it taken away even the dust of the earth, even the last splintered twig and torn leaf?

Worse, how could i ask this question to my friends? Hesitantly I turned to Ch-. She was busily ignoring me, her back showing her picking at the cut edge of the earth. Her fingers caressed a stone sheared in half. Gripping my trident and wringing my nervousness into it, I called to her. The guttural sound of her name was difficult but short, so it was manageable.

“Ch-!” and it was out. She turned, eyebrows mocking me in their disinterest. I bit my lip, then waved her over. She came, painfully slow and uncaring. Half-way she made a show of looking at the earth and scuffing her foot as if she’d found something. Then she stepped to me with a nod acknowledging me. “What is it?” she asked bitterly.

I began swiftly gesturing. We, earth, white cloud, it all came in a flurried burst that, by the look on her face, wasn’t making much sense.

“Wait, wait,” and she gestured gently. Slower, she signed, slower.

I bit my lip, jittering. They had to know this! I tried again. Ch- watched my every move fixedly, a gaze she certainly watched her prey with. Still, at the end she was not certain. “Try again,” she murmured. “Your hands are all over. Present? Or past?”

I did not know! Biting my lip I tried again. This time Ch- mouthed my words silently, assuring me that she had understood. “White cloud, attacks, earth, takes…. all this,”

I nodded, then took a deep breath. Calmed myself. Then, I set my hands before myself.

But the words evaded me. How could I explain all this? This overwhelming question that seemed so strange and confused- but I tried.

Ch- worded, but already it was not right. “Cloud, attack, takes all?”

I shook my head. No, it took! Took! Again, I tried.

“Everything, to the sky?”

Alright, that was a good start. I nodded, and signed to her that-

“So why?”

No, where! Where! Biting my lip, I stamped a foot. The crawling irritation I’d so long ago chased from myself was returning. I wanted so bad to have them understand- I needed their help- and yet they could not understand! Everything was a simmering mess, locked into my own body.

To avoid screaming in sudden frustration and giving in to the roiling mess, I flopped myself to the earth. Crossing my legs beneath me, I cradled my head in my hands and pressed my eyes shut.

When I opened them, Ch- was crouching before me. Watching me with frowning concern.

“Do you want to try again?” she asked softly. I shook my head. Then nodded. what else was there to do but try?

“Okay, so,” she held up a hand. “Why don’t I try?” and she repeated my gestures, guessing at the meaning. “The clouds come and take all. All, to the sky.”

I nodded. So far, so good. A glow of eagerness came over CH-. “Okay,” she breathed, then held up her hands in the gesture of non-knowing. “So… why?”

I shook my head.

“How come?”

Oh, nearly! The first half! I nodded, then shook my head. Ch- tried. “No? Yes? How-” I stopped her with a hand, nodding furiously.

“How? How.” Ch- nodded proudly. “How.” As if it was a great accomplishment.

Bravely, I continued. Speech felt closer now and I ventured a word forth. Then another, with more gestures. Finally, a sort of conversation was flowing. It was spattered with my occasional words and filled with wild gestures that made Ch- smile and even laugh. What felt like hours later (though it really must have been a short time) Ch – slapped her thigh and stood. “I’ve got it!”

D- and H- were far away, picking at the roots jutting from the wall. They did not turn until Ch- called again. “She has spoken!” then she left me to run towards them, chattering about my question.

All that for one question. Exhausted and tired in some bone-aching way, I rose to my feet. It had taken so long, It made me envy them as they chattered away so swiftly. As they gestured, not to make themselves understood but merely to emphasize. How they could communicate so easily. Their thoughts were hardly trapped within them.

Ch- was still explaining. “The cloud attacks, sending out what seems to be white sand, correct? Yet where is that sand? Not a trace? And look- it has taken away everything. But how? How does it blow out, and that is all we’ve felt when we were attacked by it- and then everything is gone? Where do these things go to?”

D- and H- were interested, throwing approving glances my way as I approached. Gliding into their tiny knot of presence I stood by Ch- and D-‘s side. Hastily, I gestured for us to search. Gloating like a hen displaying her chicks, Ch- translated my words.

“She says we must search. She believes that if we can learn where it takes these things, we may learn the crux of its power.”

“It’s stronghold,” D- said in surprise.

“But it,” H- hesitated, shaking his head. “It has magic and powers beyond our comprehension. We have been searching and it has left no tracks. What can we possibly find? We need to learn how to defeat them.”

“We will find out how,” Ch- said firmly before turning to me. “If your plan does not work, we shall try mine.” Though her words may have been meant to comfort, they did not. Rather, they seemed to be saying that once my leadership failed, she would gladly take over again. I shrugged. The jug came to me. I was certain that whatever I was meant to do, I would succeed.

And so we walked on, I leading the way and choosing whenever we would pause to search for the minutest detail that may hold the key. In this way we stopped often, as I wanted us to investigate the slightest difference in the cuttings. Anything may hold the key- and yet one came running straight at us. Hardly a subtle sign.

It began at first as a cawing of birds, strange and hoarse. D- rose from a pattern she’d been investigating upon the rock. We’d been finding signs of these all over, in broken ways. It was as if a seal was stamped, but only parts of it remained. And now this strange bird-

“That is no bird!” H- said as it grew louder. Instantly we lifted out weapons, stepping together for safety. The sound rose, hoarse and shrill. Warbling, even. It came from the south, and a staggering sound akin to the loping of a wounded animal came with it.

A black figure appeared, stumbling through the woods- and it fell into the carnage. Straight upon its face. The wailing, now discernible as that, continued. We struck our fighting poses- only to see the figure of a seer rise before us. It was one from the drier planes, clothed entirely in black with metal bracelets- and it wailed as it ran.

“A vision! A vision!” she screamed, plunging towards us. “I see them!” Half-way towards us the poor fool tripped and fell on her face. Sobbing, she cradled her head and did not move. I lowered my trident and stepped towards her carefully. As I reached her side I cleared my throat.

“Hello,” I managed with surprising ease.

The figure scrambled up. Her face was delicate and pointed, blue scales shimmering over her hued with red- a half breed. I recoiled in shock. Where were her wings then? Any born of the red hue had wings, yet hers were gone.

Her slate blue eyes were huge, the pupils tiny and slitted as she shrieked at me. “A vision! A vision!” and in a flash she drew a blade and plunged towards me. Easily I deflected her and tossed her aside, flinching as she collapsed again.

“A seer?” Ch- said as she stepped on the poor woman’s hand to stop her slicing anyone. “Left behind?”

I shook my head. “Survivor,” I whispered.

“Attack of the White Clouds”; Chapter Three, Part Two

It would take us a week of steady and swift marching to retrace our steps back to my tribe’s lands. Another week’s walk to maneuver the marshes and find the way to Mara’s hut. There, I was certain we would find something.

For now we retraced our people’s fleeing tracks. They were dispersed, scattered through the rocky plains. Yet as we crested a tall hill, we saw what had become of the forest.

I let out a cry of surprise. H- sucked in his breath in horror. D- cursed. Ch- remained silent, but her skin turned a hue paler, then flushed with anger.

When we had left, the tall forest had been plunged through by the one cloud that had attacked us. Now, it had been ravaged. The great trunks were snapped all throughout and great holes pockmarked what had once been a great canopy.

“They were searching for us,” Ch- said bitterly. “They knew we had rested there, and they hoped to find stragglers.”

I nodded. That meant they may return to find us. Stragglers. Good. If we could pick them off in scouts, or even learn how to defeat them one at a time, that would be a great boon. To learn more of them, we would have to scour these tracks. As horrific as this wreckage was, it was a treasure trove of information waiting to be read.

Now how could I say that to those around me so they understood? I tried with words as we walked. Pictures of discovery came to mind, ideas and stories of what we may discover and how- but none of this was easy to express. The more I tried to speak, the more they grew confused. Even D- was getting frustrated. Ch- peered at my mouth as I sighed.

“Her tongue is normal, why can’t she speak?”

I twirled my staff and grunted in irritation. They couldn’t say I wasn’t trying!

“Look, we just do not understand,” D- said patiently. “How can you say this is good? Look at the carnage-”

“Tracks!” I protested, monosyllables being all I could manage. “Good! Food-” no, no, not food! I’d meant forage! Cursing inwardly, I pressed a hand to my forehead and smacked my palm there lightly. We were nearing the forest and now they needed to understand. In a final desperate attempt, I waved them over to a mud puddle. Ushering them all to stand around, I tried to draw my plan.

“C-c-clou-,”

“Cloud?” Ch- suggested as I drew one. Nodding, I tried for the forest. They understood that. Then I tried to do spots of things, clues! Clues was the word I’d been searching for.

“Clue!” It burst from me. “Clue, clue-” and now I had a hard time stopping it. I did by biting my lip and pointing to all of us, then the forest. “S-s-sea-earch,”

“Search for clues? You want to search the forest?” H- said eagerly.

“Clues for what?” Ch- said excitedly.

I faltered at the monumentous task before me. There was just so much to be said. I sat down in defeat, cradling my head. So much to be said.

“Listen, no, look here,” and Ch- crouched before me. Scowling, I dropped my arms to my sides so they trailed in the dirt listlessly. She held up her hands between us as if in preparation for battle. Or to demand I focus. “There is a language that my people use, used,” and she faltered, biting her lip. “If you could use it, maybe it would help.”

“The problem is not with her tongue,” H- snapped. “Leave her alone.”

Ch- waved at him in dismissal. To me, she continued. “It is used in hunts, for silence. You speak with your hands.” And she motioned hers around her chest. “Here, for the present. There,” a little farther away “for the future. Near for the past.”

I blinked, mind whirling with possibilities. Slowly, i nodded for her to continue. With a face that said she wasn’t sure she ought to be doing this, she began miming gestures. “I,” pointing to herself with one hand, “think,” a flurry beside her head “that you think,” pointing to me before resuming that flurry, “that we,” pointing to all of us in a circular motion “can catch,” she made a snatch and hauling motion akin to hauling in a net from the sea “the white cloud.” and she gestured as if forming a soft fluff above her head.

I nodded, but that didn’t satisfy her. She flopped a hand towards me, all energy gone into dull disenchantment. “Try it now.”

Hesitant, I puffed my hands above my head. White cloud! Catch! I snatched with my hands, then pretended to search the earth.

A huge grin split Ch-‘s face. “The white cloud catches the earth?” Then she turned that grin to the others. “She is talking! Look! She can talk now!”

It was not talking, and she had not understood me at all, but her good humor was contagious in a way. I chuckled, plopping the twigs down that I’d picked up. Ch- held up her hands again, excited. “I’ll teach you some more! More words!”

I nodded, certain that this still would result in me stuttering. It would just be with my hands. I’d look like a bird flapping its wings.

Yet I tried. It made Ch- smile. Finally, in a stutter, I asked her “C-clue?”

Proud as could be, Ch- mimed picking something up and holding it in a revelatory motion. I copied it and she beamed approval.

dusting off my hands, I prepared a sentence. “White cloud,” Ch- read aloud as I signed. “Caught… clue.”

I nodded eagerly, then pointed at all of us. “We,” she added testily.

A sigh erupted from D-, who was sitting nearby with H-. The pair were watching, chins resting on their palms dismally. “She can’t do it,” H- said as if this was tiring for them too. “Can we just move on? We have to gain ground today-”

i shook my head. Words felt nearer now, yet this was easier. I didn’t need to struggle with sounds, and anything that made speech easier was a huge weight off my shoulders. Again, i tried.

“We,” Ch- said, raising her eyebrows. “Catch, clue, of the cloud?”

I nodded, beaming. That was it! Didn’t it make sense? It was so much easier!

And yet they did not think so. They pursed their lips, and Ch- looked defeated. “I don’t understand,” she said while dropping her arms into her lap. As if to make sure I understood she shook her head and listlessly signed that she did not know what I meant.

I tried. Clue! Catch! Clue! Cloud! Clue! We!

No amount of combination seemed to succeed. It seemed beyond their minds that we could find a clue on how to catch the cloud. Ch- guessed everything else under the sun. Until finally-

“We are looking for clues on how to catch the cloud!”

I nearly danced with joy, nodding and holding out my arms in approval. Ch- laughed and jumped up. “I got it I got it! Hey! You two! We are looking for clues on how to catch the clouds!”

The two were impressed, but not exactly happy either. “That only took about two hours,” H- said dryly. “Why didn’t you just let her speak?”

“Are you sure that’s what she means?” D- asked.

I nodded eagerly. D- pursed their lips. “And what would these clues look like?”

Who knew? I held up my arms in the gesture of not knowing that Ch- had taught me.

Ch- translated that too, eager as ever. “She doesn’t know!”

D- heaved a sigh. “So all this, to know that she does not know what she wants us to search for.”

Clues! Clues!

“We are looking for clues,” Ch- said, and that seemed good enough for her. She was puffing in pride, so much that her armor couldn’t seem to stretch any more.

H- and D- smiled pitiably. “Alright,” H- said. “We are looking for clues.”

In the tracks! I motioned for tracks, scooping towards the earth. Ch- gasped. “In the tracks! That’s it! The clues will be in the tracks! That’s why she was so happy about the forest! We have tracks to find clues of it in!”

Yes, yes, yes! I jumped to my feet, urging them to come. That had been surprisingly effortless. Yes it had been long but my mind was not tired. I did not feel like curling up and crying from exhaustion. Rather, I was sparkling with the burst of victory. Urging them up again, I began to walk first towards the forest.

“Attack of the White Clouds”; Chapter Three, Part One

Without a single question H- and D- followed me. They even seemed happy. Ch- was a different story altogether.

“So that is it? We are just going wherever she points?”

“You don’t have a better idea,” D- said sharply. H- chuckled.

“Well what about the food? Does she know what we are going to eat out here?”

I pointed her way without bothering to look. She squeaked. “Me?! We’re going to eat me?!”

The rest of us laughed heartily. When he was done, H- said “She meant you were in charge of that. I think. I mean, we could try and eat you for supper if you want. Your idea, I suppose,”

“Oh, very funny!” Ch- snapped.

“It was your idea,” D- said smugly.

And so the day wore on.

Tirelessly we retraced the lands we’d just crossed that day. Night was falling and still I did not want to rest. It grew dark around us and H- suggested we rest but I felt deaf to his words. The jug now strapped to my back I felt the tug, the pull, ad followed it relentlessly.

“Are you going to walk us to death? We need to eat!” Ch- called out bitterly from behind. As I turned I realized they all were behind, lagging in exhaustion. A bolt of fear ran through me. I’d been too caught up in myself to guide them properly. So I rushed towards them, shaking my head. D- smiled wearily at me as I took them by the shoulders in a silent plea for forgiveness. The purple lips chuckled and their warm hands patted my arms. “You look so worried. We are not that tired. We can keep walking if you feel the need to.”

I shook my head vehemently. Looking around, I took in the lands around us. Curving pillars of rock that jutted up from the bedrock. here and there it lay bare in cresting slices like waves. moss grew over it, red in hue and determined. Bitter, too. Not good to eat.

I pointed to Ch-, and desperately tried to speak. Guilt pressed heavily over me. How long had we walked? The night was very dark and the moon treacherously high in the sky. “F-f-f-”

“Food?” Ch- asked with a sneer. “How am I to find that?”

“I think that any hunter worth their salt can find that, even in this dark,” D- said smoothly as they took my hands from their shoulders. “Why not cast camp? I will go find flowers and the good moss. At least that can ease our hunger.”

Ch- made an unhappy rasping sound at the idea. It was not a filling supper, certainly, and for that I felt guilty. But as D- walked away H- shook his head and smiled at me. “You are certainly a very motivated leader. I am glad I followed you.”

I nodded firmly, courage returning. Once more I knew that I would lead them. It was in the pull, in my destiny. Fated.

Then D- came running back. A thick chunk of moss peppered with flowers was clutched in one fist, and the other pointed to the sky wildly. “The eye! The eye! Look-” and we all did.

It was nearly invisible in this dark. The sky, already hued with a gentle covering of clouds, was now bearing a swiftly moving blot. That’s all it was, a blot that moved with a silver hue to it. It glistened, and those sparkling shards moved amongst it. What gleamed the most, and could be seen clearly when the moonlight struck it a certain way, or when it blinked, was the eyes. Those monstrous things.

Ch- made an angry noise, her horns and fins rising along her face. Her sword drew with a hiss- but I held out a hand. We were tired. The fight was not for now.

Crouching to the ground, I urged the others to follow. Like when a violent storm came, I lay down flat on the earth. In a crevice of the rocky plains, so that I may blend in.

Hesitantly the other followed. Ch- did so with much more noise. “That is all? We are lying down? Is this your idea of a fight?”

I clapped a hand over her mouth and forced her head down into the earth.

Overhead, the cloud was passing. The eyes were fixated upon the horizon as if still seeing our people far away. My stomach churned, first with fear, then with anxious realization as its tail wound through the air above us and it progressed towards the ocean. It would follow them. They were not safe. It soared on as if the waters were no barrier for it- and only once it grew faint over the sky did I try and rise.

Three pairs of hands yanked me down. Ch- muttered in a low hiss, the only one daring to speak. “Look, you idiot! Look before you move!”

Forced to, I did. Horror seized me. The urge to scream and run was overwhelming as I saw more clouds than ever before. This was more than any storm could furnish.

They were layered three high, piling over each other. They filled the sky now, from the horizon and beyond and now this army was passing over us. Gliding oozily on, they moved like oil over water. They would merge as the winds pushed them together then they would part in different ways as they drifted on. Each eye was special, different from the others in its shape or color. Some were purple, some shimmered and others gleamed with the power over fire or light itself. Yet they never stayed still. Restless, agitated, they would shift with the moving of the wind and pass from one cloud to another, then back again and perhaps on to yet another cloud. It was senseless and strange. Terrifying in how unlike it was anything natural or correct in this world.

It seemed like an eternity we lay there, breathing heavily and yet trying not to breathe from fright. It was senseless to fight this many- and was there even a point to try and keep fighting? To my horror I realized that now was the time we could confront them and yet it was impossible. Not that many. We were but four and they- thousands!

Thoughts jumbled and fear came in waves as I saw eyes blinking and glancing down at the earth occasionally. Yet we were not seen. Mercifully, as the sun began to gleam on the horizon, the sky was clear once more. Stars sparkled as if to comfort us.

We rose, achy and trembling. “Well that was mighty brave of us,” Ch- said with sarcasm. Irritated, she brushed dust and dew from herself.

D- scowled and looked down at the moss and flowers they still held in their hands. H- shook himself off and readjusted his scarf. “What do we do now?” he asked softly. “They have passed us and there is no way we’ll ever fight them all.”

I rubbed my neck and looked at the sky. fear seemed to have loosened my tongue. “We- south, still,” I nodded with determination. “Fight them later.” They would come back, something told me. They were hunting our people, and soon they would realize some had escaped. They would chase after us.

“How exactly do you plan on killing all of those things?” Ch- said sharply. “There were three thousand of them!”

I startled. So did H- and D-, who said what I wasn’t thinking. “You counted?” D- asked.

“Well someone had to,” Ch- said bitterly. “I counted the eyes. There was a lot, but only so many per cloud. Roughly, there was three thousand.”

I plucked at some dirt stuck to my arm. Three thousand… “South,” I insisted. “We go south. Then, we go north.” And I nodded to Ch- in deference. Once I’d led, then it would be her turn. We would try every plan we could think of.

Ch- seemed startled by this. She paused, looking me over as if expecting this to be some trick. With a certain amount of caution she nodded while crossing her arms. “What do you expect to find down south? Do you think they have built a stronghold?”

Their lands are the wind, and beyond the sea. They swept down from the stars- why would they have built anything upon the land that is so fragile to them? No, I did not know what I was searching for. But the jug tugged me home.

I tried to say all this, that in their tracks we may find how to destroy those white eyes that we’d only ever been able to turn away- but all that came out was a garble. In my haste my tongue was not even making words.

Ch- seemed to deflate. Scoffing she looked away. “We’re following a babbling fool,” she muttered before H- smacked her on the back of the head.

“She’s not a fool,” he hissed “she just can’t talk.”

“But children can do that! Even infants can speak more than she- ” I turned my back and pointed to the moss that D- was sourly still holding. We needed to eat, then we needed to rest. I gestured to my mouth, then to the earth and feigned resting.

“Good idea,” D- said swiftly before Ch- could interrupt. “We ought to at least rest a little. I will take the first watch.” And they set about pulling utensils from their bag to grind up the moss and soften the flowers for eating. I plopped to sit on the earth, taking the jug from my back and setting it into my lap. It’s blue glaze sparkled at me, bumps glistening in the early sun’s rays. What message did this jug now bear? As I pondered that, Ch- sat near me. For a blink of an eye we looked at each other, then she looked away as if offended. I returned to contemplating the jug.

Once we ate we lay down to rest. D- took the first watch of an hour, as they had said. H- took the rest. Ch- and I would take the watch when we next rested. For now, we slept a precious few hours before it grew too hot to sleep. Then, we wrapped the scarves around us and plodded on.

“The Attack of the White Clouds”; Chapter Two Part Two

It was mid-day, when the sun was at its hottest and we all felt the most exhausted we had been in days, when the ocean was spotted. The sight of it pushed many to tears in fright. The ocean! Many of us had never even known such a thing possible. And yet here we were, set to flee across it.

It sent chills over me. That strange tugging within resumed and I could not understand it. The jug came to mind, relentlessly within an image of Mara pouring bounty forth for her guests. I sought out the seer. Hopefully, in her power, by now she would have understood it.

“J-j-j-,” I said to the seer as I walked by her side. The metal implants across her face glinted under the black scarf she had covered herself with. She gazed at me with exhausted confusion.

“She wants the jug,” the red one said sharply from behind me. “Just let her see it, then maybe she’ll leave you alone.”

“Oh, here,” and the seer drew her flimsy bag off her back. To my shock the jug was shoved within, hardly carefully padded or stored. It had already been scratched by her cooking implements! I clutched it to my chest, tears threatening. Mara would be so upset to see her pride treated in this way.

“They’ve gotten her all riled up about it,” the red one said, easily stepping between me and the seer in more ways than one. “They’ve been trying to get her to talk about it. As if she knows something about it.”

The seer sighed in misery. “But she can’t talk. When will they understand?”

I can so! I spoke last night! I’d spoken many times with Mara and even amongst my tribe- but in my protest the words no longer were words. I babbled, sounds repeated. Both looked at me. The pity in them stung and made me more angry than ever.

“She’s pitiable, isn’t she?” the red one said as if I was deaf too.

The seer sighed, and began mournfully talking about how I’d been so well cared for, yet now she was not sure what would become of me-

I drew slower and let the flow of bodies seperate me from them. The jug was safe in my arms now. They could be ignorant and talk all they liked- I had known Mara the best. H- and D- knew it. Mara had confided more in me than in a thousand others. In a burst of confidence I knew they had been right to attempt an interrogation of me. If anyone knew what this jug’s sudden return meant, it was me. I would find the meaning.

Newfound pride filling me, I walked amongst the others with determination. As the ocean approached beyond cresting hills and rocky outbursts, a plan began building within me. I was not sure what it was. But the urge to do something was growing greater and greater. An unfolding sense of direction was coming over me. The jug was the key.

Boats awaited us. They were rumored to have long ago been built by some ancient beings. They floated in their stone majesty, ethereal and impossible. Yet there they were. Stone that would carry us to supposed safety.

I could not convince myself to set foot upon them. Neither was i alone. Many were bursting into tears. The desert folk nervously fidgeted. Their few wandering travelers had often seen these ships, yet never had they dared to claim them as their own. Never had anyone tried to sail them.

Yet the last remaining cheiftain had made his choice. Standing tall before us and so broad of shoulders, he claimed this as our last chance. With sails, we could ride the winds ahead of the white clouds! Just like the kite-flyers used to, before they were snatched away and eaten up by the white eyes.

“Yet we will be in stone!” he proclaimed with a feverish need bordering on joy. “What is left when the wind passes? Always the earth and stone! We shall be safe, even if it captures us.”

Sobs were heard and once again I found myself stifled as the group clustered together. Yet this time I slipped towards the back. No one had come to reclaim the jug from me.

A single file was formed, siphoning us towards the boats.

“This is madness!” a familiar voice called out. It spoke in anger. In vitriolic pride and disgust. It stepped aside, red armour gleaming in criss-crossings. A hand planted on her hip, the red one dared all. “I am not getting on a boat! Is nothing sacred anymore? Are we so cowardly that we will break all our people’s rules? Damnation comes to all who step on there! We of the desert and sand know this to be true! How can you- who did not live in the deepest of the hottest sands, ask us to betray that?”

“We have no choice!” The cheiftain called desperately. “What else would you have us do?”

“We go north.” SHe proclaimed proudly. “We go to the lands of ice. This cloud came from the south. Beasts from the heat die in the cold white that lays in the land of the north. We will lure it there, trap it, and defeat it.”

“It is a cloud!” “It is a spirit!” “It can not be defeated!” The people cried out to her in fear.

“I will go fight this beast!” She called out with pride. “Who will come with me?” and she held up a fist. Whispers carressed my skin, the crowd moving away from her more and more. I let it draw away, and began walking against me.

“Me!” I called out suddenly, the sound surprising me. Thrusting the jug aloft for all to see, I went to her side. THere I turned around. “I will go!”

“I don’t want you!” she hissed under her breath.

“Me neither,” I snapped back. Then, once more I felt the vices of silence clamp over me. The crowd was watching.

Two more stepped forward. H- and D-. “We will come as well,” D- said, their bodies approaching lithely. Turning around, they faced the crowd as they reached my side.

“Go and seek shelter,” H- said. “We will not hold it against you. We will fight, and if ever you return, hopefully we will have grown older and the lands will be safe once more.” And he bowed to the crowd.

“Wish us well,” D- said in that melodious voice, bowing as well.

I nodded politely, dipping into the slightest bow, the jug now held tightly to my chest.

The cheiftain implored us to come with them. THey needed us to help turn away the eye! But we remained fast. I shook my head as stubbornly as I could, and in the end none of us could be swayed. Our people boarded the boats, and we watched them sail away as the sun lowered.

Once the boats were specks on the horizon, H- cleared his throat. D- nodded in silent agreement. The red one puffed in pride. “Let us go-”

D- held up a hand. “We did not come to follow you. We are following her.” And they turned to me. “Where are we going?” The special one asked me gently.

the red one gasped. “She is following me!”

I pointed south. “Ma-a-ra,” I struggled to say.

“See?” D- said pointedly to the red one. “She has a better idea than you.”

“A-A!” the red one shrieked, stamping a foot. “She doesn’t know a thing! Up north-”

“South,” I insisted, pointing to the jug. “South.” We had been left with a bread crumb. Wasn’t the winds driving us north? If it was afraid of the cold, why did it chase us heedlessly towards what it ought to fear most? No. South.

“We go south,” H- said with confidence. The red one deflated. Her pride no longer held her together. I nodded thankfully to D. They returned the gesure with a smile.

Then, I hesitated. I turned to face the red one, who was now significantly redder in the face. She looked me over with such hatred, such vile continuation of all the troubles our tribes had suffered at each other’s hands- so I held mine out.

She looked at it incredulously. Glared up at me.

I offered myhand again. “N-n-n-”

“No,” the red one said, just before I blurted.

“Name? You-your name? What’s-”

She crossed her arms and scowled. Snorting, she looked aside. “How embarrassing. Why do you follow someone who can’t even ask properly-”

D- slid to my side, graceful as ever. “Her name is CH-{?} and she is a pain in the ass of anyone who knew her. That was before her entire tribe was eaten up. She survived because she was out on a hunt. Proud as ever, and alone.” D- added with a sneer towards Ch-.

And probably blaming herself every minute for not having been there. I had heard great tales of her before the white enemy came. Since, her tales had grown. So she was the one who had saved three lost bands from the clouds? I offered my hand again.

This time when she looked at it she faltered. Heaving a sigh and muttering “so disgraceful,” she took my hand. Looking away she shook it as if it was too much to bear. After half a shake, she dropped my hand and crossed her arms. “Ew,” she might have said, so softly i wasn’t sure she actually had said it.

I turned around, pleased as could be. Peace was made as far as I was concerned. A fresh slate was begun. Cheered, i pointed south. Now, we went to face this wind. We had no one to protect but ourselves. If we failed, nothing more was lost. It was freeing, in it’s own strange way.

“The Attack of the White Clouds”; Chapter Two, Part One

Once the sun was low we camped, folks sitting with new-found friends around tiny campfires. Already a rock had been chosen for a resting place. new guards had been chosen for the night’s watch.

I wandered amongst the fires. Those I used to eat with had been of a different camp. One that had been destroyed a few days ago. Now, I found myself gravitating towards the fire where fellow guards of my tribe sat. They were shuffling to make space for me as I approached. Yet before I could reach them, I saw H-‘s fire beyond. He was watching me. at his side sat a red one, but not the red one.

I gave in to the tug of the string within. Waving good night to my friends, I walked on to H-‘s fire. My fellow tribe warriors waved back, so obviously relieved that it stung.

I marched on, refusing to let it show. Be determined, be determined, Mara’s words repeated in me and I was quite determined when I reached H-‘s fire. So determined that he smiled in relief at the sight of me. It must have shown that I was ready to speak now.

A spot had been saved for me, so no one had to shuffle aside as I sat down.

“We are so glad you could make it,” H- said in his deep gravelly voice as I crossed my feet under me. I nodded, watching the fire. From the edge of my vision I saw those who were here. The red one was that tribe’s magician. Not seer. This one was jealous of our seer in unknown ways. Then there was one from H-‘s tribe. One who was neither woman or man, thin and willowy with its braids falling down with beads and stones over their shoulders. Their lips were tinged purple, the special tattoo accorded to them by their seer- who had long ago passed away.

It was this one who spoke first, introducing themselves while holding up a hand. “I am D-, glad to finally meet you.”

“Xira,” said the jealous magician, offering a hand that I did not even look at. It was far easier to watch the flames. The hand waited a moment, then withdrew sourly to rest on its owners knees.

“Can you tell us about the jug?” H- asked cautiously. I nodded, my own braids rattling softly on the back of my neck.

And I tried to speak. “Th-th, the jug, the jug,”

“It was a jug!” a sneering voice crowed from behind me. I startled, yelping as I spun my trident around. It whooshed through the air and sent me off balance as it struck nothing. Laughing, Ch- straightened from the duck she’d dodged my trident with. I regained my balance, scowling.

H- sighed loudly. “What are you doing here? I told you to stay away. We are trying to get her to talk.”

“Well I want to hear it too. They say she sounds like a crow and a frog all at once when she does make a sound, so how could I miss out on that?” Forcing her way between the special one and the magician, she sat into our circle. I flinched as the magician slid closer to me. Now I just wanted to be alone. I could go hungry – but the string inside pulled me along. What I knew needed to be said. I wrung my hands over the leather grip on the trident as the hated one tossed a nod my way. “So tell us. What about this fated jug?”

I wanted to tell them. So I stared into the fire. No words would come. I couldn’t even open my mouth.

“Here, perhaps we should all eat,” H- said gently, stirring the coals around the fire. Little nuggets of desert food were being baked there in all their dryness. The smell of it turned my stomach.

I would leave, I told myself as slow conversation began around me and the food was shared. What good was it to stay in the hated one’s presence?

Yet I stayed. The food was hot, burning my sensitive fingers as I tried to pry it apart. The conversation spiraled on around me, vapid and useless. Every few sentences hopeful hints were dropped in invitation for me to speak. After I had finished the last of the food I waited for the next pause. Having gathered my courage, I tried again.

“Jug,” I blurted as the special one had hardly finished contemplating the moon softly. Instant silence fell- enough to hear the hated one snigger. I gulped and wrung at my trident. “The jug- belonged to Mara-”

There was a snort of laughter- and a yelp as she was flung out from her shoulders by the special one. “Go on,” the purple lips said surely as the body shifted aside to keep that red one out of our circle.

This time I did not miss a beat. Like rhythm, the words were flowing now. They came as pictures to my mind, and I did my best to speak them.

The jug was a beautiful thing. Mara made it so. Mara made it so it held her wisdom, and she served it to her guests. Mara- and the words ran out.

I stared into the fire.

The urge to speak had gone. My mind whirled on, remembering scenes of Mara laughing, serving bountiful food and leading prayers. But the meaning of the jug was no longer lost on me. It was her last gift. To me.

Around the fire, everyone was expecting more. But how could words describe all that I knew? It was simply not enough.

“What does the jug mean? Why is it with us now?” the one that was neither man or woman asked, leaning forward on their knees.

I shook my head. It was a gift, but gifts had many meanings. Spite, rudeness, a beg for forgiveness, Mara had given many gifts.

“Do you know?” H- asked. I shook my head again.

The jealous magician heaved a sigh. “I don’t think she does.”

“But she knows it’s a j-j-jug!” a voice called out from behind me. I whirled, and this time my trident struck true. In the stomach. I laughed, a stuttering giggle as the red one doubled over, gasping for air. She stumbled back, then straightened with a wince.

“Serves you right,” the special one called towards her. “Leave her alone. She’s done her best. That much can’t be said of you.”

Ch- hissed at all of us. her fang-like horns rose around her ears, the pointed fangs showed clear amongst her teeth. “She is a disgrace! She ought to have died by now, the weakest ought not to outlive the brave and the strong.”

“She’s as brave a fighter as you! She’s turned away the white cloud several times!” H- called, but already the red one was no longer listening. Her back spun to us and she marched away.

“Don’t listen to her,” D- said. “You are very powerful. As worthy as anyone to live.”

Xira huffed and adjusted her scarf around herself. “You are just odd. That is all.” But that did not sound like a good thing. Had she expected me to be some seer? Some person bearing extraordinary gifts? I was just a cripple of the mind. That did not give gifts, surely.

Rising, I turned shape into the golden orb we all called home of the skin, and flew away to rest. The next day would be grueling, though I did not yet know how much.