“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 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.

“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.