The forest rose around us, the red trunks tall and thick but widely spaced apart. We had chosen an easy part of the forest to cross. Here there were many rocks but little underbrush. The bright green canopy above us let plenty of light filter through their waving branches.
“We will rest there,” the oracle said. Her grey and black hued skin glimmered with sweat, the metal inserts in her face shining with green reflections of the trees. Dirt rose up her thin skirt to her knees. I nodded, tired as well but making sure not to let it show. I was the highest ranking warrior still alive. The burden of leading with hope was now placed squarely on my shoulders. A difficult thing since my own hope had gone missing in the dark, taking it’s brightly burning lamp with it.
We struggled up the final rock. It was perfect. Our oracle had led us true. It was maybe ten paces across and rising fifteen high out of the ground but it bore many crevices and cracks. There were even tiny holes that burrowed deep within its structure. “In here!” the oracle called, and the tribe that followed me began scurrying.
At first sight our people were tall, slim and hued by the colors of where we had lived. My people were blue skinned, with gills and fluted ears. Our bodies shimmered with scale-like patterns. We were clad in bits of leather and soft fabrics. Others, of the drier climates, were in reds with black skin and metal decorations pierced through them. yet others had delicate dragonflies wings and slanted eyes that shimmered with no pupils or whites. Their cheekbones jutted out like horns, pointed and menacing. Yet beneath their rough exterior their hearts were soft and perhaps the most wounded by these recent events. We were all the same, I’d come to realize. Once at war, now we were shunted together by a newly reared enemy.
And so we all took solace in this rock. Scrambling up its slope, our people turned ephemereal, their bodies dissolving into their most vulnerable state of pure soul. In this state every one of us was a small orb of light, shrinking and shrinking to find the smallest and safest nook within the rock. As I stood back and watched they were like fireflies swirling and nesting until the rock seemed to glow.
At my side, the oracle sighed. One more feat of magic was required from her. She held up her hands, and cloaked the rock. A blanket of darkness swept over the rock, covering all the lights. It settled into the rock, making it appear just a hue darker than it actually was. Yet no more lights could be seen. Our people were hidden.
With a groan her arms fell. They shook, and she seemed ready to collapse. Yet she held my gaze bravely. “I am going to rest. You will watch over us?” I nodded, and her gaze swept to the others who had also not gone into resting form. We were three, each from a different clan. Now, having realized out joint responsibilities in these times of trouble, we were working together.
We stood watch, each of us a different and from a different clan, each facing a different direction. I faced east, hoping to see some sign of the spirits we’d been forced to abandon. H- with his black cloaked robe wrapped tight around him, faced north, desperately wishing to see some sign of his family that had gone missing. Ch- face west and south, stonily keeping her thoughts to herself. I hated her so much more than any other. She’d had the nerve to continue blaming us despite our continuous plight. She led her people still in the ways of hate, a thing few of us could still afford.
She, as it turned out, was the last to turn to my cry of surprise.
“What is that?” she said, and I saw it coming with a swell of dread within my breast. A white cloud. The white cloud. The emmissary, the one with the eye within it that would see us. Lifting my trident into defensive stance, I hissed.
“We need protection! Cover of some sort!” Ch- shouted. But we could not be hidden any better than we were. If we left the rock our people would be left vulnerable to be scented out. If we moved to hide even the slightest amongst the trees, our movement could be detected. In a brief flutter of cowardice I hoped the eye would look over us and away. Please, just this once, I begged to our ancestors. Yet they were far away and helpless. The eye latched onto us. I felt its cursed pupil, white like the frothy death it summoned, spear through me.
With a cry or power I lifted my trident and swung downwards. The end of my trident planted into the soft earth before the rock as I crouched, bracing myself for what was to come. To my left, the forbidden cry of H-‘s tribe rose, shrieking out for protection as well as he too planted his sword in the earth to brace.
The white wave billowed out from the cloud of the eye. A cresting rush, formless yet consuming all. It swept down like it was on wings, soaring soundless but for the crunching of the red trees bursting to shards and smashing down.
A final cry sounded to my right. One of fire and vengeance- and a red form planted itself proudly in defense at my side.
The white wave crushed over us. It was a blistering wind, scraping over us like sandpaper. It burnt like sandpaper scraping over my whole body, threatening to tear me to pieces. Even the air burnt, filled with the white curse that scraped my lungs and stole my air. Ducking my head to shield my eyes, I gritted my teeth and refused to give way. The wind bit, turning my knuckles raw and bloody but I refused to let go of my trident. If I did, I would be swept away into the whirling white. I would be destroyed- and the triad undone. The rock too would be eaten up then.
The wind must have lasted only a moment. It felt like an eternity, a white burst in which nothing existed and all was tearing up around us. But in a rush of warmth it it was gone. Good clean light basked over us and the magic in my trident hummed to a rest. It was done deflecting the attack.
First I lifted my head, then I straightened out of my crouch and looked around, blinking my sore eyelids.
The trees were gone in a wide berth around us. Rocks had been gouged up from the earth, and even the dust they ought to have left behind was gone. It was as if a great monster had come churning through, smashing all into little bits, only to have all that sucked up by a hungry ghost. A sharp line cut off the devastation from the rest of the forest, which was in pristine condition.
“We did it,” the red one at my side said, breathless in wonder. “We’ve turned it away.”
I nodded warily. It had happened before that the emissaries had been deflected. Always the white returned in more powerful ways. Sometimes there were enough clouds to blot out the sky. Our only hope was to run now, faster than the winds could come.
Pulling my trident up and turning away- I was stopped by a chinking sound as my trident’s end struck something. Something that was not a rock. Whirling, expecting some white devilry, I saw a clay jug sitting at my feet. It was propped against the rock, as if it had been dropped between my trident and it.
I pointed my trident at it fearfully. The red one stepped closer, her sword and shield at the ready. “What is that?”
“It was not there before,” H- said in awe.
I nudged it with the tip of my trident. It moved, toppling to land softly in the ripped earth. It was a deep blue, glazed in artful swirls with words painted over it in gold. My heart turned to stone and my jaw fell.
It was the jug of our chieftain! Her hut was one of the first to be torn away, and so I knelt down without a care now. If it had been a trap I would have been damned. Luckily there was none and all that happened was my tears as I lifted the precious jug up. It was in the same impeccable condition our beloved leader had kept all her affairs. Untarnished, solid, and well formed. I clutched it to my chest in wonder, almost dropping my trident to hug it.
How could this be? I wondered, but in my heart I knew what it must mean. It was a sign from beyond the white mist. Was I designated as the new chieftain? Was our beloved one telling of her survival in the beyond? That there was some abyss we could rescue them all from, safe and unharmed as this fragile jug?
Rising, I held it out before me. What could this mean? As I looked around me, I saw the possible truths mirrored there. To my right, fury and anger.
“This is a trap,” she hissed. “put it down.”
To my other side, joy and hope. “They’re alive! They must be!” and he wanted to take it from me. I held it away, stuttering as I tried to talk.
“J-j-ju-j-j-,” then, finally, “jug!” But it was pitifully little to what I meant to say.
The red one rolled her eyes. “We got that. Give it here, it needs to be destroyed.”
I turned my back to her, determined to show it to the seer when she rose with the rest of our people. She would know what to make of it.
Mercifully, the others left me alone with it. The red one hissing in discontent, the other sighing and muttering that the seer would know what to do – with both the jug and me. I put my back to them and kept my watch bitterly.