She had been traveling for weeks. Too long. Only one son had decided to go with her, the eldest, insisting on helping the middle-aged woman with heavy lifting and of the sort. She was glad to have his help, even though she had been doing this trip for over thirty years and could full-well handle it.
The sounds of the city of Alfone were nothing like her dirt-town of Fumbauni. Temple bells rung, city-goers talked and bargained and children screamed with delight in the distance. Oxen grunted, cartwheels rattled and a whistling breeze blew hats off. It smelt of fire and soot and yet mixed aromas of flowers, chrysanthemums and peonies and daisies, and the heavy summer air weighed upon each passing cart and donkey and person. She edged their mule just a bit further, darting out in front of a young Karuban woman selling tinker toys.
The ancient stone buildings emanated heat, dark stones of onyx creating a sort of vortex around it. The stone was for all the fires, she thought. The city of Alfone loved their fires, whether it be for festivals or parades or simply just because it was how they did things. The current Empress Alexia insisted on keeping the old traditions, even though she was not of the royal line nor did she have any Siamo blood in her. But the previous Empress, Vitswèth the Vehement and her lover, had been the Spirit of Fire and so the fire had to stay in remembrance. They rarely used fire back in Fumbauni. It drew too much attention to them, and the last thing they wanted was attention.
She stopped just outside her usual spot. They had already set up her booth, their friends in the city, and so she jumped off the cart and called her son over. “Niv, come. Now, this isn’t your first time setting up but I have to say a few important rules.”
Niv smiled under her dark gaze and patted the oaken cart. “Yeah, I know. Freshest meat in the front, oldest in the back. Categorize by type, weight, and color. Brightest colors on top. Got it, I know, Ma. Now go on to do your business, I told you I would do this for you.”
There was one other reason they’d returned to Alfone. Other than to sell their meats, hunted by their village and their main form of income, this mother had been called upon (as the village HeadHunter) to meet with the Empress. And one did not refuse this offer. It was considered a charity for the Empress to even look at a citizen, and as such usually wore a veil over the eyes. It was the tradition. A stupid tradition.
“Set up and be careful. Anything happens, you know where I am.” Tir, the mother and HeadHunter, stepped back. A callused hand scruffed the nose of their mule.
“Yes, Ma. Be safe.”
She left her son to do her heavy lifting. As she stumbled around the streets, narrow and cobble-paved, she wished she didn’t have a metal leg. The stones made it extremely hard to walk, and more than she wished to admit she tripped over her own feet (foot) and almost fell to the ground.
The royal castle could be seen from all around. It rose above every other building like a monument, a per-se “North Star”, and glowed with its white alabaster stone. The Ancient Fire gleamed at the highest precipice, burning still with its holy power. The spiral towers caused the entire castle to look like a spaceship, about to blast off into the sky. The main tower was bigger than all the rest, more upkept and washed on the outside and beholding a thousand banners of Alexia, a big white tree with a green background. It was the puruk, the tree was called, and it was a symbol of peace and purity. It was also where Alexia was found as a young girl, underneath the puruk, and brought in by Vitswèth and her house.
To say Tir disliked the city it would be an understatement. It had an air of ‘I don’t like you’ about it, and much of the population did, in fact, hate outsiders. They protested in the middle of the week on protest day and Tir always made sure to be gone by then. Surely she, as a Tenura of the earth, would be sworn at and hurt. No earth Tenura ever came into Alfone anymore. They were hated by all for reasons that were beyond Tir. Only those of the race of the Siamo really lived in Alfone, and all others dwelled around the cities outskirts. The Umaleria and Karubo mainly filled the working class, and only rarely was a Cōrendat seen. The Barsaron never stepped their webbed feet inside the cities grounds, and Tir’s race of Tenura made sure to steer clear. By many, it was called the “Cursed City”, for its reputation as a place of thieves’ guilds and criminals home. Even though it was the capital.
These are the races of Gūdhal.
The Tenura are the people of the Earth, born from the Goddess of the Hearth. They revel in hunting, traveling, and farming. Their lands spread from the great forests to the harsh deserts.
The Siamo are the bird-people of the mountains and cities and have been in power since the First Period, the beginning of all empires. Though shaped much like the Tenura and humans of Earth, their arms sprout thick feathers of varying colors and they have the ability to fly. They value wisdom and philosophy, though most of the time the other races find them arrogant.
The Umaleria are the horse people of the plains, deserts, and mountains. They are easily recognizable by their furry flanks and hoofed feet, and males sprout horns of a wide range. They resemble the satyrs of Greek legend on Earth. Valuing hard work and resilience, other races often use them for their labor.
The Karubo are the miners and jewelers of caves and mountains. They are small, dark-haired, and are gifted with glowing eyes, to navigate the dark tunnels of their home. They value hard work and skill and, like the Umaleria, are used in cities for their labor and expertise in jewelry. You have already met a Karubo. Remember Délia from the last chapter?
The Cōrendat are the cat-people of the tundras and mountaintops. They often are involved in squabbles and conflicts with the Siamo, sharing an awfully close living space, but are known to dominate all places cold. They sport thick fur all down their arms, legs, and chest, ears pointing upwards with lynx-like furs on the top, and massive paws with retractable claws. Often they are thought of as thieves because they value survival and fighting skill.
The Barsaron are the people of the seas. Their home is the largest and most diverse of all the races, and they value fishing and beauty. Most communities scavenge ancient underwater artifacts from other races, and so because of this, they are considered the most culturally diverse. However, they also tend to be the most easily manipulated of the races, and though they are peaceful, often get roped into wars and conflicts.
Last but not least, there are the wizards of Gūdhal. The wizards are not technically a race since wizards can come from any part of the world and do not conform to being just Karubo or Barsaron or Siamo. I am the head of this order, as Alexia is the head of all Siamo. I am the High Priestess and I come from the lost class of city-dwelling Tenura.
Tir approached the gates of the castle with as much reverence and grace as she could. Two guards stood outside, two Siamo men with wings of massive brown feathers. City-birds, Tir thought, inwardly rolling her eyes as she met them.
“State your purpose.” The one on the right said, eyeing her with what was definitely not respect.
“I have been called upon by the Empress.” She clasped her hands in front of her heavy skirt. She hated wearing skirts, and the petticoat felt all too restricting.
“You cannot enter the Hall of Spirits wearing that.” The left guard drawled. Bird-brain, Tir thought.
“These are my best clothes, and I have been called upon anyway.” And it was the truth. Tir didn’t own lots of clothes, and these were her nicest anyway. Maybe they were too ethnic for these guards. Gasp! The bright woven colors and desert culture patterns probably confused them. The both of the guards wore all white robes, sleeveless for their wings to blow free, and brown leather belts with a single short sword. The usual for the guards of the castle. It was the ancient tradition.
“My statement stands,” The left said.
“Your statement does not need to apply to me. I have told you, I have been called upon. Is this going to be an issue?” She smiled sweetly and tapped her foot.
“It does not need to be an issue. Come back when you are dressed to enter the Hall.”
Tir sent them a last look of annoyance and turned. Siamo stared at her as they passed, women holding their chicks close and making a beeline away. She crossed her arms over her chest. How did she need to dress, exactly, to get in?
Every Siamo woman dressed fairly similarly. Long, flowing, light-colored dresses, a belt of black or brown, and either braided or covered hair. The hair of city-dwelling Siamo tended to be thin and dark, easily plaited or kept away from the face. It was a symbol of modesty to wear a scarf over the head, and while it was not subject to any of Tir’s hatred, she knew that these people had gotten (stolen) this idea and symbol from her people. Longer than any had the earth Tenura worn scarves, as protection from the harsh weather of their environment. The Siamo used it as a fashion statement. That part of the scarf-wearing bothered Tir.
She unwrapped the colorful sash from around her right shoulder and tied it around her face, balling up her puffy, curly brown hair behind her. She was closer to the image of a Siamo. The belt part she’d have to opt out of, for she already wore one of a deep red color. It would have to do.
“I’m ready to enter the Hall,” She announced, turning back to the guards and putting her hands on her hips. The two of them looked her over, up and down, and then to each other.
“Sure.” The one on the right grumbled, opening the door behind him and stepping aside. “Before entering the Hall we must search for any weapons.”
Great. Tir should’ve expected this, as these guards clearly already thought she was here to attack the Empress. Worse yet, she had her throwing knives on her, since they always were, and it was much too far on her old knees to go all the way back to her son to de-arm.
“I have some-” She unclasped the holster for her knives and held it in front of her. “Hunting knives. You know I am a hunter, right? That most earth Tenura are?” She handed over the knives with a sarcastic smile. “That’s all.”
They weren’t convinced. The left guard held the throwing knives as if they had minds of their own and planned to cut him, while the right stepped forward. “Your satchel, ma'am.”
She hated being called ma'am. Why did everyone call her ma'am? She swung her satchel around to her front and opened the flap to let the guards peer inside. Again, nothing. Her thick hands sifted through the stuff. “Fishing wire, sketchbook, a box of charcoals and assorted plant extracts.”
“What kind of plant extract?” He huffed, suspicious. His face said he thought she was here to drug him, but his eyes were simply curious.
“Mostly chamomile, echinacea, lots of feverfews.” She showed the vials and debated taking some of the feverfew medicine; these men were giving her a headache.
“What do they do?”
“They aren’t drugs, no hallucinogens. Chamomile for anxiety, echinacea for fevers - I always have a bit on me, just in case - and feverfew for headaches. Harmless stuff.” And she shut the flap of her bag and swung it back around to rest against her wide hips. “Any more searching, or can I go meet with the Empress now and not keep her waiting?”
The right guard pinched his pointy nose and nodded. “Yes. I will show you in.”
Tir nodded and followed him. “Be careful with those,” She gestured to her knives in the grasp of the left guard, who met her eyes with surprise and nodded. Maybe they began to realize she wasn’t out to get them after all. She didn’t hold high hopes for these bird-brains.
The entry hall of the castle was bigger than any room Tir had ever seen; high, arched ceiling with exposed beams, the old wood held together with bands of steel. The shape of the room resembled a ribcage, steady and curved. There were no doors but one on the complete opposite of the hall, large and thick and carved with depictions of the First Wars. Siamo being killed relentlessly by the Dark Ones, the ancient Goddess Denjorc at the head of them, face-to-face with the Siamo God and her twin brother Prælfheah. They were the stories and legends Tir heard as a child, merely myths, but seeing them displayed upon a door made her wonder if these stories were more than stories to these people.
“This door,” The guard said, as if it wasn’t the most obvious thing in the world. “I am allowed only this far.”
He was smiling. Not such a bird-brain then, after all. “Thank you…” She stood on her remaining foot and gestured for a name. “…I did not catch your name.”
“Watien.” He answered. He seemed to decide she wasn’t all that bad.
The air of this castle had something magical to it. All that entered felt more calm, more at peace. Tir hated Alfone, and she was suspicious of others’ suspicions towards her, and so the castle felt that and tended to her. Watien, on the other hand, was suspicious of her and his prejudice made him ignorant to what was, in fact, a very interesting and loving woman. The castle saw all, it felt all, and Alexia was a part of it. She felt Tir enter and she shifted on her throne, opening her eyes under her veil.
Watien opened the door for her and stood aside. Tir thanked him one last time and stepped into the Hall of Spirits.
Fires were lit at every column. Smoke filled the room with smells of the wilderness, tiny glass-less windows at the top of every fire to release the smog, but they let no sunlight into the hall. It was like walking through a dream, only the clink of Tir’s metal leg tapping the marble floor. Everything was white, but a smoky white mixed with greys and blacks, morphing in and out of the fire’s light. Tir squinted as she stepped through, looking for the Empress or frankly, anyone, but through the fog she could see nothing. Shapes danced on the wall, and the air was filled with magic.
Tir walked until a massive onyx dais came into view. There were no fires lit around it, none but the single incense burning on a stone table beside the throne. The actual throne exceeded fifteen feet, made of solid shimmering tanzanite that nearly glowed in the low, ethereal light. The outer edges were lined with amethyst, raw and spiky. On the seat was a lavender velvet pillow, on which sat Empress Alexia, called the Newborn, Keeper of Toil, and the Perilous.
Tir had only ever heard of what the Empress looked like; Lavender hair always kept in thick braids around her head and rich chocolate skin. But in person, well… She broke all expectations. Each braid was thicker than the width of Tir’s forearm, and there were past twenty of them, all adorned with glimmering white jewels and tied with silver ribbon. Atop her head was the headdress of the line of Prælfheah, a thin golden circlet with two outward prongs on each side, a line of precious light blue stones at the end of each prong. At the forehead, a larger blue stone dangled off the circlet. It represented the four Gods of death, the four prongs, and the One Creator, called Kah by those who practiced the old religion, as the large blue stone resting against the forehead. A white veil partially masked her face, mystifying the dark skin underneath. A simple, silk white dress covered her body, low-cut and hooped around her neck, sleeveless, and dropping past her crossed legs. It accentuated every line, curve, and scar on her body and Tir thought she might as well be naked. Her skin was a rich chocolate, shining with the finest oils. Thin hands grasped the end of both armrests, and she leaned against the back of the throne, but her neck was curved sideways like she was listening for something. Pointed ears twitched underneath the fountain of braids and unnaturally light eyes peered through dark eyelashes.
Tir was startled. She didn’t know how she was supposed to act, what she was to do. Was she supposed to bow? Salute her? Address her as My Empress, or your highness?
“Tir of Fumbauni.” The Empress addressed her first, those piercing eyes looking her up and down calmly. “You have a metal leg.”
Her voice was deep, gentle, and nothing like Tir thought it would be. And the things she said was also nothing like she thought it’d be, and she nearly let out a laugh.
“Yes.” She managed through the sudden pressure in her throat. She was breathless looking upon the Empress. “I do.”
“I did not sense it,” Her words were drawled out, like she was too tired to speak. “I felt you enter. Arah!”
Tir thought maybe she’d said something in the Siamo language, something cryptid or majestic, but a small Siamo servant appeared from a previously fogged up entryway to the left of the throne, on the dais. Alexia had called upon a servant.
“Get this woman a chair.”
Arah disappeared through the archway as quickly as he’d appeared. For a long moment, they stood in silence. Tir got accustomed to the unearthly appearance of the Empress and mindlessly wondered if she was hot with so many fires lit in the room, or what she was doing sitting all alone in such a massive Hall. Was she lonely? How long had she been sitting there?
Arah returned with an oaken chair larger than his body and placed it in front of the dais and throne with a bit of difficulty. Tir made sure to thank him and then he was gone.
“How did it happen?” Alexia began again, her voice the same misty mewl.
“What? How did what happen?” Tir looked up from the arm of her chair. This chair would sell for a lot in her village. It was antique.
Again, not what she was expecting. Subconsciously her hand drifted to just under her knee, where metal and flesh met. “It was…” She took a deep breath and remembered back to when the accident had happened. “I just turned twenty. It was on the night of my birth-date, or was it… It was my first husband’s birth-date hunt, that’s what it was. Trappers outside our village had set up traps in our nearest hunting grounds, in the forest, and that’s typically considered illegal. We know every single trap and net and hole in that forest, and these traps messed our system up. I stepped on a bear trap and they had to cut me out, just under the knee.”
“Mm.” The Empress brought a hand to her mouth in thought. For a minute no one spoke or moved. Then Alexia shifted and stood. The silk dress dropped lightly to the floor, just touching. Tir felt the heat rise in her face. That dress really did nothing to conceal her.
“I have a problem.” She began, stepping slowly across the dais and stopping at the first step down. “You see,” One bare foot touched down on the next stair, and another, “I have a very wealthy investor that wants to build a road. Roads are useful. Roads bring trade and tax. Trade and tax raise money. And money is good for more wealthy investors.”
By now she brushed by the oak chair, nimble fingers skipping over against the back and silent feet walking away. Tir turned. She had stopped five feet away, faced into the smoke. Her hands were motionless by her side.
“This road plans to plow straight through your village.”
Tir started. “That is why you called me here?”
Tir breathed a bit of a laugh. “Then… What do you suppose we do, my Empress?”
“You village has many children, does it not?” Alexia turned back around with a swish of her dress. Tir nodded quietly. “Yes… Children are no good when raised as enemies of the government. This you must know. Your people are not treated well in these days, this I admit… Hatred riddles my people like a disease, and they try to justify it by blaming their own hardships on the even more common hardships of other races. It is a broken system that cannot break.” She let out a laugh. “Never mind the semantics. I do not want nor do I need more people against me. I offer complete compensation for all damages done to your home, and movement to a sanctuary for your village twenty miles east. Now tell me…” She brushed back towards Tir, pacing in mild nervousness. “…Is that something your people would like, or dislike?”
Tir thought for a long moment. Those dark fingers skimmed the air by her face. “To be honest, your highness… It is something they would dislike.”
“Tell me what you want.” She stepped up one of the four steps up to her throne and sat. She was much more casual than Tir would’ve thought. “Name your price.”
“It is not money we want, it is respect,” Tir said, faster than her brain could think it. Maybe it was the castle having its effects on her again, drawing out information from her mind like poison being drawn from a wound. “You’re right about the part about discrimination. Everyone hates us, and I can’t figure out why. We do not want money or another place to live, we want safety in our home and the respect we properly deserve.”
Alexia angled her face to the floor. The veil must’ve been irritating her because she slid it off and placed it next to her. “I feel this is the answer I knew all along. And I believe I have the solution.”
Tir smiled, more sarcasm than she wished, and her eyebrows raised in question. “You do?”
Alexia nodded slowly, carefully. With a single sweeping motion, she stood, turned, and dashed up the stairs without lifting her dress. Tir was impressed at the latter the most. “I do. However, this information is something I cannot disclose to the general public. Not yet, at least.”
Tir stood as well, seeing as the conservation might’ve been moving somewhere more secret. Alexia cupped her hands around her thick lips, and shouted, “Naskhfa! Conceal!”
The smog in the room all at once changed black, pure black, and thickened until Tir could not see five feet away. Alexia tapped what might’ve been a cane on the dais, three times.
“Come.” Her voice called, sounding like the word of God rising from the clouds. As carefully as she could, Tir found her way up the four steps towards the continual tapping. The Empress stood in a parting of the smoke, holding a golden cane. She stood in front of the same doorway the servant Arah had come from. Tir figured they were to go in it, but Alexia dropped the cane in front of her before she could.
“The smoke conceals us.” She muttered, now awfully close to Tir. Her breathing was quick and her light grey-blue eyes glowed. “We have no need to go somewhere.”
Tir swallowed and stepped one foot back. “What is it you need to tell me?”
For a few seconds, Alexia said nothing, peering around the smoke with wide eyes. “How old are you, Tir? How much of our history do you know?”
It would be a rude question if not for the fact that this woman was her Empress, and that Tir did not really care. “Um- forty-three this year. And I do not know how much I know, I heard the stories as a child.”
A smile spread on her lips. “You know of Vitswèth the Vehement, then?”
“I suppose. The Empress before you, right?”
There was a joy on her face that had not been there previously. Tir tried to remember the stories, the legends, but her memory was not what it used to be. “She was to be my wife,” Alexia confirmed, the smile on her face full of love but her eyes sorrowed. “Do you know of her fate? Why I took the throne?”
Tir shook her head.
“She fell in battle.” The smile wavered only slightly. “The last battle of the war. She gave me the crown as her soul fled this world.”
Tir looked down, not sure how to respond. Was she supposed to give her well wishes? Confirm that, yes, it was sad and terrible? Why was she telling her this, anyway? “…What do you mean to tell me, My Empress?”
“Vitswèth is returning.” She whispered. Tir held her breath. “The ancient prophecy is beginning its motion.”
“It was foretold by the mages of old, Vitswèth’s grandfather’s High Priestess’ predictions. She said that, in time, a child of the Emperor will be killed in battle. And that they would return years later, to restore peace to all the land.” She scoffed and rolled her eyes, but that glint in her eyes was something Tir did not miss. “I always thought they were fairy tales.”
Tir couldn’t help but smile too. Restoring peace to all the land sounded good. Very good. “Why is it you tell me this?”
“Because the prophecy also told of companions of each race to accompany the arisen. We are aware of only one, and she is a Karubo living on Earth. We speculate the others, and…” She leaned against the marble wall and shifted her gaze. “We are going to publicize trials to find the last two.”
Tir knew what she was saying. “You want me to compete in the trials? Why?”
“You will have the chance of first pick,” She continued on. “I offer you this because you said you wish for respect for your people. There would be no better way to gain respect than competing and possibly winning the trials.”
Tir still didn’t understand. She was forty-two years old, a peg-leg and mother of three and Head Huntress of her village. She had responsibilities. She couldn’t just leave and stay in the castle, could she? Sure, winning the trials would be a huge milestone for her people, and of course, she’d bring honor to her race, but…
“Did you come here with someone?” Alexia was staring her directly in the eye. “A traveling companion?”
“My son.” She answered, her mind still racing.
“Your son. Is he of age?”
“Yes?” It was a strange question. What was the Empress thinking? “He is over twenty.”
“Mm.” Alexia stood straight again, placing the golden cane against the wall with a strange sorrow in her eyes. She walked back to the center of the dais. “We have many open rooms in the castle. Many empty rooms you could stay in while the trials pend.”
A shock went through Tir’s heart. Stay in the castle? This enormous mansion? Where all the lords and ladies visited and stayed and where all important things in Alfone happened? “You would have me stay here?”
“If you are alright with it. I can send some of my personal guards with your son when he returns to Fumbauni to ensure his safety.”
Tir wasn’t sure. She liked to think things out thoroughly before making a decision like this. “I… I don’t know.”
“You can have three days to decide.” Alexia’s fingers brushed against her throne and she sat with a huff. “That is all the time I can give you. I am a busy woman.”
Alexia leaned forward in the throne and stared through the thick smoke. “Sueunte! Ascend!” She shouted, and the smoke dissipated enough for Tir to see all the way down the hall. Alexia looked exhausted from their talk as she sat back. The sun had to have risen all the way by then. Tir wondered if Niv was doing well at the vendor, if he had sold anything. She turned to leave, then remembered she was in the company of the Empress.
“Thank you.” She said, curtsying and smiling. Alexia had a fey look in her eyes, one that confused Tir. “I will consider your gracious offer.”
Alexia the Newborn looked her over one last time and smiled wearily. Suddenly she looked as if she was about to faint. “Your skirt does not suit you,” She said. “Have a wonderful day.”
Tir sent a last bewildered half-smile and turned to walk down the Hall of Spirits. The fires sparked as she passed and waved her goodbye. The smooth marble stone made her nervous. The metal foot clicking on the floor could’ve been awfully close to slipping. The doors seemed smaller than they had been when she entered and pushed them open with some difficulty.
Sunlight streamed into her vision. Blinding light shook her to the bones and she had to pause before starting down the entry hall. Suddenly there were handmaids and servants and children running about the building, bustling with energy. No one noticed her as she walked amongst them. She even spotted an Umalerian cook running past with a steaming pan of roast vegetables. Tir slid off the head scarf and tied it around her waist.
The front doors to the entry hall were open, letting in yet more light. The guards stood as still as always, brown feathers all shiny in the sun. Their braided hair shone like helmets. Tir stepped out and looked to the left guard for her knives.
“My knives?” She set her hands on her hips. The guard saw her fiery gaze and rifled his pockets for the holster. He handed it back without looking at her and Tir turned away. For a short moment, she looked over the right guard and sent him a last unreadable look. “See you around, Watien.”
The city of Alfone was not as unbearable during the mid-day. Fried dough and pastries and breads roasted in the hot sun, laying out on shelves and trays. It smelt incredible. Like happiness in the form of food. Umalerian chefs called out, trying to sell the delectables, and of course, Tir fell for it. She stopped at a venue of baked olive bread and fished in her bag for coins. She knew she had a few in there.
“Three ryals,” The Umalerian woman said, extending a callused hand. She had wrapped a loaf in brown paper. Tir found the small pocket of change and grabbed three ryals, small bronze coins with the insignia of Alexia printed on the front and a fire on the back.
“The price has gone up, huh?” Tir traded the coins for the bread. The woman set the money in her purse at her brown furry hip. This woman, Tir thought, was from the land near her home of Fumbauni. Brown fur, wide hooves, a wide nose and large, fan-like ears.
“Demand has gone up too.” She replied, her mid-eastern accent confirming her homeland. “It is summer. People like sweets and oils.”
Tir nodded thanks and turned. “Thanks for the bread.” The woman waved joyously. It was a nice day, after all, and people seemed to be in good moods. The onyx buildings did not emit such a burning heat any longer since the sun had moved a bit in its course, and the air was light and breezy. Even the uneven cobble did not bother Tir as much.
As she walked, Tir flipped the idea of entering the trials around her mind. It would bring honor to her people, that was for sure, but she wondered if it was too dangerous. What would happen if she got hurt? At her age, it could be fatal. She had an eleven-year-old at home and a tribe to take care of. Would that risk be worth honor?
Besides, if she did win, what would happen then? Empress Alexia had talked about the ancient prophecy, and she had said something about bringing peace to the world. What did that entail? A quest? An adventure? Would it be dangerous? Was this returning of the last Empress provoked by something?
Her thoughts were broken by sudden shouting and yelling. She looked up from the pat, click of her feet on the cobble and was met with a Cōrendat racing down the street on all fours, a large satchel in his mouth. A Siamo woman was screaming and her husband was cursing, and people all around carved a path around the thief. He was running straight at Tir. As an instinct, Tir’s hand shot out as the Cōrendat ran past, stopping him effectively so that his muscular body whipped around, sharp teeth still clinging to the leather strap of the bag. He growled and hissed.
“This does not belong to you.” Tir spat back, yanking on the satchel. Two, massive, paw-like hands lifted and razor sharp claws appeared. He meant to cut the bag from her grip or cut her hands from the bag. She sent a hard kick to his ribcage with her metal leg.
“G-ah!” He inhaled, and for that split second Tir was able to free the satchel from his teeth. But the Cōrendat had, for loss of a better word, cat-like reflexes. He lunged and gripped the leather with claws as sharp as Tir’s knives.
“I don’t think you understand,” The Cōrendat sent a toothy smile, not the least bit friendly. “This belongs to me.”
There were Siamo guards running down the path. They’d heard the commotion and had come running. “Doesn’t matter.” Tir breathed. This thief was strong. “You stole it in broad daylight. That in itself is a crime. Now hand over the bag or these bird-brains are gonna gut you.”
A more gleeful smile slipped onto his face. He let go of the bag and stepped back. His grey tail swished excitedly behind him. “You are the one.”
Tir started to ask what he meant, hiss something back at him. But the Cōrendat raised his furry arms and shouted. The words he spoke were not of any living language and were not spoken for many many years. Centuries, maybe. The power of his speech sunk into Tir’s skin, gripping her in icy claws. She trembled and fell back, not feeling anything but stillness. In her mind, a voice rung out.
“Tir of Fumbauni.” It said, long and drawn out and deep as the ocean. “Come to us and we will give you immeasurable power.”
Tir shook her head, desperately, grasping the air for something to drag her out of the weightless feeling. It felt horrible, all of it, and she spluttered as if she was drowning. Water was filling her lungs. She couldn’t see anything. What was happening?
A second later it was gone. Oxygen circulated her veins, clear summer air caressed her skin, and she could feel the bumpy cobblestone underneath her back. Soreness rang out in her bones. Most noticeable of all was the shouting around her head.
“Ma!” It was Niv who shook her body. “Ma, ma! Are you alright? Can you hear me?”
She could hear him as clear as a bell in her ear. “Yes, yes.” Her voice was cracked and low. Slowly she sat up and noticed all who surrounded her. At least ten Siamo guards (the Cōrendat nowhere to be seen), and a crowd of city-goers circled her and Niv, staring with fear and surprise and horror. The children looked more horrified than any of the adults.
“Miss,” One of the guards stepped forward, gaining her attention, and folded his feathered arms. “Do you know what just happened?”
Tir looked around again. “I tried to get a bag back from a thief.” She said. The bag was clutched in her hand. “And then I was drowning.”
The guard looked mildly upset. “You have just been a victim of Eazkahf.”
Tir let out a huff of a laugh. “Eazkahf has been gone for centuries.”
“Miss, I’d like you to come to the castle.” He continued. “This is very important, what just happened here. I am sure the Empress would like to meet and inquire you.”
“I just did meet her.” Tir sat up further and pushed away Niv’s worried hand from her shoulder. “I just came from the castle.”
“Can you at least tell me, then, what happened?”
“I told you.” She prodded the metal leg and made sure it hadn’t broken. “I was trying to stop a thief and next thing I knew, I was drowning. A voice called out to me, too.” She remembered. “They told me to join them and that they’d give me immeasurable power. I didn’t answer.”
The guard nodded. He was twisting a ring around his finger anxiously. “I will relay this to the Empress. Thank you.”
“Wait,” Tir held onto her son as she stood on still shaky feet. “Tell the Empress one more thing. Tell her that I accept her offer.”