Zafirah in the Wild

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Chapter 9

At the summit of the tallest hill—tallest because the wind sings without obstacle—ten stones lay in a circle, half buried in the chalky soil. No grass grows for the heat of them, but the sun knows the languor of a cloudless day. My feet long to brand the stones, or be branded by the patterns they bear, but the hill is steep and I do not know the way. At the base of the hill sit ten people—I think—in a straight line and all sing as I approach. When I stop before them, they fall silent. The first to speak is a woman to my left, and the rest follow in order.

“You may climb,” she sings. “I give you unto the journey, if you promise to kiss the first stone when you arrive. Dance with me there.”

“I will thank the first stone, but tell me your name,” I say.

“You will know it when you begin the climb. The first step is mine to give you,” she says, and the ground pulls me a single step up the hillside. Paria. I know life in her. Still, the summit is a long way off.

A man clears his throat.

“You may climb,” he sings. “I give unto you the path, if you promise to kiss the second stone when you arrive. Meditate with me there.”

“I will praise the second stone,” I say. “Will you not tell me your name too?”

“You will know it when you select the path. The way is mine to show you,” he says, and the wind turns my course to a true and exact heading. Humi. I know his soil. Still, I have not reached the summit.

“You may climb,” another male voice sings, much deeper and resonant than the last. “I give the strength in your lungs, if you promise to kiss the third stone when you arrive. Sing with me there.”

“I will serenade the third stone,” I say. “Your name is a secret too, yes?”

“You will hear it on the breeze. The breath is mine to give you,” he says, and my chest fills with sweet air. Aether. I know air in his name. Strength is mine, and a few sure steps, but not yet the summit.

“You may climb,” a clear female voice sings. “Your thirst is mine to quench, if you promise to kiss the fourth stone when you arrive. Allow the rain to cool you there.”

“I will. The rains will sooth me at the fourth stone,” I say.

“My name is in the first drop of water on your tongue. Relief is mine to give you,” she says. A water pouch swings against my thigh. I grasp the pouch and touch the open spout to my lips. One drop of water meets my tongue. Amna. I know relief in her name. Several more refreshed steps are mine, and still, the summit eludes me.

“You may climb,” a new male voice says, this one bright and sure. “The hill is mine to give you, if you promise to kiss the fifth stone when you arrive. Build with me there.”

“I will build upon the fifth,” I say. “And name you as I build.”

“You will read my name in the language of the earth. The rocks are mine to smooth for you,” he says, pulling the finest chalky granules across my toes. Coelus. I know his name in the architecture of the land. I claim half of the hill for my own, but my muscles ache to rest. I sit beside the path.

A gentle hand grazes my forehead

“You may climb, girl.” Another new voice. Feminine and soft. “Rest is mine to give you,” she says, “if you promise to kiss the sixth stone when you arrive. Sleep at the sixth, when all is won.”

“Rest, I will, at the sixth stone,” I say.

“The blanket of the night will ease your exhaustion, and in your relief, you will know me. That is mine to give the worthy traveler,” she says, tempering my muscles in the relief of a night’s sleep. When dawn arises, Lunea wakes me to know her gift.

“You may climb,” a voice says, this one inside my head, “though you know not what truly lays at the summit. Clarity is mine to give you, if you promise to kiss the seventh stone when you arrive. Confirm your visions with me there.”

“I will confide the truth in the seventh stone,” I say. “What is the truth of you?”

“You will know my name in your confidence, sure as you will be of what awaits you on the summit. Knowledge is mine to give you,” she says, and my head and heart are joined in reassurance of a summit crowned in ten stones. Visus, the advisor, the visionary truth. I know her instinctually, sure as I am of my prize. I take to the hill.

“You may climb,” a distant female voice sings. “But I cannot aid you. If you kiss the eighth stone, you still will not know my name. But do not skip the eighth, for you may find me again someday.”

And though I cannot know her, I step forward for her.

“You may climb,” cries a thundering male voice. “I will light your way, and though you may not see me, you will know me in the buzzing atom.”

“But I know you!” I exclaim, skipping nearly to the summit with joy. “You are Ignis, or else I am not the one, true Eye.”

“So I am,” he laughs. “Warm yourself at the ninth stone.”

“I will,” I say, wearing the electric reassurance like a cloak.

“You may conclude your journey,” he sings. “The last of days is mine to give you.”

“I have made it!” I say, stepping into the stone crown at the summit of the tallest hill. “But what is your name?” I ask him.

“Kiss the tenth stone, and you will know it,” he says.

I kiss the first stone, a jagged and new rock made for Paria. Together, we dance to a song without notes, to steps newly created for our feet.

I kiss the second stone, made of many smaller rocks and pebbles by Humi. Together, we meditate on the gifts of the soil, and grow a tree tall enough to harvest stardust.

I kiss the third stone, a tubular rock with many well-honed holes. I sing Aether’s lullaby with the wind as it passes through the singing stone.

I kiss the fourth stone, smooth for water’s constant caress. Warm rain droplets soothe Amna and me.

I kiss the fifth stone, sturdy and square for building upon. Coelus’ home is fitted there, one that will not be felled by wind or rough weather.

I kiss the sixth stone, a curved cradle meant for resting. As promised, Lunea soothes me.

I kiss the seventh stone, defaced as it is by carved admissions. But Visus does not mind the indentations, and there I confide my fears—my truths.

I kiss the eighth stone, neither jagged nor smooth, or sturdy or well-worn. I kiss it twice, that I may someday know her.

I kiss the ninth stone... no stone at all, but a stacked stone hearth with a fire inside. My lips thank a stone out of the flames, and Ignis warms me.

I kiss the tenth stone. Mors is the last, and I know him as I rise into the stars on the edge of his knife-like promontory.

“Here, with asteroids and star stuff, you will smelt the eleventh stone,” Mors says, depositing me in the pool at the edge of forever. And though I know the fire cannot create my crag among the waves, still I harvest all the stardust my arms can hold. Maybe it is the impossibility that excites me, or the thin air that pulls reason from my mind, but my stone will be made in that pool.

But it is not yet mine. For all my kissing stones, it is not yet my own. Alone I stand at the base of the tallest hill—tallest because no one may climb it—and wonder what awaits at the summit... and if it will let me climb.

I wake in the euphoria of peaceful revelation. The Decuriate spoke to me, through hills and kissing stones. Who is the eighth stone? Indeed, I know little of the lore surrounding the ten-fold god, and yet I felt a kinship with the unnamed eighth. Ignis, too, was familiar. Riva whispered his name during the ritual, as she sent me into the stars. He warmed me.

They all urged me to climb the hill. Where is the hill? Is it a place I must journey towards, or is it a task for me to complete? They want me, oh yes, but their message is muddled.

Can this be real? It was unlike any dream I have ever had, in that it was peaceful, and yet it left me with more questions than I can fathom. Am I so important that gods speak to me?

Delirium sets in and I rub my eyes. I want to believe in this dream, but my good sense is overwhelmed. These people—the Cerani—think me powerful, and yet they hurt me. My eyesight is gone, now. I need something to cling to, something that is only mine. If what Aron says is true, and few people interact with the Decuriate, this could be my possession, my one belonging. I could believe, if I wasn’t so tired.

In truth, I am a dust mote; a single pebble made by untouchable gods. How can I possibly be their icon?

Who would listen to me?

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