Ilendia tenses, waiting for the inevitable blow to land. Her father will hit her. She has seen it coming for weeks now, a progression of increasingly heated arguments that could only culminate with violence. Her father has never struck her before, but she has never lashed out at him like this before.
A rose blossoms on her cheek as the force of the strike sends her reeling backward. She hits the floor, pain engulfing her. Her illusionary walls come crashing down, the safety she thought she had. Ilendia assumed she would be protected in her own house. Her family would help her, would keep her away from harm.
Her father has hit her. Though she saw it coming, she did not believe it would truly happen until the moment it did. She begins to cry.
Why are you in pain, Ilendia? her friend, Azair, asks from the recesses of her mind. She ignores him for now.
She looks up, her father a wavy image through her tears. He is staring at his hand in horror. He looks at her, and then kneels suddenly. "I am sorry, Ilendia," he says, trying to be gentle. She squirms as he touches her. "I shouldn't have done that. I'm sorry."
"It's alright, father," she says, but she does not mean it. She is so afraid that she is shaking. "May I go?"
Her father nods crisply, dismissing her with a wave. "We...we will continue this conversation later."
Ilendia returns the nod and scurries to her feet, fleeing out the side door of the room and exiting the house in a whirlwind of white dress and brown hair. The air is crisp and cool, but not chilling, and she instantly feels better once she is no longer surrounded by the dark stone of the manor. Anillend covers half of the sky, brightening the night with its emerald glow. A handful of the other moons are present, some large, some small, but none as enormous or bright as Anillend. Clouds cover the expanse, shifting in front of the moons, illuminated by their light, and the distant snow-capped peaks seem to almost shine with a pale white luminescence of their own. The night is calm, with only a small breeze to interrupt the stillness. A herd of Chrin float off in the distance, near one of the closest peaks, their large grey bodies bobbing in the wind. One brays and moves a fin, flowing with the current of the breeze off towards a different slope. The rest of the herd soon follows.
Ilendia begins to walk, trying to drown out her emotions with the tranquility of the evening. The terrace on which the manor sits is wide, stretching out for hundreds of yards in all directions. Some of it is set aside for crops, but that is mostly done on the lower terraces, not the hightower. Most of the ground cover here is used for a neatly kept lawn, and of course, the manor. The town of Seaulis is not large is comparison with its neighbor of Teretarc, but the hightower is still an impressive sight to behold. At least, that is what Ilendia is told. It is the only sight she has ever known, so she has little to compare it with.
Why are you crying, Ilendia? What is wrong? Azair asks. He has always been there with her, for as long as she can remember. She does not know who he is, or where he comes from, or how they can speak with one another, but that doesn't matter. It is enough that he is her friend.
"My father does not understand," Ilendia says aloud as she walks, the grass tickling her bare feet. Azair cannot hear her thoughts, though she can hear his, and so she must speak to him aloud. No one in her family understands why she does this. She has tried to explain, but they all believe she has made up a friend to talk to. They do not believe that Azair is real. They think she is playing make-believe, and when they ask her to stop playing, she tells them she cannot. Her friend is always there, talking to her, keeping her company. They stopped asking her after a while, and soon stopped speaking with her altogether. "He thinks I'm crazy. That I need to grow up, and stop dreaming of things that don't exist." Though Azair hears every word she and those around her say, he often does not understand what those words mean, so she is forced to explain.
You are not crazy, Azair says. You are Ilendia.
Ilendia. She was Ilendia. The name meant of the earth. How could she be of the earth when her head was always in the clouds? She was supposed to be the perfect daughter, respectful and elegant, always ready to serve. The people needed her, her father had said. They needed her to grow up.
They needed her to marry a prince from Teretarc, so they could live in peace. That had been the breaking point. She had lashed out at her father, proclaiming that she would never get married, and that she hated him. And he had hit her. He had hit her.
What will you do?
"I don't know," Ilendia said, stopping at the edge of the hightower and looking over the town, built upon all the lower terraces. She folded her arms against her chest, feeling small. "I don't know how to make my father believe me, or to get my brothers to talk to me again, or how to make certain I don't marry some prince I have never met, and never want to meet."
You could run away. Leave. You do not like it here.
"Where would I go?" She says it louder than she thought she would, almost a shout. "This is my home. They are my family. I have nothing but them."
You have me.
"I have never even seen you. I know you are my friend, but you can't do anything to help me. You can't do anything!" She kicks a small stone over the side of the cliff, and watches as it plummets. Her last proclamation of anything echoes among the terraces, reverberating across the mountains and beyond.
You have never seen me before... Azair says it almost as if to himself. The world is dangerous, Ilendia. I do not like it.
"Why can't I see you?" Ilendia says, starting to cry again. "I could show you to my father, he would believe me then!"
He would not like me. They would not like me. You only.
"Why?" Ilendia is sobbing now. "Do you even exist at all? Are you just a part of my imagination? A phantom? I am crazy, aren't I?"
You are not crazy. I am just afraid. Afraid of what you will think of me.
"If nobody else can see you, how do I know you're real? Why can't you just show them? Everything will be better!"
"You're not real! You aren't! My father was right!" She is screaming now, as angry as she has ever been, not caring who hears her.
The clouds part, and she sees Azair for the first time. She does not know how she knows it is him, but she is certain of it. Almost a mile in the distance, in a bank of clouds, a huge reptilian head appears, face ridged with scales. A huge fin rises up from his neck and flows down his back, revealed more and more as his body slowly exits from the silvery clouds. He is enormous, almost as big as the entire town of Seaulis itself, and he floats in the sky as easily as any Chrin. He has four legs, ending with wicked looking claws, which move to make it seem like he is almost swimming through the air. Ilendia's mouth parts in awe and horror. Her friend is a monster, a terrible beast the size of a city. She screams.
Ilendia! Azair shouts in her head, one last time before he is suddenly cut off.
She no longer feels him in her head. He is no longer seeing through her eyes, hearing with her ears. She only now realizes that that is what he has been doing all this time. He was in her mind, but only partially. Her friend is a Puppeteer. A sorcerer.
Her friend begins to plummet from the sky, shrieking in pain and terror.
A few of the men who tend the crops stand on the terrace directly below Ilendia, first staring in awestruck fascination at the huge reptilian beast hurdling down through the clouds, then shouting out in terror. They will not understand. They will see Azair as a terrible beast, and try to find where it lands and bring an end to it. Too many dangers exist out in this portion of the mountains to risk leaving a creature that enormous alive.
Ilendia begins to run.
Her friend has almost hit the ground--he will land on of the lowermost terraces, on the eastern edge of the town. She has never been very athletic, but she is determined to not stop running until she reaches Azair. He will need her help.
Suddenly, she remembers. No one else but her has ever talked to Azair. No one has ever reacted to his voice constantly in her mind. She knows this is Azair, she knows because of the mental link they have--or had. And Azair screamed in pain, and the workers heard it. She is not crazy. This is real.
The breeze becomes a gust, and soon the wind is whipping at her violently as she runs full speed towards the long set of stairs connecting each terrace to each other and the hightower. Plantation workers begin to rush on to the stairs as well, shouting to each other, some with weapons, all with grim faces. She pushes past them, almost tripping in her desperate attempt to reach Azair before anyone else does. Anillend shines down on her as the wind changes directions and blows against her back, propelling her down the long staircase with an almost inhuman speed. She falls once, but does not feel any pain. She gets back up and keeps running.
The sounds of the workers fade out and then in again as she leaves one group behind and reaches the lower terraces, where another collection of laborers stands in shock, staring at the plummeting beast. She parts the crowd like water crashing through a ravine and reaches the front of the group. She cries out once, a sound somewhere between a sob and a scream as Azair crashes into one of the houses on the terrace next to them, sending a shower of wood and dirt into the air. She shields her face as the debris rains down upon the crowd, but is not injured. Then she is running again, ignoring the startled cries of the workers behind her, and she reaches the ledge to the next terrace.
She jumps. She hits the ground with a thud and rolls awkwardly, staining her dress with dirt. She does not care. She scrambles to her feet and rushes to the huge beast lying still across the empty field. She pauses a step before reaching him, a part of her still terrified at the immensity of him. He covers almost the entire terrace, and his tail hangs off the side of the ledge and into the abyss below. He is lucky to have landed on the terrace, and not kept falling into the valley.
The beast's chest rises and falls. He is breathing. Ilendia rushes to his side, beginning to cry. He lets out a moan as she kneels beside him, and she reaches out her hand, stroking the face of the monster as tears pour down her cheeks. The laborers continue to cry out to her, for her to come back, but no one tries to come and get her. They are all too afraid.
"There, there," Ilendia whispers to Azair, trying to calm him. He seems so fragile, even with his enormous size. "Everything is going to be alright. I won't let anyone hurt you."
He lets out a grunt, and Ilendia shivers in terror as the bass of the sound vibrates her entire body. Then she feels his mind again, reaching out to her. She instinctively pulls back in revulsion, remembering her training in defending herself against a Puppeteer. The higher up in elevation they were from you, the harder it was to resist. They were at the same elevation now, so it was as simple as--
She stops herself. This is not a monster, a sorcerer. This is Azair. She needs to remember that. He may look like a terrible beast out of legend, but he has never tried to harm her in any way. He has been...afraid. Afraid for others to see him. He knows that he is a terrible sight to behold, and he wants to prevent others from trying to kill him. He is not a monster. He is afraid. He is Azair.
She lets him inside again.
Ilendia! He seems to shout for joy in her mind the moment their minds link. I knew you would not leave me.
"Of course not," she says, crying still. "I would never do that. You are all I have."
The great beast seems to smile. It is an odd expression on his face. His breathing becomes steadier, and he seems to relax.
"What happened to you?" Ilendia asks. "Did something hurt you? Why did you fall?"
The beast seems to struggle with that for a while, thinking intently. It was our link...once it was broken, I began to die. I...do not remember...there was a reason. He is serious, though he looks innocent despite his bestial appearance. If you leave again, I will not survive.
Ilendia wipes away tears and straightens her back. "I won't leave."
But, your father...you have a duty. I am...I would only get in your way. No one would understand.
"I..." Ilendia starts to say, but he is right. What will she do with him? The entire town knows now, and they will never accept him. Azair is a monster. He is dangerous. But he is her friend. Her only friend.
She will never give him up.
"We will run away," Ilendia says, blinking away another tear. No, no more crying. Now is not the time for crying. Now is the time to act. "We will leave. I cannot abandon you."
The beast--no, Azair--relaxes again. What else can she do? She will not leave him to die, no matter what her father says. He will not harm anyone, she is sure of it. She knows him more than she knows herself. Ilendia looks back and sees the crowd, larger in size now, still standing at the base of the next terrace. They are afraid, too afraid even to attempt to save the mayor's daughter. Not that she needed saving, but it saddened her to see them so terrified, so unwilling to risk themselves to save a helpless girl from a terrible beast. Did no one even care? Was she really that unimportant?
"Ilendia! Come away from that monster!" It is her father. Ilendia turns and sees him pushing through the crowd, his chiseled features stricken with terror and anger. He stops at the edge of the mass of people, hesitating. "Ilendia, come here, it is not safe!"
Ilendia stares back at him. Even he is not willing to step out on to the other terrace. Even he will not save his own daughter from this beast. She shakes her head, and her father stiffens.
"Ilendia, come here!"
She does not move. Her father steps off the edge of the second to last terrace and drops a few feet to the next, the one where Ilendia and Azair lay. She starts. He...he is coming for her. He cares. Ilendia looks back at Azair. "Maybe if I just explain," she says to the great reptile. "Maybe he will see."
The great lidless eyes look doubtful.
"Ilendia, you need to come with me. This beast could attack at any moment..." Her father says it as he walks toward her with caution, hands before him, beckoning, taking care not to look threatening to Azair. He carries a large sword strapped across his back. Usually that hangs in the parlor. "You--" he starts, but Ilendia holds up a hand.
"Father," she says with all the courage she can muster. A brief image pops into her mind--her father striking her. She puts it aside. That was an accident. "Father, please. He will not hurt me, or you, or anyone."
Her father stops inching closer to her, and frowns. "How would you know?" When she didn't answer, he spoke again. "Ilendia?"
"This is my friend. The one I've been telling you about for so long. He has been riding in the clouds, speaking to me through...through a mind link."
Her father pales, and then turns red, almost simultaneously. "A Puppeteer? Ilendia, come away, now! You don't understand how dangerous they can be. Why, he could have been controlling you the entire time..." And then an expression crosses his face that she hoped she would never see. Suspicion, mistrust, fear. Not for Azair. For her. He takes a step back.
"Father, no, he isn't like that! I haven't been controlled, I promise you!" She almost screams, a wave of choking desperation surfacing in her throat. "He doesn't even know how to..." But her father takes another step back, and then another. "Father..." The tears come back again, and all that can escape her is a broken sob.
Azair shifts. It is only when he stands at full height, standing right next to her, that she sees how enormous he actually is. The workers on the terrace start to panic, and many of them run. Her father stands his ground, pulling his sword from its sheath and looking resolute.
This will not work, Ilendia. I must leave.
"No," she says, looking up at him. "Please don't leave me."
I am not leaving you. We have the mind link. I cannot stay here, however. My place is in the clouds.
"But I cannot stay here, either!" She screams, suddenly finding her voice. "This will never be my home. Not now. Not ever." Her father still holds his sword out in front of him, but whether it is to fend off Azair or Ilendia, she does not know. And that scares her. "Please, take me with you."
Azair looks down, eyes bright yet unexpressive. A low growl comes from his throat, not menacing, but thoughtful. Is that what you want? To live alone, to not be with people, with your own?
"I...yes," she says quietly. "I do not want to stay here. Not anymore."
Azair hesitates for a moment longer, and then lowers his head, bowing it to the ground to allow her to climb up on him. Ilendia turns to her father, and whispers, "I'm sorry."
She climbs on to Azair's great head, and secures herself by grabbing onto the bony ridges on his neck. The great reptile lifts up his head and prepares himself for flight. Ilendia feels his muscles tensing beneath her.
Are you ready? Azair asks.
"Yes," she says.
"Ilendia!" Her father screams from below. "What are you doing?"
She ignores him. Ilendia means of the earth, but she was never meant for that. Her dreams have always laid in the clouds. And so she looks skyward.
Azair lifts into the air, though Ilendia is unsure how he does it. She should ask him sometime. But not now. Now she will enjoy the feeling of the wind blowing through her hair, and the view of the entire world below her.
For she has looked skyward, and she will never go back.