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Rites

By Stormarrow All Rights Reserved ©

Adventure / Fantasy

Pahiri

In the place where mountains—twisted, black—stretched up to meet the sky, the sister rivers flowed as black as pitch. Around the haunted peaks they wove, carrying no fish or flora. They were the rivers of Death. They ran to the edge of the world, and there their waters fell forever into Nothing.

On the ridge at the End of All Things, ashes drifted down from burning clouds, and blanketed the ground like snow. Liquid fire, the blood of stones, bubbled up from cracks in the basalt. It was a place where nothing grew, where mortalkind could not take root or cling to life.

Yet there, on the banks of the Haerlyn, sat the shape of a boy, grey with soot, so still he might have been a sculpture. He sat for hours—for days, perhaps—and the river passed him by. Ash piled on his head and shoulders. Silence swallowed him. He lost himself in dreams, and submitted his spirit to Death. All living things meet an end, and if the world so willed it, his would be in thirst and heat and hunger.

But the world did not.

As the sun set behind the jagged peaks, washing them orange, a voice deep as the ocean broke the silence. “Rise,” it rumbled, “if there is still breath in you.”

The boy lifted his head from his knees to gaze upon the speaker. Ash piled on his head fell away; where it stuck like plaster over once-slick skin, it cracked. Before him, on the opposite bank, a stone-wrought creature towered with the sun behind its head. It stepped into the river, and waded through black waters on all fours. Its spindly limbs stretched twice the boy's height. Slowly, he rose, his legs shaking beneath him. He ground his knuckles into his eyes, smearing soot about his face, and stared as the giant came ashore. Its eyes were blacker than the river, blacker even than the deepest sea. “Have I died,” the boy whispered in the selkish tongue.

“No,” replied the giant. It turned from the sunset and began to pick its way through ash-crowned boulders. “But you may, if you remain here.”

The boy stood in awe, staring, until a hot gust whipped ash into his face. He squinted and coughed. Then, awakening to his hunger, thirst and helplessness all at once, he began to clamber after the stone creature, pleading, “Wait for me, godbeast!” The giant slowed its pace, but cast not a backwards glance. Long limbs carried it with grace through the rugged terrain. As evening fell in earnest, the boy struggled over sharp rocks and up steep ravines in his guide's wake. Even by twilight, heat radiated from the rocks, and sweat soon streaked through the dust over the boy's turquoise skin. Hours passed with only the sounds of shifting stones and the pilgrim's panting to punctuate the silence.

Finally, the giant's voice echoed through the mountains. “There is a pool from which your kind may safely drink, but it is hidden away upon the highest peak.”

Webbed toes slipped on the rocks, and the boy collapsed upon his hands and knees, exhausted. Blood from the scrapes marring his legs and feet mixed with his sweat, and with the ash around them. He fought his hopelessness. “How shall I to reach it?”

For a long moment, his guide studied him. Its black gaze flickered with some strange light in the ash-cloud night as it watched him heave. “Come,” it commanded at last, extending its spidery hand. Webbed fingers trembling, the boy reached out to take it. Flesh of sweat-damp blue met stone, and in that instant, an endless stream of time—of light and darkness, sun and stars—flooded the boy's mind. Winter, autumn, summer, spring: all passed and came again. In a single heartbeat, the world lived and died and was born anew within him. Obsidian eyes bored into those of gold for years, weeks, only a moment. And the boy collapsed.

The giant scooped his body up against its breast, and cradled him there in one one arm like a babe. Its other extended skyward, fingers stretching for the clouds. Then it leapt, mountain bound, into the air. Up it glided, like a ghost, breaching the clouds to bathe in moonlight before alighting on a precipice. Like a spider, it skittered up the sheer wall until it came to the mountain's very point. From this perch it vaulted to the next, and on it leapt from peak to peak with its charge limp against its chest.

***

The boy woke suddenly. Breath came to him in desperate gulps, for the air about him was so thin it burned his lungs. He squinted against brightest day, and brought his hand up to shield his face from the light. The sun beamed down straight above him, centered in the mouth of a vertical cave. When water lapped at his fingers, he gasped, and his gills flared with longing. He rolled over on the smooth stone, and a lake as clear as glass swam into view. Joy overwhelmed him. Without hesitation, he slid into its icy waters, and let them soothe his cracking skin. Ash and soot melted away beneath the pool's surface. Submerged, he felt more alive than he ever had in the great lakes and seas of his homeland. He sucked the water in, and pushed it through his crusted gills as he swam into its depths to touch the basin's bottom. When he surfaced, delight shone in his eyes.

There came a voice, rumbling, familiar, as though he had once heard it in a dream. “Then there is Life within you still, and all is well.” Upon a narrow ledge, the giant crouched, its black eyes affixed upon the boy as he tread water.

“You saved me,” the boy said.

“I brought you here,” the giant told him. “For your kind need the water as mine need the stone.”

The Flash of Eternity emerged from the boy's memories, and he asked of his rescuer, “Have you been alive forever?” The giant watched him as he shuddered, then paddled for the shore. It tilted its head, and offered no answer. “When I touched you,” said the boy, pulling himself from the pool, “I saw the world's birth, and the war and peace of centuries. I saw strange creatures with skins of shadow, beasts that blot out the sun as they fly, and giant metal mountains made by men. I saw the dawn of every day, and the moonrise of each night.” Tears began to form in his golden eyes, not of sorrow but of awe. He whispered, “Were you there for all of that?”

“No,” the giant answered, “but those who came before me saw these things. And when the Life left their bodies, they became the earth, and the earth begat my kind to remember. So these dawns and moonrises are mine to bear—until I become the earth again.”

The boy wept; the giant stared. And for a long while there was silence, broken only by dripping tears and cavewater.

At last, the boy wiped his eyes and spoke again: “What is this place?”

“It is named Gelavan. It is the highest peak of The Seam, far above the ash and flame of angry mountains. The water here has not been touched by their fury; it is pure.”

“Is there food?” The boy pressed his palm over his belly, wishing away the pains of hunger.

“No, but when you are ready, I will return you to the coast, where the waters are rife with cockles and clams. There, you shall eat your fill.”

The boy cupped his hands in the icy water and drank his fill. When he had finished, he rose and told his savior, “I am ready.”

Then the giant reached down from its ledge to take the boy's hand. Warmth filled him as their fingers met. He wavered, but this time did not fall. It lifted him onto its back and waited while he situated himself. “Hold tightly,” it told him, so he clung to its neck. With spindly fingers stretching toward the sun, the giant sprang up onto the cave wall like a goat, and began to climb with ease and grace, so quickly that the boy grew dizzy. The pool soon fell behind them, and they emerged into the sunlight, high above the world.

Beneath them, clouds and smoke churned like the sea. Above them, clearest sky stretched on forever.

The boy trembled. “Hold tightly,” the giant repeated—before it cast itself from the peak. The boy shrieked as they plummeted. He shut his eyes against the fall, wrapping his arms so tightly about the giant's neck that they went numb.

They parted the clouds. Jagged rocks and twisted peaks raced up to meet them, and the giant splayed its limbs and hands to slow their descent. It landed gracefully upon another summit, and from there sprang to the next. On and on it went, gliding like a giant spider through the air.

At last, the boy opened his eyes. He watched the world pass beneath them, and again he wept. Peak by peak they went, until Gelavan fell far behind them and the sea swam into view. Salt air filled the boy's lungs, and joy his heart. “Thank you,” he whispered as the giant descended a final cliff side to touch down on the ground, which had gone sandy. He slid from his savior's shoulders, swearing, “I will remember this till the end of my days.” The giant bowed its head in acknowledgment. As it turned to go, the boy cried, “Wait!” And then, “What is your name?”

“I have no name but what the wind howls and the flame hisses. I am the world and the world is me, and so I have no need for names.” The giant paused. “What is your name, waterchild?”

“I have no name either.” The boy shook his head. “But I shall get one when I return home.”

Something like a smile shifted the giant's strange features, and its black eyes seemed to twinkle. “Many will come to know it,” it said. With that, it strode back through the ash and smoke, and disappeared beyond the twisted, blackened peaks.

***

The Second Son of Jagriti and Barajun left his village a boy, but he returned a man. On his feast day, his father presented him with sharkskin leathers, his mother with omani silk. His elder sister, Rhadika, who had completed her Journey two years prior, fashioned him a leviathan-tooth dagger.

Rhadika spent the day working with needle and dye on her brother's skin in the Tent of Rites. The black mountains he requested decorated his arms in rows. The black circles around his eyes and lips contrasted well with the red flames on his cheeks. He admired his new reflection in a bowl of water.

“I cannot believe I have given you your tattoos today, little brother,” Rhadika said. “Time passes like the waves, here and gone so soon.” He smiled, and nodded his agreement. “We are so excited to hear your story and to learn your name. Will you take a bride to dance with you today?” She pinched his cheek.

He leaned away from her, flushing purple. “It will be another year for that, I think.”

She laughed, packing away her dyes. “You will be amazed to see the size of the squid we caught for your feast. It is bigger than a hut! Pink as a sunrise.”

“It sounds incredible. I cannot wait to taste it.” A gong sounded outside, and many hands began to beat the celebratory drums.

“Ah! Go, shoo,” cried his sister. “Everyone is waiting for you!”

The Second Son emerged from his tent clad in the crimson draperies of adulthood. Even the elders whispered that he must have doubled in height during his year away. Rows and rows of his tribesfolk sat in the sand before him, cheering. They roared with joy to see him raise his newly tattooed arms. Before the fire, the Witchdoctor lifted his staff. He called out over the throng, “Second Son of Barajun Gauri Sekar Tan and Jagriti Adeth Zarintawa! We welcome you home!” Another cheer to startle seabirds from the shore went up. “It is time that you bring to us the story of your Journey, and claim your name. The first of many!” Another cheer rang out over the crashing waves.

Nodding, the Second Son stepped up before the fire. The Witchdoctor seated himself upon a sea rock, and laid his staff over his lap. The crowd fell silent. Then the Second Son began his story. He wove true tales of his time in the depths of the great ocean, of whalesongs and the luminous creatures of the deep, how he followed their lights into clouded waters, and there listened to the spirits of the sea. Then he told of the black river of Death, and how it whispered to him as he sat upon its banks. The children gasped when he spoke of fiery clouds and ashen rain. They stared wide-eyed when he told of the giant, how all of time lived in its eyes. They listened raptly as he described the crystal pool above the clouds, and how it was to fly from mountaintop to mountaintop.

Perhaps it was only the reflection of the flames, but there seemed to be tears in his father's eyes.

When the Second Son finished his story, he bowed his head to the tribe. Sunset waves crashed on the beach, painted orange by the dying light of day. The Witchdoctor rose, shuffled over, and rested his staff upon the younger man's shoulder. He said, “We shall give you the name Pahiri,” (which means in the common tongue, 'He Who Leaps [over] Mountains.') “And many will come to know it.”

“Pahiri!” chanted the crowd. “Pahiri! Pahiri!”

Drums rang out over the shore. The night was filled with samphire wine and wild dancing, with gifts and warm embraces. And when Pahiri finally lay down to sleep in the hours before dawn, he dreamed vividly of faraway places, foreign names and strange faces, and the echoing words, “Many will come to know it.”

Many will come to know it.


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