Chapter 1: The Girl on the Hill
Ato dreamt of a floating island that soared well above the clouds. The island hid a certain sense of magic about it, besides the obvious fact that it flew. The island’s rivers flowed endlessly while seeping and twisting through the trees to form cascading waterfalls that fell freely into the sky, creating magnificent rainbows that echoed every color.
The rainbows arched over the fairy-tale castle that sat on top of the island. The castle itself was carved into a grand mountain that looked ancient but mysteriously didn’t hold a single year of age. Through the windows, Ato spied people dancing merrily within, each hoping that their happiness would never end. Even their king, who towered above them all with a ponytail that produced a mighty crack when it whipped through the air, joined his subjects with a smile that outshined them all.
A force pulled at Ato’s body, and even though she fought with all her might, the island that floated amongst the clouds fled from her. Her hands stretched out, trying to grab anything to hold on for one more second…
A small grimace surfaced as the sun’s light slowly crept across her face. Ato tried once more to fight it as best she could, hoping to only dream a few seconds longer in the land where smiles never faded, but sadly, the morning light was unrelenting, and it wouldn’t be stopped – not even for a single dreaming girl.
Ato awoke with her eyes facing a painlessly normal ceiling that mundanely welcomed her to the real world. She sprang from her bed, desperately clinging to the island that floated amongst the clouds. However, a small fog began to form over Ato’s memories, as if the island itself was trying to flee from her.
Ato scrambled through her house, tripping on the random knick-knacks and clothing scattered about her floor. The little house that Ato called home only had four rooms, but only one was of particular note to her. This room was Ato’s destination, as the room held her source of income, her life, and even her soul. This room, unlike the rest of her house, was in pristine condition. Every item in this room was meticulously positioned to fit every one of her needs.
Ato scavenged about the room, gathering the supplies she needed: a blank canvas, a pencil, a brush, and paints in almost an endless supply of color. She carefully placed the blank canvas on the stand and then used the pencil to trace the outline of her fleeting dream. The picture she held in her head jumped onto the canvas, and the castle once again took to the skies, the rivers flowed, and the king’s never-ending dance continued.
Countless other paintings surrounded Ato as she drew, some completed and some not, but each was special to Ato. She spent most her days in this room and planned to spend many more in the future.
Ato was known throughout the Crimson Kingdom as a talented artist, and her work sold well. Her work had become so well noted that even some within the noble class purchased her work.
This was how she provided for herself. Having no parents, and still being a child, Ato had only one skill that she could use to claim a profit.
This was even more impressive as Ato was only fifteen years old, and unlike most other girls she knew, Ato lived by herself. Her house wasn’t a grand one like the castle in her dreams, but it fit her needs perfectly. The house sat near the top of a hill that overlooked the entire Crimson Kingdom. There was nothing that hid the house from the prying eyes of others, but this also meant that nothing could hide from hers, and when Ato looked hard enough, she could see beyond the vast kingdom to the unknown wonders that surrounded it.
She was tall, and she didn’t know another girl her age in the entire kingdom who could match her height. It was a mystery how she’d grown to such lengths, as she often ignored her meals, which was why she also had an extremely slender frame. This wasn’t because she was on a diet or because eating wasn’t important to her. Ato simply became so absorbed into her work that she forgot anything but her art.
Some people would have called it an obsession, and they might have been right, but it was an obsession that Ato gladly claimed.
Her hair had grown over the past couple of years as she hadn’t attempted to cut it, and her long jet-black strands now fell well below her shoulder blades. She seldom bothered to comb it, so it sprang forth in almost every direction imaginable. It was a tangled mess to any other eye, but it never bothered her in the slightest.
Ato’s deep-brown eyes nearly bordered on black, and the cheek just below her left one was marked with a fresh cut that crawled all the way from her nose to her ear.
Normally, nothing could peel these eyes away from her work. They were only meant for the completion of the island that floated with the clouds. This morning, however, an intruder stole her from her world as a knock resonated through her house.
She looked toward the source of the noise and then back to her drawing. Ato had only just begun working on it, and already, she felt a certain commitment to her work. She held the world in her mind that only she had seen, and she wished to show it to others, a magical land that defied logic, a new land that not even the grandest of adventurers had explored. However, the person at the door continued to bang, in almost a musical manner now, and Ato doubted the person would stop anytime soon. In fact, given the tenacity of the knocker, Ato knew that this particularly annoying yet caring person would inevitably resort to even more drastic measures to get her attention.
With a sigh, Ato tucked the pencil behind her ear and left her fledgling project to be completed at a later hour. She walked over to the door and opened it. Standing there was a middle-aged woman with curly brown hair that rested just above her shoulders. The woman’s eyes were a deep sapphire that echoed the ocean’s waters and glistened magnificently in the sun. Even though it was a long and played-out saying, Ato often thought that any man who stared into those eyes would surely drown.
Ato wished that she had been blessed with such eyes herself.
The woman spoke in a slightly irritated tone but nonetheless kept a certain warmth in her voice that could only come from a mother. “Ato, my goodness, do you have any idea how long I’ve been waiting for you?”
Before Ato could even answer, the woman reached forward and pulled a stray pillow feather from Ato’s hair.
Ato smiled warmly at the woman, but her gaze soon shifted hungrily to the plate that the woman carried in her right hand. The aroma floated seductively through the air, and Ato’s stomach immediately beckoned to it.
“Lyra, it’s great to see you,” Ato said while her eyes stayed centered on the food.
Lyra chuckled and then said, “Are you happy to see me, or are you just happy to see my food?”
Ato’s hand lingered toward the plate of food only to have Lyra playfully swat it away.
Ato raised her hands submissively. “What can I say? My stomach knows what it wants,” she said with a wide grin spreading across her face.
“So, it’s true that your gut is the only one that’s glad to see me.” Lyra let loose an exasperated sigh before continuing. “I swear you’re worse than Reed at times…but at least you’re honest about it.”
Lyra frowned slightly and handed the food over to Ato.
“Thanks,” mumbled Ato as she raced eagerly back to the kitchen.
Lyra was the mother of Ato’s best friend, Reed. Reed and Ato had known each other since they were small children, and they were nearly inseparable. The two shared a nearly endless thirst for adventure that often got them into trouble. Ato loved to see the world in all its splendor. The world held so many secrets that no man or woman could ever hope to experience them all.
She went on these adventures as a source of inspiration for her art, and she always carried a notebook to capture rough sketches of her surroundings. Ato knew that some people couldn’t experience these wonders for themselves, and she enjoyed the fact that she held the ability to share what her eyes had once seen to those that remained blind.
Reed, on the other hand, had different reasons for their adventures. He had been born within the gates of the Crimson Kingdom, and to this day, he always thought of them like a cage, one that shielded him from the unknown that his eyes yearned to see. Reed had no desire to stay within his cage, and Ato was certain that once he became of age, he would leave the Crimson Kingdom to explore every corner of the world. Reed had wings that no cage could bind, and Ato thought he would die if he ever lost his ability to fly.
While Ato continued with her meal, Lyra sat across the table and talked about her day so far. Lyra always came to Ato’s house with food. The attentiveness of a parent was something that Ato surely missed in her life, and she knew that she could never repay Lyra’s kindness. Lyra had long picked up the responsibility of Ato’s parents since their sudden disappearance some time ago.
Her parent’s work had always kept them traveling. Both of them were merchants who explored unknown lands trying to open new trade routes for the kingdom. This kept them away from the house for weeks, and even months, at a time, but with this last trip, Ato hadn’t seen her parents in over two years – summers came and went while Ato sat awaiting their return.
This last trip took them across the great ocean to lands people only whispered about. Ato knew that it would be a long one, but day by day, her worry for them grew, and she now only hoped for their safe return.
It didn’t help that people’s whispers had turned into idle banter about her parent’s deaths, and they now eyed Ato with a certain level of pity, as if there was no question in the matter.
Ato quickly finished her food and then longingly stared at the plate, hoping that more would magically appear. A single thought of licking the plate clean crossed her mind, but she quickly tucked it away. Her eyes traced over toward Lyra, and she frowned. If Lyra hadn’t still been there, she probably would’ve done so already. Lyra often complained about Ato needing to be more ladylike, and Ato simply didn’t feel like suffering through another boring lecture today.
It didn’t help that Lyra’s worries weren’t completely unfounded. Ato had plenty of bruises and cuts from exploring the outside world. Just like the cut beneath her eye, she looked at them with a sense of childish pride. Each mark told a story of her adventures, and each mark was tied to one of her drawings.
Ato glanced up from her plate and noticed that Lyra was still looking at her. Lyra’s face still held the parental smile that always managed to comfort Ato and make her feel safe at the same time. Ato was always amazed at how Lyra managed to make each meal taste better than the last, and Ato never grew tired of Lyra’s cooking in the slightest. However, Ato’s attention slowly began to wander back to the room with the painting from her dreams, and her very being demanded her to finish it.
Ato faced Lyra, muttered a lackluster thank you, and began to excuse herself from the table.
“Aren’t you forgetting something?” Lyra’s voice rose from behind Ato, blatant accusation clear in her tone. Ato started to ponder Lyra’s question, and even though she tried to search for the answer, her mind was only compelled to return to the painting.
“Thank you?” Ato asked with a guess, as she couldn’t remember if she had done so already or not.
Lyra wore a face filled with the kind of disappointment that could only wound a child as she answered, “Reed is waiting for you at our house. He’s been preparing for your little hiking trip into the forest all morning.”
Guilt swept over Ato, and with it, a lingering sense of panic crossed her mind.
The two children had decided that this would finally be the day that they visited the Azure Ruins. The Azure Ruins were in the middle of the Vale Forest that bordered the Crimson Kingdom. The ruins were older than the Crimson Kingdom itself, and although historians had long since combed the area for artifacts, they had found none.
The area was rumored to be mysteriously vacant, its history long forgotten. The two children had never traveled to the ruins, and both were excited about their journey. Reed dreamt of unearthing treasures, and Ato desired to restore the ruins to its previous glory with her art – tales of a dead land brought back to life by her hand.
Ato ran back into her room, calling out to Lyra while doing so, “I’m so sorry, Lyra. Can you tell Reed that I’ll be there as soon as I can?”
Ato found her backpack and began to stuff spare clothing and supplies into it. She paused for a second when she heard Lyra exiting the house. She poked her head out the window and started to speak, but the wind quickly grabbed her long hair, sending it sprawling across her face and into her mouth, leaving the words a jumbled mess.
Ato quickly removed the hair from her face and called out to Lyra, “Make sure you tell him I didn’t forget about it! He’ll never let me hear the end of it!”
Ato easily got distracted with her work and formed a habit of forgetting the world outside her imagination. This normally wouldn’t be a problem, but lately, Reed had been giving her huge guilt trips whenever she forgot one of their plans. He would continuously pout about it until Ato promised to make it up to him. These promises usually involved favors such as taking care of his chores or getting him some obscure gift.
After the last time, Ato swore to herself that she would never fall into his debt again. He’d only asked Ato to clean his room, as Lyra was always nagging him about it. Ato had agreed readily to this, as it had seemed easy enough, but she’d been dreadfully wrong.
The smell had hit Ato as soon as she’d entered the room. It had been sickening, and she couldn’t help but gag. The decaying scent had choked the air. Ato had taken a ragged breath through her mouth, trying to spot the source of the smell, but found she couldn’t find the base of it. At the end of it all, she had secretly taken a couple pairs of his socks that had smelled of death itself and proceeded to burn them instead of attempting to wash them. Sadly, Ato hadn’t been able to do anything about the sock outline traced along the carpet and its scent forever imprinted on the floor.
Ato shoved an extra pair of socks into her sack after thinking of this and then made her way to her art room to get the last of what she needed for her journey. She gathered her art notebook, which was neatly filled, erasers, and pencils (one which still lay behind her left ear). She used to pack a palette, paint brush, and an arrangement of paints. However, on one occasion, the paints had leaked and ruined all of her pack’s contents. Ato mourned the loss of her sketches, and no matter how hard she tried, she could never recreate them to their prior glory.
After getting everything together, Ato rushed out of her house, almost forgetting to lock her door behind her. She wandered to a tether line that went from her house to a tree located at the bottom of the hill. Reed had installed the line for her over a year ago. The line was as much for her entertainment as it was for her safety.
When Ato was little, she’d developed a nasty habit of tripping over her two left feet and tumbling down the hill. Although her clumsiness allowed her to reach the bottom quickly, it left her awfully dizzy, and it often gave her nasty bruises. So, Reed, being the great friend that he was, had set the contraption up to ensure her safety. The hill where the contraption was located had to be one of the highest points in the city. Ato could easily see above the gates into the city and the territories that surrounded the Crimson Kingdom.
Ato leaped from the ground to grab the handlebar and began racing down her hill. She loved these few seconds of gliding through the air. In the east sat the Azure Ruins, hidden by the maze known as the Vale Forest. She could see Saunders’ Sea, whose water glistened magnificently in the sunlight. The sea embraced the fishermen and merchant ships working diligently throughout the day. Finally, she could see the main road to the Crimson Kingdom. This road was the lifeblood that allowed trade with nearby allies and brought travelers from afar who each held their own tale.
It really was the ideal location for an artist, and this one contraption allowed her to get a single perfect image of her surroundings – until she reached the bottom of the hill with a huge splash. Ato had landed in a large pile of leaves, and her body became completely submerged within them. An eruption of red and orange fluttered through the air as she sprang from the pile toward Reed’s house.
As Ato arrived at Lyra’s house, she saw Reed leaning slightly against the front door. He had fiery red hair that looked as if it’d burn if some poor fool dared touch it. Reed had an infinite supply of freckles that nearly covered most of his face, and sapphire eyes that reflected the ocean nearly as deeply as his mother’s.
On rare occasions, Reed’s hair would catch his eyes and set the ocean in them aflame. Ato usually noticed this when Reed caught the scent of adventure on the horizon, as if his excitement had sparked the flames.
Ato was taller than most boys her age, but Reed now stood a couple of hair strands above her. She remembered that she used to tease him relentlessly when she was taller, but after this last winter, he’d sprouted to new heights, which he reminded her with nearly every chance he got.
Reed wore a frown on his face as she arrived, and he gave her a look as if demanding an explanation. Ato opened her mouth to answer his eyes, but before she could even say a word, he leaned in without any warning. His face was only a few inches away from hers as his frown turned to a sly smile, and then, with a single flick of his wrist, he reached up to pluck a leaf from her hair.
He held up the leaf with a rather smug look on his face and said, “C’mon, let’s go.”
Reed let go of the leaf, and as he walked past her, he grabbed another from her hair less gently. “What are you waiting around for? I don’t want to spend the entire day pruning you.”
Reed started running through the street, his boyish grin on his face, without taking another look back toward Ato or his house.
She loved that about him.
Reed was a person who always looked toward the future without daring to take a glance at his past. Ato often found herself following his path, and she did little to resist it, as it often led to a brand-new adventure.
Normally, this would have been the regular start of one of Ato and Reed’s adventures. The two children would throw themselves into the Vale Forest to see sights that had so far eluded their youthful eyes. However, this was the beginning of something so much more, the curtain that was finally drawn to reveal the opening act of the rest of their lives.
There were no treasures to better their lives.
No childish laughter to echo across ruins long forgotten.
Just the cold beckoning of fate that none could escape, not even children.
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