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Spirits, dark and silent, sway
Their agonized cries silenced by

They are coming. I must move. I must get far away.

The tribe is accustomed to moving quickly over land. They stay in one place for only a while, to hunt and collect meat. If the Vandrender do not move on for a long time, the tribe will find one of the underground cavern-like burrows they leave behind and collect stone and trarot, the woody underground roots we use to make tools or paper.

Vandrender are much faster than me. Their limbs and tails are short, but they are quick and agile nonetheless. With their slender bodies and thin, yet accurate, paws, they seem to fly over the ground. They have teeth and claws, so they can defend themselves if necessary. Their long, twisting horns that curve downwards over their faces might seem fierce if we didn’t know they only used their horns for pulling up the scrubby moss that grows on the stone. They have several layers of thick fur, mottled with several shades of grey and white, for camouflage. Against the frozen tundra of our land, when they are motionless, they can hardly be spotted. And even though they are slender, under their skin hides a thick layer of fat to protect them from the biting cold.

I don’t have their limbs, or their fat, or their fur. I don’t even have a torch to keep me warm. All I have is the thin layer of hair I was born with. In comparison, I am a very poorly designed species to survive the harsh conditions of Jagas. My entire tribe is. Yet, somehow, they are the hunters of the Vandrender, not the other way around. I have hunted with them for the past twenty-nine seasons of my life. I know their capabilities.

And I know I must move quickly. They will discover his body soon. But where am I supposed to go? It is just as Susaka Alfa said. I have nowhere to escape to.

But he’s gone. That’s what matters. He’s gone and he can’t haunt me anymore. It was always him who slowed my steps when I tried to run before. Him who dragged me to the ground, who forced me to return in shame and bear the consequences of my fleeting moments of hope for freedom.

He’s gone, and the beast will go, too. In time.

I must cross the sea. It’s a nearly suicidal attempt, but it’s my only choice. To stay and be caught would be a death sentence. Final. Once Susaka Alfa finds out I survived the Ofre, she’ll make sure I’m dead for good. Double-check, even.

I allow my brain to open for a moment, recall the memories I locked away so long ago. It’s a talent I’ve always possessed, to control what enters my brain. There are times when you can’t let emotions get in the way. I knew I couldn’t forget them. But I could at least choose not to remember.

Between flashes of a joyless childhood and painful upbringing, I see a ship, one from Sviros, come to trade with my tribe. We gave them trarot, they gave us utensils and objects made from the clay they collected from the clay pits in the desert. That day, at least, held some good memories. The tribe was suspicious of the outsiders, but I do recall sneaking up to one of them, asking what Sviros was like. He looked different from us, with dark skin and spiraling hair, and I was curious. His voice was kind as he explained the steep, jagged mountains of clay that rose almost vertically into the sky. They built their cities near the base of these mountains, the place most sheltered from sandstorms.

It was fascinating, to hear all of this. But what interested me most was the ship. That was the only time the Sviroser came to trade, but it was then I discovered it was possible. Possible to escape over the sea. I was only a young child, but since then I have made countless attempts to find freedom. I always ran along the cliffs, desperately searching the churning horizon.

No ships ever came.

That was when I began considering the only true escape.

I pause, gasping for breath. My lungs are used to breathing the frigid air, but it still hurts. I take a moment to view my surroundings. Then I see it. The stone. Its jagged silhouette, dark and sinister against the deep blue of the sea.

I’m here.

I wasn’t meaning to come here. I was just running. One of the myths told to children in our tribe was that whenever the Vandrender get lost, skewed from their path of migration, they always return to the place where one of them last died, even after the corpse is long gone. Maybe that’s what happened to me. Perhaps some internal compass led me here. But for what?

This place, this menacing place…I never wanted to come back. This is a place where the vilest creatures come to roost. This is a place where the snow falls black. I’m surrounded by dark, twisted spirits, their devious fingers lacing into my head, forcing open the box of memories I shut away and guarded so carefully…

The innocent ones come first. I would come here to play with the tribe children. Their parents didn’t like me. I was the child of an Ofre, after all. My father did his best to restore our reputation, if only for his own safety, but it was never the same. My skin was permanently marked with invisible signs, the ones labelling me an insurgent, a hazard to their perfectly fearful lives. The markings that made people scowl, whisper when they thought I couldn’t see, whenever I passed by. Wary murmurs, undertones of suspicion, as if they thought I would pull out a dagger and slit their throats any moment if I could get away with it alive.

They weren’t wrong.

But the children didn’t know. They didn’t see the invisible markings. All they saw was a potential addition to their inane games. We would meet here when we weren’t being taught to hunt. My favorite games were always the violent ones. The ones where I was in charge. Where I could control and hurt people the way so many have hurt and controlled me.

I remember the time I almost suffocated one child. I was pretending to be their chief. He had done some crime that called for an Ofre. I had scratched the slashed “O” onto his neck with a sharp rock I had found nearby. I pushed him to the ground. Had my arm pressed on his throat. I felt hands scrabbling at my shoulders, heard the children screaming for me to stop, saw his face turning a dark blue shade until finally some parent pulled me off. The child didn’t die. He showed them the scratches, the dark bruise my arm had left on his neck.

His parents tried to convince the chief to execute me. Instead, I got daily punishments for as long as the chief deemed long enough. I shudder when I think about them. But I didn’t care. I loved the power I had felt. The control over that boundary between life and death. I couldn’t cut it out of me.

After that, there were no friends. They weren’t enemies, either, but no one really liked me. They feared me. That was when I started slipping sharp things under my skin, just to see what it would feel like.

The shadows begin to close over this memory, replacing it with another. Fear strikes me deep inside. These childhood memories are not harmful. Painful, perhaps, but they won’t hurt me. But I cannot let myself think about the other one. The one I have avoided for so long.

I close my mind, pushing away the insistent, prying hands that spring from the stone and look to the sky. It is utterly empty. No stars, no sun peeking over the horizon. How long has it been since day? Why is Susaka Alfa not pursuing me?

Maybe they knew I would end up here. Maybe they fear the ominous darkness, rumored to prowl around this place. The fear never disappears, not entirely. It just finds new places to hide.

For a while, I watch the waves, tipped with foam, churn before me. Pitch black blankets the horizon. Weariness washes over me, the aftereffects of remembering tugging me into a world of forgetful sleep. I sink to my knees beside the stone, lean against it for support, as if we were old friends wistfully reminiscing. I hope dreams do not come to me tonight, for if they do, they will only be nightmares.

Luirlan. You came.

“Do I visit you in my dreams now?”

Are you sure you are asleep?

“If I’m not, it’s a vision, isn’t it?”

I’d say so.

“People always take visions more seriously. I never understand why.”

I suppose the word holds more weight than “daydream.”

“Am I ever going to see you? See your face?”

Face? What do you think I am?

I don’t answer for a while, thinking. “I don’t know, I haven’t thought about you since the Ofre. I guess I was too busy trying to, you know, survive.”

Enough sarcasm. Take a guess.

“Are you a spirit? Some kind of supernatural entity? You have to have powers if you rescued me from the sea.”

I expect the voice to correct me, tell me what it is, but it remains silent. “Can I at least hear your name?”

I don’t have a name. But I will materialize for you.

Before me, out of the darkness, a thin woman with white glowing skin and long, smooth, black hair emerges. She has multicolored, fiery eyes that glitter with a wicked light. She reaches one of her hands to me, stretching out long, thin fingers, tipped with sharp black nails. Her voice is no longer the one I have been hearing, the kind of voice you only hear in your head. If I had been asked to describe it before, I would not have been able to. Now her voice has quality, just like her image.

“Hello, Luirlan. I said I do not have a name, which is the truth. But I know it is easier to take advice from someone you trust, and exchanging names is one way to encourage that. You may call me Mara, for now. Come. I will take you to my realm.”

I take her hand, and the shaded world around me clears. Black-edged roots are tangled and knotted beneath my feet. Before me stands a massive, jagged stone, shimmering and pulsing as if alive. Moss hangs in heaps from the edges. I see water floating beyond it, endless in the distance. Mist hangs thickly in the air, and small bulbs of purple and blue light throb within it.

“What is it?” I ask, hypnotized by the lights, which seem to slowly gravitate toward the plant, then roll up the sides, creating small cracks and openings that glow.

“This is the stone from which all life flows,” Mara says. “Built upon the bones of the past you buried. In another time they wandered freely through both realms, swimming and dancing in cool water. But now they have been starved for so long they perish. The stone feeds on them.”

I reach out to touch one of the lights. Instantly it goes dark, becoming a swirling, pulsating shadow. The other lights around it follow, as if they are infected, and soon I am surrounded by twisting black masses that howl and screech. I try to cover my face and run, but my feet pedal at nothingness as if I am suspended in the air. Their desolate howls fill my ears, their shadows flood my vision—

Then they disappear. I stumble, breathing heavily, alarm crowding my mind. I turn to see Mara’s grim face, and suspended just above her hands is a dense, black, grainy object, as if she has combined all the darkened lights into one. She stoops and presses her hands into the ground. The darkness seeps into the earth, rushes forward to the stone’s thick roots, and I watch as it shoots up the side, leaving a long, black vein. A moment passes, then I hear a faint rumble. The haze in the air is thick, but I can see a sliver of movement in the distance.

“Do not touch the lights,” Mara warns gravely. “Your touch corrupts them and brings harm to the stone.”

She leads me forward to the base of the gigantic stone. She takes my hand and places it on a twisted knot that grows from the side. The outer shell of the stone is thick and rough. I grip the knot tightly and give it a sharp jerk.

A loud groaning noise splits the air, and I am buffeted with an unexpected wind. The noise is so loud it bounces around in my head and I can think of nothing else. I am blinded by a sudden light, and when it fades, I see the stone has split down the middle. It has divided as high as I can see. Everything stands still for a moment.

Then darkness floods out, releasing shadows that haunt and whisper, feed on innocence, prosper with fear, and carry with them overwhelming destruction.

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