Diantha's Gate

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Chapter 3

The nights that followed my encounter had been sleepless, but, for the first time in weeks, this had not been due to the horrors that usually found me at bedtime.

The centaur boy, Aemion, returned faithfully, and every night was spent sitting in the grass by my prized tree swing, built by my dad for my fourth birthday. This had been the preferred haunt of the Faceless Man, but my new friend had persuaded me to join him here when we met, and no fearful experiences had ever followed.

Many arguments were to be had in those first few nights, Aemion working hard to convince me that he was not just a part of my very active imagination. While I hadn’t been easy to sway, I never complained too heartily, as Aemion was almost certainly the reason I was no longer encountering pure terror in my sleep. Inexplicably, it seemed that the two couldn’t visit me at the same time; therefore, my indignation evolved into resignation, and I learned to see the Darkness as a master of magic and play rather than one of fear and pale faces.

My sleep schedule still suffered, but I no longer minded. My mom was still attributing my exhaustion to sleepless nights in torment, but I couldn’t correct her assumption. I needed my new friend.

My nights transformed into weeks, and Summer had quickly emerged, signaling the conclusion of my first school year. I’d spent every night for a month and a half in Aemion’s company.

In those first weeks, play had been a sufficient distraction from the hundreds of questions that I’d been cramming into the back of my mind. I had so many, but there was never time to ask. One night, as Aemion gently pushed me on my swing, I found myself overwhelmed with all of the things I suddenly wanted to know.

“Is it hard to be a centaur?” I’d settled on this one. The question seemed like one that could encompass a multitude of inquiries regarding his ability to…. well, to be; I was so confused by how one might perform the simplest of accomplishments in such a state. How did he lie down comfortably and sleep? What would he do if he needed to crawl in tight spaces? How could he maneuver easily at all?

I mean, he could do some really exotic things I wasn’t capable of, certainly. I envied plenty of his abilities; he could experience life in a way that I would never be able to. I too wanted to gallop at full speed, my stamina never hindering me. I wanted to find a map within the stars. I wanted to be wild and free, relying only on the earth to support me.

He’d looked at me as though he’d never once considered this. “I guess, sometimes,” he said, shrugging his shoulders. “I don’t really know; I’ve never been anything else.”

That made sense.

“Is it hard to be human?” he’d asked in turn.

“Yeah, sometimes,” I confessed.

“One day, I’ll know what it’s like. To be fully human, if I want.” His voice had been contemplative and boyishly energetic.

“What do you mean? You’re going to be a human when you grow up?” I’d turned around in my swing, confusion knitting my brows.

“No,” he replied in a voice that said, ‘what kind of ridiculous question is that?.’

“Well, I guess sort of. When a centaur turns sixteen, he can transform whenever he wants.”

“Whoa,” I breathed. Why?”

He’d shrugged his shoulders again. “I don’t know- I just know that’s how it works. My father says it’s only for very important things, like if you need to hide or blend in or something, but I’m going to do it all the time.”

“Do you think that I can be a centaur when I’m sixteen?” I was bubbling with excitement, hope. If I too could change, the possibilities would be endless. I could play with Aemion as much as I wanted, as hard as I wanted, any time I wanted. I could capture the wind in my hair and run with a purpose I’d never known before. I could…

“Of course not!” he’d said, laughing aloud. I felt my dreams being crushed like an empty soda can.

“Oh,” I’d said, clearly defeated. “I just thought…”

“Humans don’t have any abilities like that,” he told me matter-of-factly. “My parents say they are the weakest of all the species. There are the rare few with special powers; they’re called The Marked Ones. But they’re nearly impossible to find.”

He considered this for a moment, while I sat in silence, not wanting to admit that I didn’t know what ‘species’ meant.

“In Averynn, the Centaurus don’t transform much, even when they are of age. They say it is dangerous. That we are easier to kill in human form.”

I pondered his words, before lifting my eyebrows in sudden surprise.

“Why would anyone kill you?” I asked, horrified.

“War,” he said, as though I should have assumed. I’d heard of war, but the word hadn’t meant much to me at the time. It involved fighting. That had been the extent of my knowledge.

“My parents say the Centaurus cannot avoid war. It is in our nature to fight and kill. But they also say that the Centaurus are fools. That fools have to be led by those wiser than they are.”

He’d walked around to face me, a look of pride and excitement washing over him. “One day I will lead,” he’d said with utter certainty.

“Lead what?”

“The Clans,” he’d said simply.

“How do you know?” I breathed, extremely impressed. I’d had no clue what the word ‘clans’ meant, but it sounded important enough.

His smile broadened and his spine straightened. “I am an ancestor of Chiron, the wisest of all centaurs. I have his blood in my veins, which makes me a leader.”

Once more, I’d found my ability to understand him inadequate, but that didn’t curb my excitement for him.

“Also,” he’d said, clearly not wanting to lose my fascination, “only Chiron’s ancestors can travel throughout the multiverse. Kosmos Taxidia.”

Here I’d confessed that I hadn’t any idea what he’d just said.

“That’s why I can visit your world,” he whispered excitedly. “I can come here anytime, through the Threshold. So can my father and my father’s kin, but none of the other Centaurus,” he finished dramatically.

I felt a rush of nerves and excitement at these words. “Is he here now? Will I meet him someday?”

“Who, my father? No, all of my family must stay in Averynn until the war is finished. He cannot leave. He has to remain with his men and lead them.” He’d said these words as if they should have been obvious to me.

“Well, then why are you here?”

“I’m helping the Clans,” he said with a tone bordering on defensive. “They don’t think I’m old enough, but I am. I’ll be of age to fight in a few years,” he’d added, more to himself than to me.

He resumed pushing me, so many of my questions going unasked, unanswered. We each became lost in our own thoughts, silently attempting to make abstract ideas concrete so that our young minds could better work with the pieces of our complex puzzle.

A week later I’d found myself hesitating to join Aemion in our usual place by the old oak. I hadn’t wanted to relinquish the safety of the indoors, as the sky had been ominously cloudy, and I kept spotting silent flashes of lightning in the distance.

Aemion and I had decided on a ride through the woods, which had quickly become one of our favorite pastimes. I’d finally gotten accustomed to balancing unsteadily on his back, in the slope between his loin and withers, a seat seemingly designed just for me.

As I’d had nothing to cling to, he would perch both his hands slightly above his head, and I would grip them, much like toddlers do when exploring the world from their parents’ shoulders.

Sometimes he would begin to canter, then gallop, and my shrieks of delight (mingled with terror) would send us both into fits of excited giggles. The elation I’d felt would completely mask the discomfort of bruised thighs and a sore bum, both results of losing time.

On that particular night, the air had been unseasonably cool with the approaching storm, and wind rattled the trees around us. I’d found it beautifully eerie, the smell of the damp air as it whipped past our faces and the groan of the trees as they swayed. When we rode in this fashion, it felt as though we’d become one with our surroundings, and this night, we’d thrashed with the leaves, glided with the billowing grass, and shrieked with the tempestuous wind.

The first few raindrops had begun to creep down our cheeks when I heard the sound of my mom’s voice cutting through the din of the storm. Her voice seemed to be drowning in the surrounding melodies of Mother Nature, and I’d just barely been able to hear the shrill and panicked calls from the direction of our house. My laughter had died in my throat, and Aemion had quickly helped me slide from his back. My little legs had pumped with adrenaline as we thrashed through the remainder of the wood. I didn’t know how I was going to explain this behavior to her. The rain had begun to pelt my face, but I’d hardly noticed for the nerves jolting through me. She was going to kill me, I’d thought to myself.

When I’d made it to our lawn, Mom had been in hysterics, and I was a mass of soggy skin and clothes. Lightning slashed the air, a threatening growl of thunder following. Aemion had stayed behind at the treeline, his image blurred by the now torrential downpour, and I’d felt a pang of worry for his safety.

“What in god’s name?!” Mom was bellowing, her voice joining the roar of the rain. “Why were you in the woods, Nia? Why?” She shook my little shoulders, fear etched across every inch of her face.

“I…” I’d stammered, soaked through and searching for a lie that wouldn’t come.

She’d carried me inside with an iron hold, grabbing a towel from the laundry room as she’d made her way to the kitchen. Sitting me on the countertop, she’d quickly and silently peeled my wet clothes from my body and wrapped the towel around my chilled skin.

When she’d finished, her eyes became level with mine. “What,” she’d begun again, this time her voice quaking but notably calmer, “Nia Elizabeth De Atta, were you doing outside of this house in the middle of the night?”

My eyes had traveled the familiar space of our kitchen; I became absorbed in studying everything but her eyes. Though I’d always abounded in the creative department, I made for a really poor liar; my few attempts never even sounded believable to my own ears.

Her voice pressed in on me again, the force building. “It’s storming outside, Nia! Anything could have happened to you. Did someone… How did you get out there? Why, Nia? Why were you out there?” Her words had become thick with emotion, sobs gathering in her throat.

I had still been gasping for breath when I turned towards her, and seeing the love, the pain, the loss, and the fear in my mother’s eyes, I’d known I had to tell her.

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