They soared above the trees. The wind whipped around them, tearing at the sage’s woolen cloak. The bird-lion beneath them kept them warm. Caldor clung for dear life to the poor creature’s mane. The downy orange fur tangled around his fingers. He trembled out of fear of heights rather than the cold.
Caldor didn’t like flying; too much could happen that he couldn’t control. Foe had tied a rope around Caldor’s waist to make sure he didn’t fall off since his feet didn’t reach the stirrups. The rope hadn’t eased the old sage’s anxiety as he mulled over every terrible scenario that could possibly take place and how he would react if such situations were to occur.
All those worries faded fast when Caldor spotted the first flickering light through the darkness. With a quick pat on the Steward’s arm, they slowed to hover over the trees.
Foe snapped the leather reins, commanding the gryphon down to one of the ancient oaks. The branch creaked under their weight, but neither Foe nor the bird-lion appeared bothered by the creaking or bouncing tree limb. The feathered beast lay comfortably down to rest on the branch while the wind ruffled the finger like leaves around them.
The pyres flickered in the night like fireflies assembled in a twisting row through the deep darkness of the valley below. The leafy sea of trees swayed, rolling across the valley like waves with the wind, filling the night with their soft rustling. The moon hadn’t appeared in the inky sky. The sky sparkled with tiny diamonds overhead.
One by one the pyres leading up to the mountain cliffs were lit, while the music and celebration in the city grew louder. When the final pyre flickered through the darkness, Caldor could see the top of the moon crest over the mountains. The moon glowed like a polished pearl - its size nearly filling the night sky over Gaitan.
“Well I be damned,” Foe gasped, “that there is probably the prettiest thin’ I’ve seen next to me wife.”
“Aye,” Caldor couldn’t fathom anything else to say as he watched the moon creep across the sky in awe. Tears welled up in his eyes as he clasped his hands to his chest, unable to look away. He trembled now, not from fear, not from cold, but from the unbelievable glee that fluttered in his chest like butterflies.
“So, I forgot to ask. What’s so special about this moon, aside from its size?”
“200 Year Moon,” Caldor corrected, “normally the moon is not this large, but every 200 years the moon comes close to Gaitan allowing us to see this. In Morzi lore, it is believed that when the moon is this close to our world the Gods can come down and visit for one night. It is also believed that this night is the only night the Gods will grant the most impossible requests. Sydrin believes in something similar - the Gods coming to Gaitan, that is - that is why the West and South celebrate their New Year at the same time.”
“Yah know quite a lot about this celebration,” Foe muttered.
“I have interests outside of medicine, you know,” Caldor coughed from the cold air tickling his throat.
The flawless pearl glistened like frost as it inched across the sky. Everything became cloaked in a pale white light. Birds sang in the trees, mistaking the moon for daylight. Caldor could even see the jade leaves in the oak tree reflecting the light like ripples on water.
“What do yah wish for if that lore’s true?” Foe’s booming voice broke the silence.
The sage jumped at the man’s loud voice. He had wanted to enjoy the night in peace, not be pestered with stupid questions.
“I do not know. I have everything I want. You?”
“I’d wish for the prince’s health,” Foe sighed.
Caldor hadn’t thought of that. That kind of wish would have made sense.
“I will second that wish,” Caldor hummed.
He fixed his robe, tightening the leather belt around his waist. The weather was cooler than he had expected the border of the West to be. He cleaned his glasses again, certain now that it was chips and not dirt making his sight blurry.
Shadows danced about in the orange glow from Morza in the distance. Music floated through the night while the two listened to the sounds of singing. The humming of a sitar and rhythmic beating of a drum helped ease the silence.
If only he had been invited to be part of such a momentous occasion, he would have surely enjoyed himself there compared to sitting on the back of a bird-lion that smelt of hay and carrion. He would have given anything to be in Morza and not sitting uncomfortably on a saddle with a Dermite grumbling with impatience since growing bored.
Anything… Caldor sighed.
Fire erupted from Morza as Caldor felt his heart stop. The flames shot high into the sky before fading. More fires danced across the rooftops of the yurts closer to the mountain as smoke funneled into the sky like ghostly hands reaching for the moon.
“Did they mean to do that?” Foe’s voice sounded uncertain.
“No…” Caldor continued to stare towards the mountain, “should we go and see if they need help?”
“And what? Piss on the flames to put them out? I’m sure they can handle thin’s. From what I see, it’s under control,” Foe answered.
The sage didn’t know if his friend was trying to convince himself or was putting on a front. The Steward tightened his grip on the reins and shifted his weight. The gryphon stirred from the branch, standing and stretching its wings.
Minutes passed as the fires continued to burn. The fires from the top of the mountain had faded but they were wreaking havoc on the homes.
The music had stopped. The birds were silent.
Caldor’s stomach churned. His heart thumped like a drum behind his ribs.
They held their breath when they caught a haunting cry from the city. One cry turned to two before the people of Morza filled the night with their horrific choir. Caldor’s blood froze as the cries grew louder and did not abate.
Things weren’t getting better.
“Foe, please. Those are not cries of celebration,” Caldor pleaded, before catching another faint noise. “Are they clanging metal?”
“Weapons,” Foe’s voice was hollow as he glared towards the burning city. The noise was distinct. There wasn’t a day that went by that he hadn’t heard that noise ringing up from the training grounds.
The first explosion hadn’t been an accident. These same tactics had been used on northern villages along the border by southern raiders. What would Sydrin gain from doing this to their only ally?
“All ’ight, we’ll head there,” Foe clicked his tongue stirring his beast and giving it a strong kick in the side. The bird-lion leapt from the branch and took flight. They were still hours from Morza, but hopefully they would be able to find some way to help when they arrived.
The sky tore open and from the tear came a brilliant pillar of white light. Foe pulled back hard on the reins, as the gryphon veered hard to the left. The beast cried out, diving towards the trees.
Caldor clung to the creature’s mane. The leaves and branches slapped against his face and pulled at his hair and beard. His heart was in his throat until they came to an abrupt stop on one of the branches. The bird-lion crawled onto the branch, gripping it as if its life depended on it.
“Bloody Hell!” Foe shouted. “I think I’m blind.”
The man blinked rapidly trying to fix his sight.
“Better blind than dead,” Caldor gasped, cupping his hands over his face. The Steward laughed and the saddle shook. That had been too close.
Caldor squinted towards Morza. White dots clouded his vision but after two long blinks they faded away. The pillar of light had faded to a soft white glow, the top reaching into the sky while the bottom was clearly in Morza.
Whatever the light was had stopped the fires, leaving only orange embers glowing in the distance. He hadn’t seen anything like that, nor had he read anything about such an event.
The explosion hadn’t been the same sound as the one on the mountain. The one on the mountain sounded like thunder. The strange pillar had sounded… metallic… no, that was not quite the word to describe it. It was like someone had puffed air into a metal bucket.
Why he thought of that comparison was beyond him, or no… he had fallen asleep with his head in a metal bucket when he was younger but…
“All ’ight, second time’s the charm,” Foe steadied the beast.
“You mean to take us there?” Caldor’s eyes widened. “Have we not come close enough to death for one day?”
“Yah wanna help, and I wanna know,” Foe shot back.
The creature took to the sky a second time; the bird-lion glided when they breached the trees. Caldor’s stomach continued to churn.
The moon had moved behind them by the time the pillar had faded completely. Caldor couldn’t think of any answers to what that strange light had been. Nothing stood out from all the books he had read and people he had spoken to.
Whatever the light had been - had not been of their world.