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The sky ruptures. Rays of the setting sun fracture into scintillating shards of color as a stone flashes into existence in the upper atmosphere. It plummets toward the ground, gaining speed. Light warps around it, forming a dark penumbra. A trail of flame follows its tortured path until the stone impacts the ground at the edge of a lake. The shockwave flattens trees in every direction and sends clouds of mist and dust into the air.
In the silent aftermath, muddy water falls like false rain. The fractured pieces of the stone tremble unnaturally as smoky tendrils ebb outward. Plants wither. Animals flee, or else they sicken and die.
The morning sun parted the clouds and stirred the village of Hiber to life. Yuan stepped out of the home in which he’d lived his entire life. His father had built it for his mother, and although Yuan was of age, building a home of his own seemed another hopeless dream. His father called him a late bloomer. They both knew it to be more complicated than that.
The air was clean and crisp, exactly the kind of morning Yuan liked best. Despite his shortcomings, he would find ways to contribute. With a deep breath he called to a nearby stone mason.
“Bergan! I would be pleased to work with you today.” He bowed slightly, careful to keep his clasped hands the right height to designate respect for an elder.
The burly stone worker bowed in return and shook his head. “Thank you, Yuan. May the Ancestral Light attend you, but I have plenty of help today.”
Yuan watched Bergan walk away. Three young men went with him, each of which Yuan knew he could outlift.
Next he caught the eye of Londer, the woodworker, and bowed. “Londer! Do you need assistance this fine morning?”
Londer returned his greeting and then hoisted a satchel over his shoulder. “No thank you Yuan, I have all the help I need.”
With practiced effort, Yuan hid his disappointment. It wouldn’t do for neighbors to see his emotions too vividly so early in the morning, but everyday it was the same. Most of the villagers gently refused his offer to work with them. They thought him flawed, broken because he couldn’t do what they could. But he would find a way to serve the people of his village. One way or another, he would prove his worth. He just wasn’t sure how…yet.
Londer turned suddenly. “Yuan, I could use you later, carrying some of the finished furniture back from the forest. Could you help me after midday?”
Nodding, Yuan smiled. “Of course, Londer. I would be grateful to assist.”
“Yuan! Where are you?” Yuan’s father, an elderly man with gray hair and bright eyes called from the threshold of their home.
“I am here, father.” Yuan answered.
“I almost forgot to tell you, the Widow Helmslee could use your help. She can’t clear the patch behind her cottage by herself.”
Yuan smiled. The Widow Helmslee could probably clear the patch twice over by herself, but this would give him a small means to contribute. He thanked his father and left.
The widow’s home sat among the forest as if it had grown there, like all the homes of Hiber. He knocked at the door, noting how well the stones of the wall fit together. Her husband had been a skilled builder, perhaps as skilled as his father, Aita, before he had stopped working stone. Yuan pushed down the painful memories of how he had caused his father to retire early. He called out, “Widow Helmslee! Are you at home?”
“Out back! Come around.”
Yuan followed the stone walkway that bordered her home. Each stone in the walk fit perfectly with its neighbors. Yuan wished again he could mold stone that well, or at all.
The Widow Helmslee looked up from tending her flowers. She remained spry considering she was the oldest resident of the village, not counting those who had already Ascended. With a small bow she said, “Aita! I didn’t know you were coming to help me!”
“No, Widow Helmslee, it’s Yuan. Aita is my father.”
“Yes, Widow Helmslee. I’m sure.” Yuan smiled as he bowed deeply, indicating most respect.
“Well don’t stand there all day. Move those stones.” She motioned towards a pile of rocks almost as tall as Yuan.
Yuan walked around the pile, wondering how long it would take him to move it. “Most of the villagers don’t have a pile of stones like this in their flower bed. Why are they here?” he asked her.
“My husband Brael intended to build a wall along the edge of the garden. To discourage rabbits from sneaking in. Could you make it for me? I want the stones out of my way so I can extend my vegetable patch.”
“Yuan hefted a stone the size of his head. “Where do you want it?”
“Here,” she motioned to an open space where a small rose bush with a single red bloom sat alone. The others had all been cleared. “Oops, I missed one.”
The Widow reached down and placed a hand on the stem of the rose. Yuan almost stopped her; fearful she would tear out such a beautiful flower. But her hand rested lightly on the rose as she whispered to it. Slowly the rose bush flowed through the soil until it rested with the other roses at the end of the bed.
“That should do it.” She surveyed her handiwork. “There should be enough stone to make a wall about knee high all along here.”
Yuan nodded dumbly, still holding the first stone in front of him. A yearning seized him as he marveled at the ease of the Widow’s work, but he stifled the jealous desire before she could see. He focused on building the wall the only way he knew how—by hand, one stone at a time. By stacking and interlocking the stones carefully, he soon had the beginning of a wall that would stand for many years.
The widow watched at him quizzically. After many minutes she asked, “Aren’t you going to shape them?”
Yuan gritted his teeth and set down the stone he carried. He hadn’t expected such a question from the Widow Helmslee. Then he realized she must be confusing him with his father. Careful to contain his emotions, he replied, “I’m not Aita, Widow. I’m Yuan.”
Widow Helmslee clasped both hands over her mouth. She stepped to Yuan and hugged him. “I’m so sorry, Yuan. Of course you may stack the stones as they are. I prefer a natural look to a wall anyway. Let me help you move them.”
She spoke to the air beside her. “Yes Brael, I know he’s not Aita.” She lifted a small stone and brought it to the wall Yuan had started.
“Let me do it, Widow Helmslee. Carrying stones is the kind of thing I’m good at.” Yuan tried to keep any bitterness out of his words, but he heard it loud and clear. If the widow noticed she said nothing.
Yuan continued carrying the stones and stacking them for the rest of the morning, until the original pile was gone. He regarded his work with a smile. Not bad for someone who couldn’t mold stone.
Widow Helmslee emerged from her cottage, carrying a large mug. “Here you are Yuan, you look thirsty.”
Yuan accepted the mug of cool water gratefully.
“And don’t worry about the wall, your father can stop by and mold it properly anytime.”
Yuan choked in mid-swallow. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and handed the mug to the widow. He bowed, his hands clasped at eye level to indicate most respect. A cauldron of emotions roiled within him. “I must be going, Widow. I’ve agreed to meet Laraki for lunch.”
Tremendous discipline and years of practice were all that hid his extreme hurt from the widow. If he allowed himself to feel the anger or pain threatening to explode within him, she would read it in his aura. They all would.
Yuan left the widow quickly, bound for his favorite tree.
In minutes Yuan reached the huge oak, close enough to the village to be accessible yet far enough away to feel private. He pounded the trunk once with his fist before swallowing his frustration and sitting on a bench made from the living wood. It had taken many sessions with Londer to convince him to make it.
Individual rays of sunlight filtered through the forest, orchestrated by a cool breeze that carried the scent of flowers and green grass. Yuan breathed it in. He closed his eyes and asked the calm to replace the storm inside him.
An insect buzzed slowly by—a bee, heavy laden with pollen. Opening his eyes, Yuan swatted it out of the air. The bee thunked against the trunk of the tree and fell stunned to the ground. A gasp of astonishment caught Yuan off guard.
“Yuan! How could you?” Laraki darted forward. Gracefully, she knelt and lifted the insect in her hands. She held it close to her mouth and whispered to it. Yuan leaned forward, trying to catch the words, but they were too quiet. After a moment, Laraki opened her hands and the bee flew away.
“Why did you do that?” Yuan asked her. “It was only a bee.”
Laraki stood, hands on her hips, and faced him. Her long hair framed her face. A green tunic of silk fell to her knees. The color perfectly matched her left eye. Yuan thought her mismatched, right eye resembled the color of rich soil. A white wool belt tied at her waist completed her attire. She tilted her head to the side in a way he found entrancing. He prepared himself for another of her lectures.
“Yuan! You are impossible! Bees are among the most reverent of all creatures. They provide a service and make food for themselves and us while doing it.” She shook her head, unable to disguise the faint smile playing at the corners of her mouth. Her smile changed to a frown as she regarded Yuan more closely. “What happened to you? Your aura is… wild.”
He was careful to keep a tight rein on his feelings. “I helped the Widow Helmslee today. She thought I was my father. It was strange.”
“Is there more?”
Yuan shook his head, but had to look away.
Laraki sat next to him. “Yuan, if you could only see yourself the way I do. You have more capacity for grief and self-sacrifice than all the rest of the villagers put together. Your aura…” she studied him for a moment. “It’s captivating and devastating at the same time.”
“I’m not sure that’s a compliment.”
“It’s why the others struggle to relate to you.”
“The others pity me.” He picked up a pebble and tossed it away. “Nothing more.”
“That’s not true. They’re frightened…and maybe even a little jealous.”
Yuan snorted derisively. “How could you think that? I’m the crippled one, remember?” Only in Laraki’s presence did he dare let his emotions run their course. Currently, he uncorked the morning’s frustrations. “The one who can’t see auras!”
Confused by her response to something she’d known for years, Yuan finally looked her in the face. “What is it?”
“I hadn’t realized your desperation had grown so bleak. That you would even consider…” her words faded into tears.
“What? What did I do? If it’s about the bee, I’m sorry.”
“Were you going to tell me before you left the village? Or were you just planning to disappear?” She choked out the words between sobs.
There was no use in disguising the truth with Laraki. She often knew things he hadn’t admitted to himself. He looked away. “Yes, I’ve decided to leave the village.”
“How can you leave your home, especially with your father getting weaker…” She struggled for words. “How could you leave me?”
Yuan refused to look at her. For some dumb reason he felt that if he didn’t see her, she wouldn’t see him. Or at least she wouldn’t see the truth of him—the darkness he battled constantly. “I have to go. I’m tired of everyone thinking I’m some kind of cripple.” How could she understand it was for her sake he must leave?
“When will you go?” she asked softly.
Another bee buzzed past, filling the silence. “Tomorrow morning.” Yuan decided on the spot.
“I don’t know. One of the other villages. Maybe try and see how far away a man can go.”
Laraki stood, took his hands, and raised him up to join her. “Then you must go to my father and ask for my hand.”
The breeze stirred her long red hair. Yuan’s blood raised even as his heart sank. “Your father hates me.”
She lifted his chin until his eyes met hers. “He doesn’t hate you.”
Yuan pulled away. “I don’t know where I’m going or when I’m coming back. I may never come back. It might be too dangerous. You should stay here.”
Laraki shook her head. “I am going with you. If you leave without me, I will follow alone. When my father knows that, he will grant your request for my hand.” She hugged him, painfully reminding him of how strong yet soft she was.
He ran his fingers through her red hair, amazed she allowed one such as him to touch it.
“You should go right now.”
“Yes, I should.” He backed away while considering his next words carefully. She would see it if he lied. Why did her father have to be the Village Elder?
Laraki stood her ground. “Don’t you want me to go with you?”
“More than anything,” he said softly.
“Then ask my father for my hand.”
“I will.” He uttered the words as if a great stone crushed down on his chest. The simple statement was all he could muster.
She kissed him and retreated, moving as lightly as a dancer until she disappeared through the trees.
He collapsed onto the bench. What he had promised her was true. He would ask her father. Someday. At the moment, he wasn’t good enough for her. If her father denied his request, tradition dictated he couldn’t ask again. She would be lost to him forever.
Even worse, her father could say yes, and she would be stuck with an unworthy husband. He stood and ran his fingers through his hair. He would have to leave tonight.
Yuan returned to the village, hatching his plan in his heart. It would require great care to allay Laraki’s suspicions. She had just proved how well she could read his mind by observing his aura. Perhaps he could go to the woods to help Londer and simply not come back. Yuan needed only to inform his father. At least the elderly Aita would understand.
As the village cropped into view through the fringe of the forest, Yuan was surprised to find half the villagers clogging the trail. Curious, he felt his way through the crowd until he saw what held their attention. The sight stunned him.
Derrin, Laraki’s younger brother, sat in the dust of the crossroads, his clothes rent. Blood oozed from cuts on his face and dripped from his nose. Mouth agape, he stared at the ground while drool coursed down his chin. His boots were gone, his feet bloodied. Despite his clear need of assistance, the nearest villagers stood twenty feet away. Most were steadily retreating.
Yuan stepped forward, bewildered that no one helped. He bowed quickly, hands held chest high, the correct height for an equal. “Derrin, are you well?”
“Don’t touch him!” Someone shouted.
Yuan stopped, his hands inches from Derrin’s head. “Why?”
Derrin seemed oblivious to the conversation.
Bergan grabbed Yuan’s arm and pulled him away. “There is something wrong with him.”
Yuan struggled to free himself from the mason’s iron grip. “He’s hurt! Why is no one helping him?”
“You can’t see his aura,” Bergan whispered. “It’s…” he shook his head, at a loss for words.
“It’s what?” Yuan demanded.
“Every living thing has an aura!” Yuan snapped.
“Yes, but, his is… gone.”
Yuan’s eyes widened in surprise. “But,” he couldn’t voice what they must all be thinking. “How is that possible?”
Bergan shrugged and stepped back further.
Yuan wrenched away from Bergan and darted to Laraki’s brother. “Derrin, are you okay?” He touched the boy’s shoulder. The crowd gasped.
Derrin turned his head and focused his eyes. “Yuan?” He staggered to his feet and stared at the villagers surrounding him at a distance. “Am I home? Is it over?” He glanced at his torn clothes and the cuts on his hands. “I’m, I’m hurt.”
“Derrin!” Laraki slipped gracefully through the crowd, her father, Pashun close behind her. “Come with me, I’ll help you.” She took Derrin’s hand, attempting to lead him away.
“Let go of me!” Derrin backhanded his sister, knocking her to the ground.
She stared up at him in shock, tears in her eyes.
Yuan hesitated only a second before pinning Derrin’s arms to his sides. He had never seen anyone strike another person in all his years. “Why did you do that?” Only after asking the question did Yuan realize how much he yearned for the answer. Only then did he realize how close to the surface his own violent nature lurked.
Derrin struggled against Yuan’s grip then appeared to snap out of his trance. He stuttered and blinked. “What, what did I do?”
Yuan’s anger flared. “You hit Laraki!”
“What? I would never…” Derrin continued to blink and twitch.
Laraki slowly picked herself up from the ground—grief and horror etched across her face.
Yuan suppressed his anger while Pashun aided Laraki. “Are you all right, my daughter?”
“Yes, father.” She dabbed at the puffy skin beneath her eye.
“My son is ill. Take him to our home.” Pashun ordered the crowd at large.
Yuan wrapped Derrin’s arm over his shoulder and tried to walk him by himself, but Derrin’s feet were too badly injured. Yuan gazed into the crowd of blank faces, waiting, but no one offered. “Someone has to help.”
After several seconds, Junstan stepped forward—the one person in the village Yuan hoped would’ve stayed back. Pashun favored him as a match for Laraki. With a nod, Junstan hooked Derrin’s other arm over his shoulders.
Together, the two of them carried Derrin through a rapidly widening gap in the crowd until they reached the Elder’s home and placed Derrin in a bed. Cautiously, Laraki bandaged her brother’s cuts and scrapes.
“Can you recall what happened to you?” Pashun asked his youngest.
Derrin lay back against his pillow and closed his eyes. “I wish you would all stop looking at me that way.”
“What way?” Pashun asked.
“Like I’m some kind of monster.”
“We’re not trying to make you feel uncomfortable,” Pashun said.
“Well you are!” Derrin sat up, his eyes still closed. His head turned as though he looked at each of them in turn. Everyone shrunk from the outburst, everyone save Yuan.
Yuan stood between Derrin and Laraki, determined to prevent her further harm.
“The only one of you who seems normal right now is Yuan. And I think we all know why.”
Yuan’s face reddened.
“What happened to you?” Pashun repeated the question while raising a hand to silence Yuan’s response.
Derrin breathed deeply. “I saw something fall from the sky this morning; something that burned as it fell. It landed near Juniper Lake. I’d never seen anything like it before, so I went to investigate. But when I got close to the lake, I saw the forest dying; trees, animals, everything.”
Trembling, Derrin continued. “I stopped at the edge of a… a patch of death, hundreds of yards across. There were these things… writhing, dark, like long fingers of smoke. Like snakes of death. Everything they touched wilted or died. Before I could understand what I saw, they were wrapping around my feet, sucking at my boots. Sick to my stomach, I kicked off my boots and ran.”
“Did anything else happen?” Pashun asked.
“I just kept running.” Derrin shook his head and laid back. “The next thing I knew, Yuan was talking to me.”
Yuan noticed how Laraki avoided Derrin’s eerie closed-eye gaze. Her eyes revealed her panic. Yuan didn’t need to see her aura to understand how she felt.
“This thing, this patch of death, was it expanding?” Pashun asked.
Derrin laughed, eyes still closed. “You can’t stop it.” He spoke with a voice not his own. “No one can stop it. It’s coming, and it will eat you all.” The laughter morphed to giggling. Then Derrin wept.
It felt as if the air had gone out of the room. Yuan looked to Pashun, hoping the elder had some wisdom to offer. Surely, he understood what was happening to his own son.
Finally Pashun spoke. “Yuan, Junstan, gather as many of the people together as you can. Send messages to warn anyone outside the village about this… this blight. The elders will discuss what to do. Go,” Pashun ordered.
Yuan turned toward Laraki before leaving. A red hand mark had sprung up across her cheek. “Be careful.”
She nodded. Sadness framed her face as she looked to her still weeping brother. “I will.” She seemed distant, closed off.
Yuan feared she had read his intentions. Worse yet, she had seen into his darkness. He dismissed the thoughts. Her response was no doubt due to concern for her brother, nothing more.
Yuan and Junstan did as Pashun had asked. On the way to the village meeting, Yuan related everything to his father.
“It still surprises me that Derrin would strike Laraki. Such a thing…and from such a pleasant young man,” Aita said.
“I am worried about him, and about her.”
“But more about her. Am I right?” Aita smiled. “She would be a good match for you. I’ve seen how she watches you. I would approve if you decided to seek her hand.”
“This is no time to think of such things. In fact, before this happened I had decided to leave the village.”
“Were you going to tell me?”
Yuan kicked a stone further along the path. “Yes, of course.”
“And are you going to tell her?”
“I already did.”
His father raised one eyebrow like he always did when annoyed. “You told her before me? Hmph, figures. What did she say?”
Yuan rubbed the grit from his forehead. “She wants me to ask her father for her hand so she can go with me.”
Aita winked. “I knew she was a smart girl. So you asked?”
“No! I couldn’t ask for her hand now.”
“Of course, of course.” Aita steadied himself with Yuan’s arm and they resumed an old man’s pace toward the village center. As if sensing Yuan’s impatience, Aita continued. “I am an old man now. I can feel my time drawing close. It would be nice to know my only son had someone to share his life with.”
“Even if I could make myself do it, now is not the time. Our village may be in danger.”
“I know.” Aita gripped Yuan’s arm tighter. “Don’t put it off too long, or she’ll be gone.”
Yuan thought of Junstan and scowled. He knew Pashun favored Junstan more than the only man in the village who couldn’t see auras. “I’ll consider it.”
“My son, you have more to offer than you think. Weren’t you the first one of all the village to help Derrin?”
“Yes, but I couldn’t see what everyone else could.”
“Perhaps,” Aita nodded.
A large crowd gathered outside the Elder’s home. Every able-bodied villager was there. Pashun greeted them individually while Laraki emerged from the family home to stand by her father’s side. Pashun asked his daughter something privately. Yuan overheard her response. “He’s sleeping quietly. A hint of his aura has returned.”
After hearing the good news, Pashun addressed the villagers from a stump. “My fellow residents of Hiber, you surely have heard what has happened to my son and how he acted uncharacteristically. I fear the mysterious blight he encountered may be spreading toward our village. We may need to flee.”
Mumbling ran around the crowd like quiet thunder. Someone asked, “Are you sure we need to leave our homes?”
“No, I am not. It may be like a forest fire to be run from and it may not. Until we learn otherwise, I suggest we prepare to leave, immediately.”
Londer asked, “Do we know how close it is?”
Pashun shook his head. “No. That’s why I need a volunteer to serve as scout.”
Amidst the mutters of the villagers, Yuan stepped forward. “I will go, Elder. Send me.”
“I will go as well,” Junstan chimed in.
Yuan clenched his jaw. It figured Junstan would volunteer.
“Good, the two of you will go together, but go quickly. Don’t touch the blight or let it touch you. May the Ancestral Light attend you.” Pashun bowed, his hands held at the height designating deep respect.
Yuan and Junstan returned the bow before trotting off together in search of a blight that had driven Laraki’s brother mad. On the bright side, if Yuan went crazy, at least he’d take Junstan with him.
Yuan had fished Juniper Lake many times. He knew the path well, so Junstan allowed him to lead the way. The further they jogged, the stranger it felt to anticipate finding something Yuan wasn’t sure he wanted to see.
Within a mile of the lake, they slowed to catch their breath. Their surroundings seemed normal, yet Yuan felt the need to whisper. “Have you seen any hint of the blight?” It suddenly occurred to Yuan that he might not even be able to see the blight.
Junstan laced his fingers behind his head. “Has it occurred to you that there might not be a blight?”
“If Derrin was lying, you would have seen it. Everyone would have seen it.” Everyone except me, Yuan thought.
Junstan shook his head. “You don’t understand. He had no aura to read. He could have been lying, or even delusional.”
“Then I guess we need to go all the way to the lake.” Before Yuan could resume their pace, a rabbit streaked past them and smacked into a tree. It rebounded several feet.
Junstan backed away immediately.
“That was odd.” Yuan moved to take a closer look at the stunned animal.
“Don’t touch it,” Junstan hissed. “Its aura is…”
“Gone?” Yuan asked.
“Not exactly.” Junstan swallowed. “I’m not sure how to describe it. It’s warped.”
As Yuan considered what to do next, two more rabbits pounced on the unconscious one and began to eat it. “Ancestor’s Light! Is their aura normal?”
Junstan staggered backwards. “Let’s go. Theirs are worse than the first.”
Yuan led the way through the trees at a steady run, urgent but not reckless. He felt familiar enough with the area to find his way off the trail.
Yuan froze. “What is it?”
“You can’t see that?”
A single drop of sweat rolled down Yuan’s forehead and into his eye. He blinked in effort to see what Junstan saw. He noticed only trees and brush until one tree seemed to wilt before his very eyes. He pointed at the sick tree.
“Yes,” Junstan hissed. “It’s covered in snakes without eyes—all bound together as one. You don’t see them?”
“No.” Conflicted, Yuan couldn’t decide if his disability was an advantage in this situation or not. He strained his eyes, but all he saw was a sick tree. He glanced at Junstan and nearly jumped.
Junstan’s eyes bulged. He gasped for air as if something had wrapped around his throat. “You can’t see it? You can’t see it!”
“Calm down and breathe.” Yuan shook him.
Junstan couldn’t unglue his eyes from the tree.
Yuan focused his emotions, the same way he had trained himself to remain unreadable to the others. The discipline allowed him to stay calm. “Tell me what you see.”
“I don’t know, but I think I’m going to throw up.” Junstan put a hand to his mouth. “It’s like a ball of snakes trying to devour the same mouse. How far are we from the lake?”
Yuan looked for a landmark. “I don’t know for sure. Less than a mile.”
“Let’s go back. No wonder Derrin went crazy.”
“We still don’t know for sure how far it’s spread.” Yuan objected.
“We know it’s here and it’s moving toward the village. That’s what we came to find out. Let’s go back.” Junstan staggered and would have fallen if Yuan hadn’t have stabilized him. “I can feel it. It’s as if…”
“What?” Yuan stared at the tree. It looked more wilted than it had a few moments before. “If the blight is moving this way, then we should be able to go around it to the south. The view from the hill above the lake will let us see how far it’s gone in all directions.”
“No! We need to warn the village. They must leave immediately.”
Yuan smiled. “You can go back without me if you want, but I’m going to the hill that overlooks the lake. I think I can manage without you.”
Junstan struggled with the matter for several seconds. “Fine. But you would have turned back already if you could see what I see.”
Yuan led the way, skirting several trees that looked sick. Junstan said nothing, so Yuan couldn’t be sure the trees were infected. More than once he heard Junstan gag, indicating the blight couldn’t be too far off.
The slope of the ground increased and Yuan recognized the hill by a familiar outcropping of rock. He knew a small clearing at the top would grant a view of nearly the entire lake. Panting and out of breath, he and Junstan crested the hill.
Where once a small lake of clear water and silver fish had shimmered in the sun, there existed nothing but smoking mud. For the first time since seeing Derrin, Yuan felt a keen sense of the evil that threatened them. A crater on the eastern edge of the lake revealed where the thing from the sky had struck.
Blackness radiated outward from the crater, leaving an uneven line of dead and decaying plant and animal life. The blight extended for at least a mile in every direction, except for the hill where they stood. Yuan wondered if the blight flowed like water, seeking the easiest paths first. Even without seeing the aura of the blight, the destruction alone filled him with dread.
He heard Junstan fall to the ground behind him.The hairs on the back of Yuan’s neck rose. “Junstan, what is it?”
Tears flowed down Junstan’s cheeks as he cried freely. “It’s too much to see. We’ll die. We’re all dead!”
As much as Yuan wanted to dislike Junstan, he regretted bringing him this far. No one deserved to suffer like this. “Come on, let’s get out of here. Can you walk?”
Junstan nodded weakly. “If it’s away from here.”
Yuan helped him to his feet. Together they retraced their path down the hill.
No sooner than Junstan had regained enough strength to walk on his own, he cried out. “Stop!”
Yuan nearly jumped out of his skin. “What is it?”
Junstan scanned the forest in dismay. “It’s moving up the hill fast. We’re cut off!”
Yuan shook his head. None of the trees seemed wilted or sick yet. “I don’t see anything.”
“That’s the problem! You’ve never been able to see anything!” Junstan ducked as if dodging a blow. “Run!”
Yuan dashed up the hill with the feeling of something nipping at his heels. He had no idea what they would do when they reached the top. If Junstan was right, they were trapped. After minutes that felt like hours they reached the crest of the hill, both of them gasping for breath.
“There’s nowhere else to run! You did this! You’ve killed us both!”
“We’re not dead yet,” Yuan growled. “Be quiet and let me think.”
“Ancestor’s Light,” Junstan gasped. “It comes.” His eyes darted from tree to tree.
Yuan shook Junstan. “Where is it the thinnest?”
Junstan doubled over and retched.
“Where is it the thinnest?” Yuan yelled.
“There’s no chance. We’re dead.” Junstan collapsed to the ground in a heap.
Yuan thought he felt the blight coming like heavy air before a storm. Of its own volition, his gaze returned to the crater on the edge of where Juniper Lake had been. If the blight was spreading outward from there, it stood to reason the greatest concentrations would be at the outward fringe where everything was dying. Right?
He tugged on Junstan, but his unwilling companion had passed out. Growling low in his throat, Yuan heaved Junstan over his shoulder. At a reckless and burdened pace, he barreled down the hill, straight toward the crater where the blight had begun.
Laraki watched the two young men leave to scout the blight. She knew they represented her future. She would spend her life and her devotion on one or the other. She also knew her heart to be wild. A tear trailed down her cheek. Her unfettered desire ached for Yuan and his intensity, even though she knew grief would come of it. Was she crazy to trust him?
She pushed the selfish thoughts aside. She couldn’t let her father shoulder the entire weight of the village on his own. He needed her help. Faithfully, she remained by his side, handling what small burdens she could.
In the midst of the evacuation planning, Widow Helmslee approached and bowed reverently. “Elder Pashun, I haven’t seen my Brael for the last few hours.”
Pashun answered her politely. “I am sorry, Widow Helmslee. There are times when the Ascended leave our plane of existence.”
The widow shook her head. “Not my Brael. He’s stayed close by ever since he Ascended more than five years ago.”
As her father attempted to comfort the widow, Laraki pondered the matter. Brael had been the only villager to Ascend during her lifetime. Many had died. Only Brael had Ascended. While Laraki knew Ascension to be rare, she had no idea how many of her kindred had ascended before her time.
Most of the Ascended came and went at will, often passing down knowledge from hundreds of years before. The Ascended brought the village continuity and memory. She didn’t know any personally, but she had witnessed their interactions with loved ones many times. She caught the widow’s attention before she could leave. Bowing low, Laraki asked when Brael had first gone missing.
“It’s not as much when as how. I would have sworn when he left he was running away.” The widow teared up and Laraki comforted he while seeing her home. On the way back to the village center and to her father’s side, Laraki decided to visit her friend, Talia.
Talia’s young son often visited with an Ascended Great-Grandfather who came to check on his family. Laraki knocked loudly on the door.
“Come in!” Talia called. “Oh Laraki, it’s you! Is your brother any better?” She greeted Laraki without interrupting her preparations to leave the village. A chuffy toddler followed at her hip.
Laraki winced at the unwelcome reminder of her brother’s condition. “I left him sleeping peacefully. His aura seems to be returning.”
“I am glad to hear it. My Leron saw him come in to the village and is still shaken up about it.”
Laraki smiled wanly. “Talia, I wanted to ask you about something else. Have you seen your Ascended Grandfather recently?”
Talia stopped what she was doing. “It’s odd you should ask. He was here this morning, making little Taliron laugh.” She hefted her boy in her arms. “But then he left suddenly. I’ve never seen him leave like that before.”
“Was it… about the time Derrin returned to the village? About midday?”
Talia nodded. “Do you think there’s a connection?”
Laraki said, “There might be.”
“What does it mean?”
Laraki shrugged. “I wish I knew.”
After saying goodbye to Talia, Laraki returned to her father’s side to help as she could. She waited patiently as he attempted to assuage the villagers fears even while instructing them to prepare to leave their homes, possibly forever.
A breeze blew gently, stirring her hair and cooling her as it brought the smell of flowers. In happier times she would have followed the smell of the flowers until she found them and identified them, maybe even picked a few.
“And what is my daughter waiting so patiently to speak to me about?” Pashun asked.
Laraki looked around. Everyone had been sent away to prepare. She and her father were alone, a rarity. She beheld him for a long few seconds. He looked more tired than she had seen him in many years, maybe ever. “I think all the Ascended have fled from the blight.”
Pashun sat on the stump at the center of the village. “I think you are right.”
Few things he might have said would have surprised her, but that did. “How could you know?”
He massaged his forehead. “I didn’t really know until you asked the Widow Helmslee about the matter. I trust you found another to confirm your suspicions?”
“Yes, Talia’s grandfather.”
He sighed. “We can’t evacuate everyone until tomorrow morning. Even that soon will be difficult.”
“What about Yuan and Junstan?” Laraki asked, her voice breaking.
Pashun followed the path to Juniper Lake with his eyes. He shivered as if he could see the blight through the miles of forest. “Whether they return or not, we cannot risk the rest of our village. Not returning will confirm the blight to be even worse than we feared. If they do return, perhaps it will be with good news. Either way, we will prepare for the worst. Hiber must survive.”
She stood straight. “I will wait for them here, even if you must leave with the rest of the village.”
Her father exhaled long and slow. But in the end, he smiled. “You remind me of your mother when you talk like that. She would have waited for me.”
Laraki missed her mother. Mention of her brought a fresh mixture of joy and grief to the surface. Her mother had been from the village of Nash. She asked, “Will you take us to Nash?”
Her father nodded. “It is in the right direction; away from the blight. We have relatives among them. They will help us, and we will warn them at the same time.”
Shocked, Laraki had not considered the blight would press so far. “How big do you expect the blight to grow?”
“I hope it will die out soon of its own accord. I plan for the worst. I try not to expect anything when dealing with the unknown.” He rubbed his eyes. “How long has it been since you checked on your brother?”
Laraki glanced at the sun. “Not long. I’ll go now.”
“I’ll come with you.”
He took her arm and they walked the short distance home together. He opened the door, bowed, and waved her in. She smiled, bowed in return, and stepped through the door he held for her. Then she began to scream. And scream. And scream.
Yuan slid as much as walked down the steep hill. Multiple times, he even sat in effort to keep their combined weight from tipping too far forward. And Junstan weighed a lot.
Halfway down, they crossed the transition zone; one moment in green trees and the next in blackened, rotting stumps. Black dust like ash rose with each footfall. It coated his skin and invaded his lungs. Yuan cringed at every sound, whether a whisper of the wind or cracking of the crusted earth. His paranoia grew with each breath, as if the blight pervaded him from within.
He had to focus his thoughts on something, anything to keep down the panic. He found himself wondering what it would be like to become infected. Would he know? Had he already succumbed? And what of Junstan?
The memory of the rabbits surfaced in his mind. Could a human lose his mind so completely he would try to eat another? Could Junstan? Could he? He didn’t think so. Derrin, on the other hand, had seemed more disturbed.
Yuan dropped Junstan in a puff of black dust. Laraki. His protectiveness of Laraki took over his body, and he began to run toward the village to warn her—forgetting about Junstan, forgetting about himself, forgetting he was still in the midst of the blight.
He only took a few steps before coming to himself and stopping. Leaving Junstan would be the same as killing him. Yuan groaned out loud. He clenched his fists in frustration as he fought the desire to run madly back to the village. Laraki wasn’t alone. Her father would protect her, wouldn’t he? Could he?
“Light of my ancestors!” he swore. Finally, he picked up Junstan and trotted as fast as he could. The base of the hill touched the lake and he found himself slipping in mud. It clung to his legs and sucked at his boots. But he continued to slog forward at a determined pace.
No living things remained within the desolation of the blight. Not even a fly buzzed. He wondered what he would see if he could see auras. Maybe there was nothing—it had all moved on like he hoped. Or perhaps he was the only living thing blind enough, therefore stupid enough, to court death.
At the end of what used to be the lake, he staggered onto firm ground with relief. He set Junstan down and collapsed onto all fours. He drew in great ragged breaths while fighting off the urge to retch. Drenched in cold sweat and trembling, he regained his feet after several seconds of trying.
That was when he saw the crater, only yards away. Curiosity seized him. He had to know what had fallen from the sky. What had brought the blight?
Leaving Junstan where he lay, Yuan slowly approached the crater. Huge gouts of dust and mud had splayed out from the impact. One end of the crater had washed away as water had poured in from the lake. Where had all the water gone?
Noises emanated from the crater, like small clicks and clacks. He crouched low, then crawled the last few feet on hands and knees. He hesitated just shy of the lip of the crater. What was he doing? He battled internally. This is crazy. Just another foot.
A rock hit him in the back. He whipped around to see Junstan waving both arms wildly.
The single word triggered a coil inside Yuan, and he ran.
Junstan staggered on his feet. Yuan caught Junstan under the arm and shouldered his weight, barely slowing down. “Faster!” Junstan squeaked as he glanced over his shoulder.
Yuan didn’t bother to look. He knew he wouldn’t see anything, and he didn’t want to waste the energy trying.
Yuan’s breathing grew more strained. The black dusty residue left in the wake of the blight covered them both from head to toe, inside and out. He couldn’t keep going forever, not with Junstan in tow. Junstan looked worse than Yuan felt. The thought occurred to Yuan, he might still escape, alone.
Junstan staggered and fell, dragging Yuan to the ground with him. Yuan swore while picking himself up. He kicked Junstan in the side. “Get up.” Yuan blinked and shook his head until the world stopped spinning. Finally he realized Junstan had passed out again. What now?
A menace thickened in the air. The hair on the back of Yuan’s neck tingled. Slowly, he rotated his head. He couldn’t see anything other than the ashy landscape. Pressure grew within his eardrums as if a storm were about to break all around. Unseen forces pushed and pulled at him, whispering of death and decay.
“Enough!” Yuan screamed into the emptiness that was the Blight, one fist raised high.
A sound, almost like thunder in the distance hissed in response then disappeared suddenly, leaving him wondering if he had heard anything at all.
Rain fell softly, each drop raising puffs of dust. Yuan looked up into the cloud-filled sky, stumped as to when the clouds had appeared or where they’d come from. All he knew was his breath came easier. The feeling of menace dissipated as the ash settled. He knelt by Junstan and slapped him lightly on the cheek. Nothing. Begrudgingly, Yuan heaved him over his shoulders and continued toward the village.
After what seemed like hours, Yuan reached the edge of the blight. Rain and sweat dripped off his nose and transformed his clothing to mud hanging from his body. Thirst plagued him. By the time he found the trail that led to the village he had resigned himself to carrying Junstan the entire way. At least he had the shelter of the trees, many of them wilted but still living.
“Put me down.”
Yuan stumbled, and Junstan rolled off his shoulders in a heap.
“Are we… still… in the blight?” Junstan sat up and strained to focus his eyes.
“I don’t think so. What do you see?”
Junstan stood up, leaned weakly against a tree and looked around. “Nothing… out of the ordinary. Did the rain stop the blight?”
Yuan shrugged. “I don’t know. It seems to have helped. I haven’t seen or felt anything unusual since it started.” Rain dripped from a branch. Yuan opened his mouth and savored the taste of the water. After a deep breath he started walking.
“Wait! I need to rest a moment more.”
Yuan shook his head. “You’ll have to catch up. I fear for Laraki.”
“Her father is there.”
Yuan began a slow dogtrot that would get him to the village as quickly as his weariness would allow. He spoke over his shoulder. “Her father doesn’t know about the rabbits.”
When Yuan reached the village, he saw Bergan and a few of his apprentices standing in front of Laraki’s house like guards. A small crowd stood nearby, despite the rain. They let Yuan pass without a sound. Their eery silence filled him with dread.
Bergan held up a hand, signaling him to stop. “You don’t need to see what’s in there, Yuan.”
Yuan shoved past him and threw open the door. Less than five feet away, Derrin dangled from a rafter, a rope around his neck, his feet dangling above the floor. Yuan gagged, but remained long enough to scan the room. No one else was in the home.
“Where is she?” Yuan shut the door behind him. “Where’s Laraki?”
“She and Pashun are at your father’s home, waiting for you,” Bergan replied stiffly.
Yuan shot him a quizzical look.
Bergan softened. “Go, they will explain.”
As Yuan turned to leave, Junstan staggered in from the forest. Yuan ignored him while mustering the last of his strength to sprint home. So much had happened this day already. Too much. How much more could there be?
Exhausted in every way, Yuan reached his home. He leaned on the knob as he opened the door. Laraki sat on the floor in the center of the room, weeping. Her hair draped over her face. Pashun waited nearby.
Yuan opened his mouth to speak, but his dry throat cracked and nothing came out.
Laraki sensed his arrival all the same. She leapt to her feet and hugged him, still crying.
He held her in silence before whispering in her ear. “I’m so sorry, Laraki.”
She leaned back far enough to look him in the eyes. “That’s not all, Yuan. Your father is passing.”
Yuan looked past Laraki to where his father lie in bed.
“She couldn’t stay at our home after…” Pashun’s voice faltered. “And she wanted to be here, to be with your father.”
Yuan knelt by his father’s bed. “Did something happen?”
Aita smiled weakly. “I am sorry, my son. My time has come.”
“Were you hurt, Father? I should have stayed to protect you.”
Aita shook his head. “No, Yuan. It is simply my time. I’ve known it was coming for many days but… I guess it surprises us all when it… happens.”
“How long?” Yuan asked while trying not to think of a world without his father.
“Hours at most. I had asked Pashun to give me my funeral rites, but… you came back. I want you to do it.”
Tears sprang to Yuan’s eyes. “I can’t see your aura, Father. I can’t do the rites.”
“You’ll do fine.” Aita closed his eyes and smiled.
Pashun bowed to Yuan, displaying the bow of deepest respect and catching Yuan off guard. “Please forgive me for asking at a time like this, but for the sake of the whole village I must know what you’ve learned of the blight. How far away is it?”
Drying his eyes, Yuan flipped a switch inside himself, reengaging the standard discipline he used when communicating with anyone other than Laraki or his father. “A few miles. Its expanse seemed to stop with the rain.”
“Is it possible the rain killed it off?”
Yuan shrugged. “Maybe. Either way, Junstan and I walked right through it unaffected. Well, I walked through it. Junstan road upon my shoulders most of the way.”
“And Junstan? Is he now in his right mind as you are?”
“As far as I know. I saw him walking of his own on my way here. Of course he could see the auras when I could not. The blight had a greater effect on him.”
Pashun nodded. “You give me hope, Yuan. We will take care of the things we need to do before we make any more decisions for the village.”
Laraki joined Yuan beside his father’s bed. Yuan asked, “What of Derrin?”
“Bergan and his apprentices will take him to the burial ground.” Pashun walked to the door. “There are many who will wish to accompany your father there. I will go and bring them.”
“Now? Right now?” Yuan asked.
Pashun nodded and left without another word.
“It is… okay, my son.” Aita placed a weak hand on Yuan’s head. “Death is part of life. I will soon see your mother again.”
Yuan held his father’s hand until the old man seemed to drift into a light sleep. Yuan stood and walked to the door. He opened it to watch the rain. Laraki stood by his side, quietly holding his hand. He turned to her, “What of the rites for your brother?”
Fresh tears appeared in her eyes. “He had no aura, and he died when he… he…”
“I know.” Yuan gathered her in his arms and let the sound of the rain ease their grief.
The funeral procession made its way up the hill to the burial grounds. The rain had ceased. Yuan followed the six bearers as they carried his father. Laraki walked beside him, assuming the role typically reserved for a wife. He couldn’t turn her away, not when she experienced such fresh grief herself. Her presence only intensified his desire to be normal—to provide for her what she deserved, a whole husband.
She tried to smile through her tears, but he knew his father’s passing would always be marred in her memory.
His heart jumped in his throat as he struggled to contain his emotions.
The procession topped the hill and wound among trees until they reached two stones. Larger than a house and originally a single block, the two rocks had been split and weathered by nature long ago. Now they served as gates. The path between them was well worn by the passage of those who cared for the dead. Beyond them lay a cave where the bodies of everyone who passed in the village were interred.
The bearers laid the bier on the ground and motioned for Yuan to come forward. He knelt in the mud by his father. Aita cracked his filmy eyes open and struggled to speak. He smiled weakly and whispered, “It will be okay.”
Tears burst from Yuan’s eyes as he took his father’s hand. He couldn’t refuse his father’s request, and he couldn’t allow him to see his doubt.
All of the people of the village who had accompanied them joined hands and formed a circle around Yuan and his father. Pashun stepped forward and whispered into Yuan’s ear. “His aura is leaving his body. You must perform the ritual now.”
Unable to stop the tears, Yuan took his father’s hands in his own. He breathed deeply and willed his heart to slow. “Just this once,” he whispered fiercely to himself, “allow me to see the aura.”
His father squeezed his hands and closed his eyes as his body went limp. Yuan let his father’s hands slip away from his own. He panicked. He saw nothing. There was no way to direct the essence escaping his father’s body. His father’s memories and knowledge would be lost forever.
He held his hands over his father’s body and tried blindly to direct the escaping aura like he had seen others do. “Aita, my father, I see you.” His voice cracked and faltered as he waved his hands, trying to gather the aura. Surprised looks of those in the circle revealed he was doing it wrong. Anger and frustration filled him to the point of despair. This tragedy would be one final proof of his defectiveness.
“You will be remembered.” His voice broke again as he spoke words he knew to be lies. He made the motions with his hands as if gently spreading his father’s essence towards the people in the circle.
“Those you leave behind…” He couldn’t say it. The worst part of this charade was that his father’s memories and experiences would be lost. Not only would his father pass, he would be dead forever. The shocked whispers of the mourners pierced his back as he dropped his head in shame.
Soft hands grasped his. He looked up. Laraki crouched at his side, directing his hands. How could she do this for him when her own brother was lost?
She spoke the rites. “Those you leave behind will forever be grateful to you for your memories and strength that you share.” Her hands swept the air around him, leading his hands to gather in his father’s essence and then toss it to the mourners in the circle.
Yuan closed his eyes and wept. He joined his voice to hers as she said, “Go now, Aita, in peace. I see you no more but remember you forever.”
Directed by Laraki, he swept the air a final time and held both his hands over his chest. Although he couldn’t see the aura, he felt the warmth of his father’s smile enter his heart. He bowed his head.
Laraki stiffened next to him. “He’s Ascending Yuan, he’s Ascending!”
All the people in the circle stood silent with awe, their eyes locked on a point just above their heads.
Yuan asked Laraki, “What is it? What’s happening?”
“Your father. His aura was strong enough that he endures beyond death. He is waving to us, smiling. He is one of the Ascended now.”
Yuan envied the excitement in her voice. The air still smelt like rain. He watched the people around him as their eyes lifted higher and higher, following his father’s essence upwards. He could see nothing.
The people surrounding him gave a collective gasp before scattering into the forest.
“What is it?” Yuan asked. “Laraki! What’s happening?”
Terror filled her eyes. Fresh tears flowed down her cheeks. “Derrin attacked him.”
“What? Derrin’s dead. His aura—”
“He drove your father away! He comes for me!” She screamed and clung to Yuan.
He wrapped his arms around her instinctively. “Enough!”
END of Episode 1
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