Last Edited: Nov 18 2016
Tasuneke woke to the hopping finches chirping in the treetops above, as they always did in the early hours of the morning. The sun peeked through his hut, a few lucky beams skirting narrowly past all manner of obstacles to light up the small hut he slept in. He rubbed the dreams out of his eyes, grinning as he gained consciousness.
It would be a big day for Tasuneke, for today was the Dawn of Night, the first day of Stargaze. It was when the village celebrated the beginning of a new year. This year, however, was his fifteenth, and he would be named an adult today.
Rising to his feet, he pulled some clothes on as he prepared for the day. The ceremony wasn’t until tonight, yet he was already scrambling over himself with anticipation. He had no time to waste, however. This was no day for rest on anyone’s part, and even children had responsibilities, and he had the energy to run to the ends of the world today.
“Good morning, Tasune,” a woman carrying a basket smiled at him as he ran past. “Happy Dawn of Night to you.”
“Happy Dawn of Night, Malayah!” he called back, waving an arm. Malayah was one of the few people that went out of her way to be kind to Tasuneke. On a normal day, he would take the time to stop and chat with her, but today was special. She would understand.
The interlacing shadow of the dome of vines that encased his village cascaded on the grass below him. He was fond of the patterns it made on the ground, and in his childhood he would jump across the sunlit spots, pretending Cedrine would curse his family if he set foot in the shadow. But he was too old for such games now.
As he ran between the fields of crops, he saw the farmers gather on one side of the aisles. When he realized that he woke up early enough to witness the daily watering, he slowed his step. He could probably spare a minute.
He was too far to make out any faces, though doubtless he knew most of them. They would all have the pointed three lines tattooed on their forehead that signified their identity as a farmer. Tasuneke palmed his own forehead. It would not be bare for much longer.
The men placed staves in the ground, and immediately he focused his attention back to the farmers. After a few more moments of preparation, they all simultaneously channeled their power. Founts of water blasted out of the staves, showering the tilled land. The water had no apparent beginning. They didn’t heat ice or cool steam. It simply began where the staves ended. That was what was so fascinating to Tasuneke.
He was Cedrian by birth, but he never understood their system of magic. His attentions had been focused elsewhere, so even when he tried to study how the Cedrian style of magic worked, it simply didn’t make any sense. He had once tried to carve a totem himself and cast his energy through it just as these farmers were doing now, but it didn’t work. He couldn’t satisfy himself with his own style of magic, either, because he had been forbidden from forging his own blade, as was the way for the blood of Aluvalia.
His was the family line of the Tenders. They were critical to the life of Cedria’s vine dome cities. They were the security, the curators, and peacemakers of everyone else, and though very few of them had ever set foot in the country of their ancestors, they were never quite considered Cedrian.
The water spouts ceased, and the first row of farmers relaxed. Upheaving their staves from the ground, they were replaced by a second line of them, who planted their own tools in the ground and resumed with another wave of magic. It was amazing. Something so simple that dozens of people were doing this with practiced ease, and yet Tasuneke would never in his life be able to grasp the concept of how magic was conducted using totems. Every magic style was different, of course, and nobody in the world could learn a second one after they knew the first, but that made it all the more fascinating.
But, he had tarried here long enough. He still had to tell his mother he was awake, and after that he had to find Tulu, provided she let him leave the village today. So, having seen what he wanted to, he kept on his way.
Past the fields stood the Temple of Whispers. It was traditionally the only structure of a village that was made with stone. Attached to the side of the temple was the forge, the gathering place and home of the Tenders. He heard the sound of work inside as he approached, as well he should. Pushing past the hide flaps, he entered, beaming, to see his mother and two other Tenders working at grindstones, sharpening their trim-blades as they sat upon their wooden stools. He glanced at each of their foreheads, marveling at the curved vine tattoos. He would bear one like it by this time tomorrow.
“Good morning, Tasune,” his mother called over the grindstones, not looking up from her work. “Brimming with energy today, I see.”
“Yes, mother. Happy Dawn of Night. Happy Dawn of Night friends,” he nodded to the other two Tenders, who smiled back at him. “I wanted to take a faespawn outside the village to find some coal nuts for the ceremony tonight.”
She glanced up at him, turning the blade over to sharpen the other side. “Have you been to the grocer and taken our food for the week?”
“Mother, I told you I hate going over there,” he complained. “He always wants to talk about his tattoos and how much more interesting his life was when he was young.”
“Nashoba is a kind man, and I do not care much for your patronizing tone. You may go looking for coal nuts, but only after you speak to him.”
He sighed. “Yes, mother. May I leave?”
“Pour some more water on our grindstones before you do.”
“But you can just use magic to conjure water!”
“Tasuneke you are no man yet and I am through with your attitude,” she spat. “I have told you many times past that using the stars’ power is a privilege and not to be taken lightly. If we use magic any time a task is inconvenient we would lose ourselves. Pour the water or by Cedrine’s mercy grocery running will be the least of your worries.”
At that, Tasuneke scrambled to get the water bucket. Being scolded by his mother in front of the men who would be his peers by the end of the day was humiliating, but he managed to dampen the stones without finding himself in further trouble. When he was finished, his mother nodded silently as he moved to the building’s flap, so he left with as much haste as possible.
There was no reason to hasten to the grocer now. Tasuneke could find all the coal nuts he needed and be back before long. His next task then, was to go to the faespawn roost and find Tulu, his favorite. He quickened his pace, his excitement no longer containable.
The faespawn roost was just outside of the village, but instead of the opening in the vines that the Tenders guarded, one had to pass through a tunnel of overarching vines. Really, it was simply a smaller dome. Vines grew over cities because they wove over the magical atmosphere like a big rock, so in order to create tunnels using the vines the Tenders made pylons of magical energy to create these atmospheres. As he passed through the tunnel, he tapped the trim-blade buried in stone, thrumming quietly as it observed him from its perch. Aluvalian magic, not Cedrian.
Soon, he heard the chirping of the faespawn. They were dull, short calls rather than the songs of typical birds. Their roost had at over a dozen, enough to warrant a nest outside of the village proper. Most people found their calls to be quite obnoxious. Tasuneke, though, was fond of the birds. They were different. They were small blue flightless things, but had colorful wings they could at least use to jump up onto branches. They loved coal nuts, which was their primary use, but beyond that there wasn’t much to like. He identified with that. Few properly respected the ways of the Tenders, who sometimes were assigned the less than cordial duties.
One of these unpleasant tasks was watching and feeding the faespawn. Today that unfortunate responsibility fell upon Abeytuu, a girl not much older than himself, barely a full Tender. She was rushing about the roost trying to feed ones that hadn’t eaten while keeping away the ones that had. Evidently this wasn’t working as intended. They were leaping up to outstretching vines that breached the magic barrier, grasping onto them as perches as they stared intently at her, waiting to prey on the bird that was unlucky enough to get fed next.
“Good morning, Abeytuu!” he called over the cries and fluttering of the birds. The girl jumped in surprise, and in her shock tripped over one of the birds, scattering the seed all over the ground. The faespawn swarmed it, the girl already forgotten in their frenzy to engorge themselves.
Brushing herself off, she turned to address him. “Good morning, Tasune,” she grumbled back, looking mournful at the failure of her task.
“I’m sorry for startling you,” he said. “I came to borrow a faespawn. I’m getting my coal nuts today!” he shook his fist enthusiasm.
“You turn fifteen this year?” she asked, lightening up a little. “Exciting. You can finally start looking for a girl, then,” she nudged him with her elbow, winking.
Tasuneke blushed. “I’m more excited about forging my trim-blade. Anyway, I need to hurry. Mother wants me to do all the usual stuff today, so I don’t have time to relax. Can I have Tulu?”
“Him?” she gestured with her head, indicating a spry bird with a notched beak, poking at some of the feed. “Are you sure? He’s not trained very well.”
“Yeah! Mother said Tulu is about as old as I am in faespawn years!”
“Alright, if you want to make things harder for yourself, but I’ll have to give you a coal nut charm. Something that makes him listen to you.”
“Sure,” he nodded. She left to one of the opposite sides of the small dome, opening up a wooden box and pulling out a small pouch before closing the box again. She offered him the pouch when she returned.
“Don’t open this until you’re back in the village, otherwise the other birds will flock after you over it. I’ll grab Tulu and you can carry him with you.”
Tasuneke nodded again and did as he was told. The charm was kept neatly in its pouch as he held the little bird with both hands, thanking Abeytuu for her help before leaving through the tunnel he came from. When he got back to the village, he opened the pouch and the bird cawed intently at the charm inside, trying to grab for it and jumping over and behind him repeatedly. This one bird alone was a handful. Suddenly he admired Abeytuu’s willpower at bearing these things all day.
Pulling the charm over one wrist, he somehow managed to get the bird to calm down. “Okay, Tulu. We’ll get you some coal nuts. It’s going to be a big day for both of us. We’re going to get the most coal nuts anyone has ever seen from one trip!”
The forest of Cedria was an impossibility. The sun shone through the leaves in the canopy above, cascading through the golden branches and trunks with flowing streams of light. It stretched out to infinity, extending up and down gentle, mossy hills in the same way in all directions. One could easily get lost in the forest of Cedria, if not for the road Tasuneke stood upon. The breeze strode lazily down the hill ahead of him, whispering an amiable summons to venture forth and explore. He looked back to the dome his village sat beneath, still only a few yards away.
He had left home once before with his mother, years ago when he was a child. Then, his mother had to explicitly forbid him from climbing up the vines that cocooned the town. While they were sturdy enough to support the weight of a child, that strength would not hold a perturbed mother climbing after it. It often took the Tenders weeks to mend a hole in the vines made in such a way, and could be a real nuisance to fix, depending on where the breach occurred. He idly wondered whether the vines would snap under his current weight.
But no, he had a job to do. Coal nuts weren’t easy to find. They only grew on red starfall trees, and the common linkroots of the forest made seeing more than a hundred yards in any direction difficult. The red starfall trees were sacred to his people, and while his success was ultimately determined by his acquisition of the nuts, finding the tree and returning home safely would prove challenge enough.
Tulu sat patiently on his shoulder, a marvel he couldn’t have explained. It wasn’t even grasping at his wristband anymore, but instead seemed to be just as entranced by the majesty of the forest as he was. “Come on, Tulu. We’re both going to prove our worth!” And with that, he took off at a run down the road…
Sunset was fast approaching. He had searched all around, climbing hills and even a few trees in search of the tinge of red that supposedly contrasted the rest of the forest immensely. He had been off the road a few times, but wherever he went, he was careful to keep either the dome of vines or the clear dirt path within sight. The forest floor was covered in moss and vines, so one had to keep eyes focused on the ground in order to avoid tripping.
The excitement and adventure of this quest had long since worn off. He was excited to find the tree and finish his mission, but he had to get home before it got dark, and he dared not return without his prize. It wasn’t forbidden, but without the coal nuts he could not become a man that year. Staring at the twisting vines stretching around him, he palmed his forehead, thinking about how its nakedness marked him as a child. He could not bare the shame of that another year.
“You look to the ground when your eyes should gaze upon the stars, young one,” the forest seemed to whisper. Tulu squawked in agreement.
“I don’t know how we’re going to find the red starfall, Tulu,” Tasuneke said. “It will only get darker and you haven’t seemed to pick up on any nearby coal nuts.”
“Two wanderers seeking red in a golden wood,” cooed the breeze. “But which of these wanderers is the guide?”
It was impossible to tell whether the words came from his own mind or not. Cedria’s forest was not without its dangers, and Tasuneke was not ignorant of that. “If someone is there then show yourself! If you mean me harm, I warn you I bear the blood of ice and steel in my veins!”
“A Tender now walks the Path, then,” the forest replied. “Tarry not, traveler. The Glade of Red awaits.”
“I don’t know where I’m going! I’ve been searching for hours with no luck! Please, forest, help me find my way.”
The forest didn’t reply immediately. The breeze wafted through the branches, strolling through the woods and scattering a few leaves as it paced.
“You look to the ground when your eyes should gaze upon the stars,” it finally repeated. “The Dawn of Night comes. Tread quickly.”
And with that, the forest seemed to still. The wind settled, leaving Tasuneke to think upon the whispers of the forest. He looked up to the leaves. Gaze upon the stars, he thought to himself.
He walked over to a likely tree, and sucked in a deep breath as he sized it up. Tulu, anticipating what he was about to do, jumped off and landed on a vine nearby. Then, taking a few steps back, he charged. Using his momentum to carry him up, he placed a foot on the trunk and heaved himself up, leaping high and grabbing a branch above. Pulling himself up, he threw a leg over and took a moment to adjust himself to sit comfortably.
Looking back down, he noticed the little faespawn waddle off a ways. Tasuneke was about to say something to the bird, but when it found a lot hanging branch it hopped atop it, then slowly made its way towards him, leaping from branch to branch across trees. The faespawn couldn’t fly, but they used their wings to give them better height and distance in their hops. Soon Tulu found itself on the same branch the boy sat on, waiting expectantly for him to continue.
The two resumed their ascension. Around the trunk, onto higher and higher branches. Tasuneke had to be careful, for linkroot trees weren’t particularly thick and sturdy. He had to keep near the trunk, lest the branch he was on snap under his weight. Even now, as high up as he was, he felt the tree groan and sag beneath him. Falling now could seriously injure him, but he couldn’t stop now. He was among the leaves, and he had never seen open sky before.
Pushing past the foliage and through the top branches, he climbed up above the canopy. The orange warmth of the sky greeted him. Shadows were lengthening as the yellow disk of the sun sank beneath the Aluvalian mountain range far off in the distance. The golden majesty of the forest blended with that vast orange glow of the heavens, and the breeze danced through the trees, relaxed and comfortable in its domain.
Tulu squawked from behind him. Tasuneke turned to see the bird staring outwards.
Out there, contrasted against the yellow light of the linkroot leaves, was a splotch of blackish red. A tree unlike any of those around it in this forest. The red starfall, sitting on a small hill by itself. His search was at an end. Now all he had to do was get down and go over there.
Carefully setting foot on the branches below him, he made his way back down the linkroot, growing more comfortable as the tree grew more and more sturdy in support of his weight. When he was finally back on the forest floor, he brushed himself off and realized just how high up he had climbed. He smiled at the accomplishment.
“We’re almost done, Tulu,” he said as the bird leaped from the last branch onto his shoulder. “We’ve found our way! Starfall tree here we come!” He broke off at a run.
The sun had set, and it would be getting dark soon. The ceremony wouldn’t begin until he returned, as long as he returned before midnight. He still had time.
Rushing through the forest, leaping over root and branch, he twisted this way and that until he found he was no longer sure where he was. There was no way to be sure if he was even going the right way anymore. It all looked the same. Should he climb another tree? Should he backtrack until he found the tree he had climbed before?
While he was pondering this, Tulu hopped off his shoulder, craning its neck back and forth, bee-lining in a direction off to the side. The little blue creature had found something of interest at least, so he followed it. Watching the bird’s movements closely, he didn’t quite notice the linkroot trees growing more and more sparse. The bird started hopping across vines higher and higher up, making its way up a slight incline until a leaf fell in front of Tasuneke’s face, landing on his nose and obscuring his vision.
The leaf had an odd shape, as he noticed when he pulled it away. It wasn’t pointed and jagged like the leaves of a linkroot, but rather it made a single point, and was shaped very much like a small bowl. It was also a bright red on the underside of the leaf, while the inside of the bowl was a blackish color.
Tasuneke inclined his head upwards. He stood beneath the cover of a tree much larger and older than the ones so commonplace in Cedria. It’s trunk was easily ten feet thick, and it branched outwards rather than upwards, fracturing into a hundred streaks of black lightning under a red sky. The tree’s influence spread for fifteen yards in every direction, commanding an isolation that the surrounding trees had no choice but to obey. Growing out of some of the branches were the large bulbs of coal nuts. There were far more than he would be able to carry back, but were also far too high to reach.
“Welcome, young one,” a voice said. He turned his attention to the base of the tree. A man now stood there, though he could have sworn he was alone before. Tulu was perched on his forearm, entranced by the company of this newcomer. “You tread on sacred ground, the Glade of the Red Starfall. Be at peace.”
“I am keeper of this grove,” the man said. He wasn’t dressed in the leathers and pelts that most Cedrians wore on their day to day activities. Instead, he was clad in what almost looked like a suit of wooden armor. It fit his form perfectly, and he couldn’t see any links in the armor, which defied what little he knew of how plate was worn. What’s more, he couldn’t see much of his skin, but his face was covered in tattoos. He was too far away to read them all, and indeed some of them he couldn’t even recognize, but on his forehead, the tattoos of identity read ‘Spirit’, ‘Forest’, and ‘Speaker’.
“You can’t be,” the boy drew in a sharp gasp, almost too scared to breathe. “The Whispers of the Forest,” he murmured. “The founder of Cedria. Lord Archon Cedrine!” As he spoke that last honorific he dropped to his knees, bowing as low as he physically could.
“Your respect is falsely won, young Tender.” The man smiled, a warm, gentle sign of respect. “Bow not to a man that has not earned your love.”
“But you’re the King of the Forest! The Walker of Two Paths!” Tasuneke stood tentatively, trying to muster the courage to stop trembling before the man. “You created the Xal Deer Sea during the Archon War! I dare not offend a god such as you.”
“Assuming I am the Archon Cedrine,” he pondered. “But why bow to me? I am not your god, and you are not a patron of Cedrine. You bear the blood of Aluvair, the Blizzard of the North.”
“It is a Tender’s duty to uphold the heritage of Aluvair while retaining the ways of Cedria, Lord Archon,” he replied, eyes to the ground.
“I admire your spirit, but it seems you have already forgotten the lesson I have taught you. Hold your head up. You do not speak to a god this day.”
Tasuneke inclined his head, only making eye contact after he was sure it would put him at no risk. “You aren’t Cedrine?”
“What is your name, child?”
“Tasuneke. What is yours? If I may ask,” he added hastily.
“Well, Tasuneke. You may call me Rell. Allow me to teach you your second lesson.” He lowered Tulu, moving the bird to flutter to the ground below. He walked towards the boy with slow but long, graceful strides, the bird left to wander where it wished. “Your people have a way of forgetting the past and repeating the mistakes without learning the lessons. The Archons were not gods. At least, not at first. They were all ordinary men and women. In their time, the word ‘Archon’ was simply used to describe a council member that advised the king.”
“But they reshaped the world to suit their needs,” he replied, trying his best not to sound contradictory. The two started pacing a leisurely stroll around the glade. There were no vines snaking their way through the grass here, unlike the wild of the surrounding thicket.
“And shape they did,” Rell nodded. “But such words can be interpreted in several ways. But it would probably be more accurate to say that they reshaped themselves to suit the world’s needs.”
“I don’t think I understand,” Tasuneke said, brow furrowed.
“So I see. Perhaps I should present it a different way. Suppose a father wants his son to be great.”
“All fathers want their sons to be great,” he countered.
“Patience, young one. This father wants his son to be great, and gives the boy a path to follow that leads to this greatness.” He spoke, and ahead of them the leaves parted as if blown by a gentle wind, creating a clear path ahead of them as they walked. “The boy, however, didn’t wish to walk this path. He enjoyed his independence, and though the life his father chose for him would be a favorable one, it was not the life he wished for himself.” He gestured to the boy, indicating that he wanted Tasuneke to respond.
“So it was a matter of deciding between what he wanted and what his father wanted.” At that, the man nodded. Tasuneke knew how Rell wished him to respond. “The boy should probably follow the path his father wants him to take. As his elder and a more experienced person, his father would know best.”
Rell smiled. “But what about the boy’s happiness?”
“His son could probably be happy doing what his father wanted, in the end. It is important to respect the wishes of your elders.”
“You seem to have forgotten that when you decided to search for coal nuts instead of speaking with Nashoba first.”
“What?” Tasuneke’s breath caught in his throat, his cheeks flushing red instantly. “How could you possibly know about that?”
“The forest hears many whispers,” Rell laughed. “But that is not my lesson to teach. But in our story, if the boy had chosen the life he desired, he would never have found happiness.”
“For scorning his father’s wishes, his father would have disowned his son and quite possibly locked him away. The boy knew this, so instead, he walked down the path his father laid in place for him.”
“So the boy couldn’t be happy either way? Where is the wisdom in that?”
“You will find that it is a rare circumstance indeed that you are given a choice between the right and wrong. More often you are forced to decide between the more favorable of two distasteful options. Regardless, this is what the son chose. And, in time,” he trailed off.
They came to the end of the path, where the leaves no longer parted for their travel. At the end, there was a sword pointing out of the ground. A trim-blade, Tasuneke realized as he got closer. The guide gestured to it, so he pulled it out if the ground, thrilled to finally know what one felt like in his hands. The sword was heavier than it appeared, so with both hands he twisted the handle as he had seen Tenders do it to pull the sword apart into two, conjoined at the center of the blade like a pair of shears. With another twist, he twisted his wrists again and the trim-blade became two separate blades altogether, just as it was supposed to. It would snap back together if he did it right, but for now the two swords felt comfortable in his hands. He turned back to Rell, who was now facing him, the path stretching out behind them. He noticed as well that the branches of the starfall tree hung low here, some coal nuts just out of reach. He could conceivably use the swords to cut some down, but Rell stood between him and his objective.
“In time, after a long and arduous journey, our boy found the power his father wanted of him. In gaining this power, he was faced with another choice. He could take revenge on his father for denying his son a happy life, he could use this power to make a difference in the world, or reject it and turn back the way he came empty-handed.”
“There is no right choice here, is there?” Tasuneke asked.
“But there is a best one,” Rell said, smiling.
He knew this would be a trick like last time. He had to come up with something unexpected. What had Rell said before? The Archons reshaped themselves to suit the world’s needs. How could he change himself to get what he wanted?
“Yes?” he asked, expectant.
“I came down this path in search of coal nuts. I could force the tree to bend to my will using the trim-blade, but I think that’s a bad idea. Instead, I’ll go a more gentle route and simply ask. May I have some coal nuts for the ceremony?”
Rell thought about that for a moment. He looked up to the trees and the nuts within the reach of an adult’s height, then back down to Tasuneke. Suddenly, he burst out laughing. The three nearest coal nuts suddenly broke from their stems, falling to the ground, but their descent slowed midair, and they floated towards the boy as the swords he held in his hands dissipated. Tasuneke took them in one arm, holding them to his chest.
“You may consider your second lesson taught, and your journey nearly complete. As your reward for choosing wisely, I should like to show you something. Tell me, do you know why your people call this the red starfall tree?” Tasuneke shook his head. The place started to darken, the sky illuminated by the sunset dimming and turning gray. Above him, the leaves of the starfall still shone red, but the spaces in between lost their color.
Then, he heard rain. The soft patter of droplets began to sprinkle to the floor, mostly absorbed by the shelter of the leaves. It rained in his village, of course, but most of the rain trailed down the vines. He had heard once that some villages had to build drainage ditches, but it he had never seen such a structure. Rell was behind him, and he extended an outstretched hand to him. In one palm, he held an open flame. He held it forward, indicating that Tasuneke should take it. Holding the coal nuts close, he tentatively held his free hand out. Rell placed the flame in it. It didn’t burn, and instead it filled him with a comforting warmth. He hadn’t seen a single totem on Rell’s person. If these things he could do were products of magic, it was unlike anything Tasuneke had ever heard of, but this was no time for questions.
The rain started pouring harder, and soon a black drop of water fell in front of him, the reflection of the fire glistening off it and making the drop resemble a shooting star. It was followed by another, then another. Eventually, the water the leaves above had collected became too much for them to bear, spilling out and sending dozens upon dozens of shooting stars down to the ground below. Several water drops landed in the fire he held, but it burned strong. They hit him on the head, too, but he didn’t mind. This was a sight unlike anything he had ever seen. He unconsciously drew in a breath at the spectacle of hundreds of rain drops showering his field of vision.
After some time, the rain slowed. Rell placed his hand over Tasuneke’s palms, snuffing the flame out with a blank expression. “The black of the starfall leaves stains the rainwater,” he explained.
“Thank you, Rell,” he replied, bowing low and nearly dropping the nuts he held in the crook of one arm. “I will remember the things you have taught me. I should go before it gets dark.” Then, he turned to go back the way he had come.
“You seem to be forgetting something,” Rell called after him. Tasuneke turned to see Tulu on his arm once again. “I apologize for my impedance,” he said to the bird, almost too quietly to hear. “You’ll be of more use on your next task. For now, you may have one as well.” With that, he grabbed another coal nut, with his free hand this time, and held it to the faespawn, who grabbed it in its beak before leaping onto the ground and strolling back to Tasuneke.
“Oh! I almost forgot!” he called. “Was that boy real?”
Rell glanced back up to him. “The boy? Oh, yes, quite real. In fact many people must walk that same path. But that boy I referred to specifically was one of the Archons.”
Tasuneke nearly dropped his load again in astonishment. Rell had said the Archons were real people, but it was just so hard to believe. “Was that the real Cedrine?”
“No, no,” he smiled. “But his name isn’t what is important. It is the path he walked that you should remember, Tasuneke. Go now, the sun fades, and the wind speaks to me of an approaching darkness. Make haste.”
Night had fallen by the time Tasuneke returned to his village. With an armful of coal nuts and Tulu on his shoulder, he strode through the vine threshold with confidence. Two of the Tenders were standing watch at each side, one male and one female, trim-blades sheathed and countenances amiable as they saw him.
“And he returns with bounty in tow!” the man, Kuruk, applauded.
“He bears the gait of a man now, brother,” the girl said, smiling. Her name was Winona.
“Indeed,” Kuruk nodded. “He’ll be our peer next time we see him.”
Tasuneke couldn’t help but blush under their scrutiny. But then he remembered blushing wasn’t masculine, so instead he kept walking straight and nodded a quick “Happy Dawn of Night” as he passed. By tradition, returning from the forest successful made you a man, but the ceremony took place for formality’s sake.
Down the main path of the village, he could see the dark silhouette of the Temple of Whispers, where the ceremony would take place. Moonlight shone through the vines down the path, twisting shadows outlining the huts and fields beyond. Torches were lit along the path, as well, with long poles carved into decorative patterns that danced in the flickering light of the fire. News spread quick of Tasuneke’s return, and the plaza in front of the Temple soon filled with townsolk, crowding ahead of the ring of torches.
As he approached, the outline of his mother appeared at the foot of the Temple, standing next to the village elder, Aranak, and behind the Brazier of Renewal. It sent chills down his spine to see the brazier filled with kindling. It would be his bonfire today.
This was the moment he had been waiting for all his life.
He stopped just as he entered the arc of townsfolk. With his mother and the elder ahead of him and the cold Brazier in between, everything stood still for a moment. As the murmurs died out, the playful flames of the surrounding torches became the only speaker among them, their nonsensical words snapping and growling at the boy. Soon he became worried that he had forgotten something. Was there a piece of the ceremony he had neglected to bring? Was he supposed to say the first words? What were the first words? Had he already condemned himself to embarrassment?
Just as he had begun to panic, Aranak spoke, staff in hand, with his wizened yet gruff tone. “We stand together to embrace the dawn of a new year, and to witness the rebirth of our kinsmen, Tasune, son of Serayla. Who now approaches the Brazier?”
“Tasune, son of Serayla,” Tasuneke replied.
“What burdens do you bring?”
“I bring with me the weight of my past,” he intoned.
“Do you come alone?”
“No, elder. Tulu, the faespawn guides my path.”
“Come forth, then.”
As Tasuneke approached, music began to play. Without turning, he heard the soft plucks of the harp open up the circle into the ceremony’s true beginning.
“The Dawn of Night brings a new year,” Aranak called to the crowd. “We embrace it now, under the guidance of our ancestors, the stars. Walker of Two Paths, King of the Forest, bring us wisdom in our journey through this life as we await to join you among the stars. Bring us also the power to invoke the rites of passage to our kinsmen. If he is worthy, give him the strength to bear the burdens of his past as he parts ways with them and becomes a new man. If he is not worthy, give him a peaceful journey on his way to you, and let his example not plague the minds and hearts of our people as we move forward.
“Tasune,” he addressed the boy.
“Yes, elder.” He stood, frozen, as if Cedrine would strike him down if he made any false moves.”
“Are you ready to face the rites of passage?”
Tasuneke nodded. “I am ready.”
Aranak stepped forward. “Your coal nuts,” he stated, hand outstretched. He placed them, one by one, in the elder’s palm, and one by one Aranak placed them on a small table near the unlit Brazier.
His mother unsheathed her trim-blade. Her countenance throughout had remained resolute. Tasuneke would have to be strong, so perhaps this was her way of encouraging him. Anyone that uttered any cry of pain during the process had to be executed. He had witnessed this dozens of times, and only once had he ever seen somebody fail. He was only a child then, but even he remembered the sorrow in everyone’s hearts that day.
Once the coal nuts were removed from his person, Aranak pulled the charm bracelet off, and Tulu leaped off Tasuneke’s shoulder to the ground below. He began pecking at the nuts to make them easier to open.
As everything was settled, his mother began to sign with the tune of the harp.
“Over gentle hills, under lofty trees
Under vines of shelter and stars of night
With days of old escaping in the breeze
And days to come arriving in moonlight”
She raised the sword to Tasuneke’s face, and her eyes were filled with every emotion from worry to praise to hope. He clenched his fist and tried desperately not to reveal any of his own fear. The song continued, and as she sang, the rest of the townspeople joined in.
“As our kinsmen brings forth his burden,” Aranak called. “Let him bear the marks of his identity upon his brow.” He cracked open one of the nuts as Serayla cut into him. It wasn’t
a deep wound, but he felt his nails digging into his palms as he tried to hold still. Aranak drove his staff into the ground and summoned up a gout of flame, setting the brazier alight with a sudden and intense heat. It roared into life, ready to feast on anything that drew too near. With one hand, Aranak placed a thumb into the open coal nut. When Tasuneke’s wound was complete, his mother stepped away. The elder pushed his stained thumb onto his forehead, the blood trailing down his nose serving as another suitable distraction for this new pain. He thought about how he would be forging his own blade soon, with the help of his mother. This pain would be forgotten by tomorrow morning.
“No longer will you be called Tasune the child of Serayla. I give to you the markings of a Tender. You will act as caretaker of our village. You will act as peacemaker for any troubles that may arise. You will act as a teacher for generations to come in Cedrian and Aluvalian custom. You are now called Tasuneke, Tender of Cedria. I bathe your brow in flame so that none may forget your new title.”
And with that, he pulled Tasuneke into the brazier, so close that he was afraid he may fall in. The fire consumed him with a new pain. Tears mixed with blood, only to fizzle away as they dripped from his chin into the inferno below. Eyes squeezed shut, he gathered all the willpower he could muster in remaining silent, for to cry out would mean death. Even through his eyelids he could see the flames dancing about, tasting his flesh. It was agonizing. Any longer and he would–
He was pulled from the Brazier, and he gasped at the fresh air. The heat still throbbed against his head, but it was at least bearable now. He touched a hand to his forehead. there was nothing to feel, of course, but he knew the dark markings of his identity would be there.
At that same moment, the earth shuddered. It felt as though the world itself had suddenly exhaled a long breath, heaving people forward and back. The gathering of people staggered, some even falling over. Tasuneke had managed to remain standing, as had Aranak, who was still grasping him by the neck.
The shaking stopped after a time, but somehow the discomfort intensified. Something malevolent had just transpired, and its air lingered.
“The King of the Forest has spoken!” somebody in the crowd yelled. “His scorn for the boy is clear!”
Tasuneke froze. What was that supposed to mean?
“He poses a threat!” another voice called. A woman standing plainly in the light of the bonfire.
“Now, now,” Aranak stated, addressing his people. “Let us not hasten to an unfavorable conclusion.”
“Aluvalian magic doesn’t belong here, elder! It’s unnatural and has corrupted our lands!” The crowd was growing restless now. Their apprehension had been turned to fear, and that fear had found a target.
“Hold on!” Serayla bellowed, taking position in front of Tasuneke. Her sword was still bare. “We have lived among you for generations! What grounds have you to blame the Tenders for the earth shaking?”
“It is the voice of Cedrine!” a man replied. “You would eat of his crops
and sleep on his land, yet cast aside his distress? Your blasphemy is no longer welcome here!”
Suddenly, Tasuneke realized that all of the Tenders in the crowd had somehow disappeared. Whether they had fled once the cloud of darkness encroached or he simply couldn’t see them behind the faces of anger and fear, he couldn’t tell. Whatever the case, he was scared now.
Were they right? Did Cedrine hate him? Cedria was the only home he had ever known. Rell certainly didn’t seem to hate him, but the man had also made it clear that he didn’t speak for the Archon. What was he?
“Tasuneke,” his mother said to him, voice low. Hearing his full name aloud for the first time filled him with a sense of pride, but it was quickly dispelled as he noticed her demeanor. She stood with her back to him, staring at the agitated townspeople, watching carefully for any threat.
“I’m afraid we are no longer welcome here.”
“But this is our home as much as it is theirs!” he protested.
“I know,” she replied, still calm. “You are a man now, and have the tattoos to prove it. I’m sorry, but I don’t think you’ll be able to forge your blade tonight.”
“So what do we do?”
“I think we–”
Just then, the talking and shouting was interrupted by an agonized wail, some distance away but definitely still in the village. The crowd once again fell silent.
“Let us through!” Serayla yelled. The crowd was too stunned to refute her command. They parted cautiously, eyes wide. Tasuneke and his mother walked through, and nobody made any move or sound to stop them. His mother still had her sword out, and none dared oppose a Tender under high alert.
A figure was running down the dirt path at full speed from the village gates. As the torches illuminated her form, Tasuneke recognized Winona, the girl that was serving guard duty today with her brother. Even with the red tinge of the fire, her face was pale.
“It’s Kuruk!” she panted, talking to Serayla. “I don’t know what happened. It’s the vines! They started moving after the ground shook! Kuruk all of a sudden just screamed and turned blue and… and…” she slumped to the ground, tears now unrestrained as she conveyed her message to the senior Tender.
“The vines? I need more than that! Winona you…” But just then, she noticed the shadows of the vines scattered across the path were moving, twisting and contorting. They looked up to see the dome of vines writhing and, somehow, growing larger. As they stood there, the filtered moonlight was dimming. All of a sudden, Serayla bolted towards the gates, where Winona had come from. She said nothing to her son, leaving him without any purpose or direction. The light of the outside world faded further, and the moonlight soon disappeared entirely, leaving the sole illumination to the torchlight.
“Cedria scorns your kind!” somebody in the mob yelled. They seemed to be coming back to their senses. Now they were targeting himself and the girl on the ground. She was older than him, and yet in that moment Tasuneke felt a responsibility to protect her. He didn’t know what those people would do, but he had to defend them.
“Winona,” he said, crouching near her. “It’s not safe. We need to get out of here.”
She didn’t seem to hear him. Her eyes were locked on the dirt she sat on, mumbling something about the end of the world. She probably wasn’t even aware of the mob.
“Winona,” he repeated. “I need your trim-blade.”
At that, she turned her head, seeing him for the first time. “My… what?”
“I’ll return it, don’t worry.” He held a hand up to gesture for her sword, and she made no move to unsheathe it. He moved his hand closer, and interpreted her inaction to be assent. So he grabbed the blade and pulled it out. Since the sword wasn’t his, he wouldn’t be able to use magic with it, even if he had been trained in its use. Still, a normal sword was better than nothing at all.
By now, the crowd was shouting at them, with cries of “Tenders not welcome anymore!” and “Cedrine wants you gone!” They probably planned on forcing every Tender out of their village right now, but at least for now they weren’t violent. Soon some started approaching him, and Tasuneke stood slowly, raising the sword. They were still some distance away from the crowd when he was grabbed by the shoulder from behind.
Swinging the blade up and spinning around in surprise, the sword came within an inch of Malayah’s neck. The kind, middle-aged woman he often spoke to on breezy mornings. And he almost killed her without even recognizing her.
“Cedrine’s guidance, Malayah,” he cursed, lowering the blade. “You scared me.”
“We’ll call it even, then,” she exhaled a slow breath. “Where’s your mother?”
“Went off to go the village gates. I think we’re going to have to leave. Your people don’t accept mine anymore.”
“I’m sorry, Tasune,” she replied. “Oh! It’s Tasuneke now! At least I got to watch you grow up and become a man. Look at you with your trim-blade and… wait, how do you…?”
“It’s Winona’s,” he said. “She’s in shock. Look I’m sorry, but this is urgent. Can you get her to safety? Take her to her hut and warn the other Tenders?”
“I’m afraid her hut probably doesn’t qualify as safety from the look of things,” she said, expression grim. “I’ll take her to mine.”
“Thank you, Malayah.” He gave her a hug. “Some holiday this turned out to be, huh?”
She smiled. “Be careful, Tasuneke. And whatever happens, don’t forget that you are Cedrian. Never mind what anyone else says. You may have Aluvair’s blood in you, but you have Cedrine’s courage. Your brow is proof of that. Now go find your mother. I will help as many of your people as I can.” She helped Winona, still sobbing, to her feet, and gave him one last nod of encouragement.
“Cedrine protect her,” he said under his breath, a tear rolling down his cheek.
“Tasuneke!” he heard somebody call. His mother. Looking back to the gates, he saw her trotting back. “We have a problem.”
The two of them ran back to over, but Tasuneke wasn’t blind to the fact that the mob started to spread out. Looking for Tenders. The ones that followed them no doubt did so to ensure they abandoned the village.
The gates were no more. The vines had grown, sealing the opening that connected their village to the outside world. They were also as think as linkroot trunks now, and had grown thorns. What had been gentle, decorative vines of green and brown were now barbed, vicious snares of black and purple.
Kuruk lay on the ground beneath the vines, body blue and contorted as if his life essence itself had been ripped from his body.
“Are we still planning to leave?” Tasuneke asked.
“Whatever we plan on doing, we must still do something about the vines. We can’t very well leave with the entrance sealed, nor can we pretend that we can sustain ourselves without the outside world. Where did you get that sword?” she asked. Tasuneke realized his mother was staring at the trim-blade he held in his hands rather than the vines.
“It’s Winona’s,” he replied. “Malayah said she would keep her safe.”
“I suppose I’ll have to forgive a lot of things tonight,” she nodded. “I was planning on scolding you for not speaking with Nashoba about our food for the week.” Even that seemed like a different time.
“Look what your kind has wrought!” somebody shouted from behind them. “Cedrine has condemned us all to death!”
“We will fix this,” Serayla said to them. Her voice was calm.
“No!” A man came out of the group that had followed them. “You have done enough damage! We don’t need your people!” He pulled out a carved scepter from his coat. Then, channeling his energy through it, he hurled a ball of fire at the vines. It exploded on impact, but the flames fizzled and died. In the dim light, it was impossible to tell whether it had any effect at all. If anything, the vines thickened.
The man let out a snarl and threw another fireball. Then another, and another. Each cast made him more and more infuriated that nothing was happening.
“Maturas, stop!” Serayla pleaded. “You are using too much magic! If you continue much longer you will–“
“ENOUGH!” he bellowed. “Once I clear away these vines I will give you exactly three seconds to leave my village, else I will destroy you so completely there won’t be enough left of you to join the stars!” Evidently he wasn’t thinking clearly, as he pushed the two Tenders out of his way as he approached the vines and inspected them more closely. With one final roar he summoned a column of flame through his scepter, channeling all he had into the spell.
As the magic connected, the vines were enveloped by the fire, but the width of the column soon grew thinner and thinner as Maturas fell to his knees in exhaustion. Flames continued pouring forth, the vines siphoning away his life essence, but he could no longer pull away. He howled in pain as the spell died, and body withered and wrinkled, he sagged to the ground, lifeless.
Tasuneke had watched, frozen in fear as the vines twisted more and more at the spells being thrown at them. “It’s eating the magic,” he breathed.
His mother glanced at him, then back to the vines. Her lips were drawn tight. “You’re right. It looks like exposing the vines to any magic at all is deadly. Even a thorn prick proved fatal to Kuruk.”
“You bastards are just sitting there watching as one of your own dies?!” another person in the crowd said.
“And what exactly did you do to help him?” Tasuneke growled. “We told him to stop, but if we had intervened he would have attacked us!”
“Maybe he should have!” a woman called back. “Maybe Cedrine is keeping us here so that we can cleanse his forests of the outsiders! It’s not enough to leave the village!”
“That’s ridiculous! You can’t be feeding into this hysteria! This is the only place I’ve ever known!” he argued.
“You would slaughter your people at the dawn of a new year?” Serayla asked, putting a hand on her son’s shoulder and moving between him and the crowd.
“If that’s what it takes to regain our god’s favor,” the woman said.
“My goal is to leave. It is clear we will never be welcome hear after tonight. If, however, you wish to deny our right to live,” she paused, pulling her trim-blade apart into dual swords. Channeling her power into the metal, they started to glow with a purple tinge. “I will be happy to strip you of yours.”
She glanced back to Tasuneke, and made a minor gesture with her head towards the vines. The direction was clear. Do what you can.
He watched as a few of the members of the crowd pulled out totems (or channeled small ones they wore around their necks and wrists), arming themselves with magic as well as some torches that had been obtained from nearby. They clashed, and Serayla swung around projectiles of fire and ice, maneuvering the fight so that Tasuneke would be at no risk from stray shots.
He wanted to help, but even as he watched he could see how much he would be holding her back. He hadn’t been trained in swordplay. Archons above he had never even seen her fight before, and she was incredible. She used magic sparingly–short bolts of arcane to disarm and disorient. She fought defensively, and despite her own threat it was clear she was trying to avoid causing a fatal blow. There was no point worrying about her. Even as more of the crowd gained the courage to fight, she took it all in stride.
He turned his attention to the vines. Even touching them would be fatal, and magic would make the problem worse, not that that would be an issue anyway. It was fortunate he had a trim-blade, since they were designed to handle the vines.
So he set to work, chopping away at the vines with the blades attached like a large pair of shears. As he cut pieces off the vines, they shriveled and died, blue liquid oozing out from the inside. He made good progress, always taking extra care not to let the vines touch him, even if they did appear to be dead. Metal clashes and fire crackling behind him, it was hard for him to retain his focus. But as long as the fighting continued he knew his mother was okay.
The gate used to be about ten feet wide and twelve feet tall, but shearing off that much would take too long. So he cut through just enough for an adult to walk comfortably through, as comfortably as one could through a tunnel of deadly thorns.
He cut his way free, walking through the tunnel entirely to return to the forest now cloaked in shadows. He turned around to see the things from the outside.
What had once been a dome of decoration and beauty had become a fortress of sinister tendrils. Not even the Tenders would be able to restore the village to its original state. His village would be lost.
“Tasune!” Serayla was calling him. It was a cry for help.
Running back to the tunnel, he tried to see his mother without risking the thorns. “Over here, mother! I made a tunnel!”
There she was. Her back was to him. She was still fighting. The only light he had to see was the illumination of the fire conjured by totem and sword. A flash went by. Her arm was covered in blood.
She turned around, peering through the darkness, they made eye contact for a moment. Desperation. “This way!” he called.
She ran. Something struck her in the back, and her shoulder grazed a thorn.
She fell to the floor in an instant. Tasuneke turned away. At least she didn’t cry out in pain.
An eternity passed before Tasuneke found the strength to stand. He thought he had forgotten how. “Cedrine’s mercy,” he sobbed. “Why?”
“Sometimes failure is simply out of your control,” the forest whispered.
Tasuneke swiveled around. Rell was standing there, eyes downcast, staring at the vines.
“I did everything I could. I did exactly as I was instructed today! The only thing I did wrong was neglect my trivial duties. What could I have done better?!” Tasuneke’s fists were clenched. He didn’t even notice the dirt underneath his fingernails. “All she wanted to do was leave. Why didn’t they stop once she was free?”
“People fear what they do not know.”
“You told me darkness was approaching. You knew this was coming.”
“I did. And I warned you.”
“So this was my fault?!”
“That is not what I said.”
“All you do is talk! You could have done so much more! None of this would have happened if you had just helped!” He scooped up the sword and charged.
In a blind fury he swung the blade at Rell’s neck. The blade connected. And the momentum of colliding against an immovable object wrenched the sword from his hand, falling to the ground and clattering against the ground below.
Rell didn’t reply. He didn’t so much as incline his head. Tasuneke fell to the floor once again, weeping at the futility of his efforts.
“I’m sorry, Tasuneke.”
“What am I supposed to do now?” he cried, speaking into his hands. “I’ve lost everything.”
“You still have your identity. Those tattoos prove it.”
“The identity of an exiled orphan.”
“It’s more than some have. You also have this.” Tasuneke looked up. Tulu sat on Rell’s arm. He squawked expectantly at the Tender.
“Tulu!” he exclaimed, smiling. He held his arm out and the bird hopped onto it. It didn’t even matter how Tulu got here. A small blessing in a sea of misfortune was something to hold, not question.
“You still have a home, you know,” Rell said.
“Why not return to the land of your ancestors?”
“We’re hundreds of miles from Aluvalia. And I’ve only been outside my village twice.”
“Do you have any better options?”
Tasuneke glanced back to the blackened dome. He couldn’t see into the tunnel anymore, which was probably for the best. At least nobody had tried to come through to kill him, too. He wiped away most of the tears with his free hand.
“Will you help me?” he asked Rell.
“It’s the least I can do,” Rell nodded.