Only One Day
Above me, the god Etargoren’s lightning fizzled across the roiling grey sky.
To hide my recorder’s blue light, I dropped it into a pocket. I kneeled in the tall swamp-grass and breathed only during the soft crackling of the god’s electric display.
The lightning did not boom, which would have scared the game; it was gentle and stayed in the sky. Nor did Tohillocen cry her rain.
Rustling in the bushes beyond the small clearing caught my attention. With my aluminum spear balanced between my thumb and forefinger, I lifted my arm little by little like the movement of a branch in the breeze. But the rustling stopped.
I exhaled, relieved. In truth, I wanted an excuse to remain here, far from people.
Ten days had passed since Erikal had given me the recorder, three days since we left on our journey. Less than a day ago, the soul-destroying Guardian of the deep gazed upon me with pupilless eyes.
Only one day. I hadn’t recovered.
After Erikal had dropped me off, I sat in the dark on my bed, practicing my Equis recitation. I needed that normalcy. And I needed, for the moment, to believe the shamans would still consider me for the role of Lead Storyteller, as though I hadn’t broken their rule by skipping the rehearsal.
I needed my life unchanged.
A couple of hours after my return, I quickly showered, dressed, and took the long walk to the Rambles by the light of the unusually bright moons. My parents hadn’t had a chance to confront me.
The Sun had since risen. All around, light grey remains of dead trees poked high above tangled bushes, dark water, and grasses. The few living trees grew crooked and short, half of their branches broken and pallid. I waited at the edge of a rare dry spot where game liked to sniff out slugs and insects.
It was all silent and still, except for the lightning god above.
A cry, like a girl’s wailing, rang out in the quiet landscape—probably some unknown lizard. The smell of decay floated on the breeze. Years ago, Elder Sparus had claimed that a rotting, half-dead girl wandered the trails here, drowning the living. Chills ran down my arms, even though I had never believed him.
Few others visited the Rambles, so it had always been a place for me to think and clear my head.
But this time, thinking might have been risky. My entire body screamed with disappointment and rage.
I had gone on the adventure and endangered my future for Cleo. All of her talk about Erikal made me fear losing her. But the two had not flirted at all, and she had held my hand in the otherworldly Maze of Azer, making me realize that little had changed between us. I had done something uncharacteristic, panicked, and made a rash judgment.
Or did I go for reasons other than Cleo?
Like the animals sneaking in the swampy murk, something stirred in me under my surface thoughts. But what? I hadn’t gone from some notion of being in my own adventure, my own story, like the heroes of old. After I had suggested this idea to Cleo, it trickled like a stream somewhere in my mind. But the stream slowly died. Maybe my motivation was just to make a decision while everyone—my parents, Erikal, Cleo—pushed me in conflicting directions.
Only, Erikal brought me somewhere forbidden against my will.
Damn. My fingers tightened around the spear shaft. The dank marshland flickered with the lightning. Even if the council would forgive me for being gone, I’d probably have to work doubly hard to become what I was meant to—the Lead Storyteller.
A creature scurried in the bushes beyond the clearing. Its little, whiskered nose popped out from the tangled leaves.
The ramble-rodent skipped into the open while I rose in the shade of a scrubby tree. It searched among the grasses for insects, sniffing about with jerking starts and stops. I lifted the weapon, my hand tightening more.
The spear flew forward through the animal’s neck, pinning it to the ground. Like most game, it twitched as if in denial of its doom.
How fascinating. The little soul would travel to the Underworld, where I’d been just the day before. That was a strange thought—like gossamer pulled away to reveal a vivid truth my eyes would rather not see. My head became light.
We went through the passage like the dead. The Guardian of the deep gazed upon me.
Despite knowing where we’d gone, the idea came crashing in like a sudden realization, ambushing me. It was as visceral as if the electric storm above had erupted in my head. I put a hand to my temple to steady my mind while the world in my eyes rolled sideways.
Another assault came from within, this one a phrase from ancient lore.
“ . . . all in the world between the earth and sky must die.”
I stumbled to the spear, still lodged in the animal and the earth, and grabbed it to support myself. A memory came unbidden like a vivid dream.
Cleo and I sat on the flagstone floor of my home’s courtyard. We held figurines of cotton, sticks, and cloth. Toys. We were six or seven.
“I know what we can do,” Cleo said. “Tell the story your mother did.”
She lowered her voice to an ominous whisper, and her eyes grew large. “The Underworld one.”
“The Journey of Salihandron? Okay, but I’ll start where the Original People escaped.”
I held out my shaman figurine and recited, “Salihandron grew furious and blew hard into the cave to keep human souls where they belonged—in the Underworld, subjugated to the gods of the deep.”
Cleo wrapped her arms tight around one of mine. “What’s ‘subjectated’?”
“Subjugated. It’s sort of—” I thought about what it meant. “Those gods were mean to people, made them do all of their work.”
“That’s terrible. Subjugated. I’ll remember that.” Her arms squeezed tighter. “You know so much. You can tell me stories every day, forever.”
I agreed and continued:
But the Sun and Dayodec, the earth-mother, seeing the Original People’s determination, wanted them in the world between the earth and sky.
Salihandron relented and reversed its breath’s direction, blowing the people out from the Underworld into the mortal world beyond the exit.
Mortals are in balance with the heavens and the Underworld. So, Salihandron forever blows its wind through the exit to keep the living out, protecting the mortal world from the knowledge of the deep. This exit is what we know as the Wind Cave.
Salihandron agreed to escort the souls of the dead back to their home in the Underworld. There, they wandered the darkness, as they do today, until their stars fell from the heavens, blinding the souls’ memories of past lives and the spirit realm.
The Original People did not protest, because they did not yet know mortal life.
But, soon, the Original People understood the cycle of life and forgetting, and that all in the world between the earth and sky must die.
The shaman toy was me, and I, him. I imagined myself a respected elder, like my father. I shook the cloth-covered figure as he told the story.
“That’s all I memorized,” I said. “My mother recited it to me only a couple times. It doesn’t rhyme, either.”
Cleo smiled, shivering with excitement. “It’s really creepy. Make up the rest.”
“Good idea,” I said, holding out my toy. “I’m a great shaman, and I say, ‘I’ll get you, Salihandron Soul-Herder!’—”
My mother walked into the courtyard with her mouth stretched in a toothy smile; she still had her youthful beauty. I had thought she would always be young, inspiring me to smile back at her in a child’s delight of it all.
She leaned down. “Giels, we have very good news for you. Your father and I have been talking quite a lot about this.” Her eyes brightened. “You will be able to take after me and be a storyteller. And, you may be one of the greatest ever in the Deo.”
The toys in my hand died, killed by the Salihandron of my imagination and my mother’s words. I left Cleo in the courtyard and wrapped myself in my bed covers. The regal little cloth man was lost to the dust under my bed, never again to be a shaman.
Lightning crackled above, catching my eye. I shuddered, startled to be in the Rambles. Layers of time had buried that moment somewhere in the dark reaches of my mind.
Cleo’s sweet words made me smile for a second.
I had forgotten I wanted to be a shaman. Most young boys and girls romanticized the idea at one point.
Lead Storytellers and shamans both ran in my family. I scoffed. Becoming an elder of the council would have required training throughout childhood and adolescence, much harder than becoming a storyteller, even the Lead Storyteller. After a life of grueling training, they ended up being pestered with other people’s problems. Sure, people revered elders and followed their wisdom, but not having the magic to actually be one was fortunate.
The memory reinforced what I knew and what I would have to remind the council of: my ability to memorize words, and that storytelling could not have been more ideal. Lore that took other storytellers years to learn, I perfected in a few months.
Except the ancient stories do not describe the Underworld that I saw.
I closed my eyes and took a deep breath to push the journey out of my mind. The place seemed too unfathomable.
I slid the ramble-rodent carcass off of the spear, gutted the arm-length creature with my laser, and wrapped it in cloth. I meant to thank it for becoming food, but “sorry” escaped my lips instead.
Something rustled nearby. Spear already in hand, I twisted my torso and let it fly. Another ramble-rodent, this one larger. Two kills in one day was an admirable feat for such a rare creature. I put aside the idea they were part of a family.
I had gone hunting to avoid seeing my parents. I wasn’t ready for their disappointment, nor did I want their faces to reflect my own.
The moment would need to come.
Perhaps two fatty ramble-rodents would soften their reprimands.
Besides, Elder Sparus’s undead girl or no, I feared the landscape’s spirits had been rising from the dark water to infect me.
Slipping out of the stagnant marsh, I washed up at a clear puddle and walked along the trail leading east to my home in the Old Neighborhood. At the main north-south intersecting path, I stopped and faced south, towards the sparse and austere South Neighborhood and Cleo’s home.
Cleo had told me I would be the Lead Storyteller, whether or not I missed the rehearsal, as though my father and the council would make sure I somehow gained the role. Now I wondered if she had just wanted to prod me because of my hesitation about going with her.
She also suggested we could kiss after our adventure. I took a step to the south.
“Giels!” a familiar voice called from behind.
I spun around. A cab floated just behind me on the way leading north. For a quick second, I thought it was the Silver Dare. But with its smaller size and more straightforward jointing and wing design, I realized it was Meritus’s facsimile of Erikal’s vehicle.
The door was up, and Meritus stuck his head out sideways.
“Don’t sneak up on me like that,” I said.
He laughed, but I didn’t. Usual Meritus, light and peppy, as if we hadn’t just witnessed the soul-sucking demon.
“Are you bringing those to our gathering?” he asked.
“Don’t be modest. I see what you have there.”
I glanced at the creatures draped over my forearm.
“The others will be there around five or six,” he added.
“Ah, Alana was supposed to tell you. But apparently you were hunting. It’s about you-know-what. What we should do now, or something. Erikal’s idea. I just need to drop off some items first, and I’ll go over.” He waved me out of the way and moved the vehicle up beside me. “Personally, I can’t wait to tell everyone about the monster. And that wingless vehicle. Is your head not just going crazy!” His eyes widened and his smile stretched, revealing all of his teeth, like pure, honed alabaster in the stubble of his thin face. He pulled the door down and headed south, probably towards Erikal’s home.
Tell everyone? How did I not think to warn him? A cold chill shot down my sides. Oh, hell, Meritus.
Before us, none had dared to enter the cave. The repercussions of doing so could be brutal.
The council cannot find out.
If entering the Wind Cave was the utmost taboo, misleading the shamans was an easy second. “Don’t deceive the council” was a common phrase. And for good reason. Public shaming, banishment, separating people who conspire from ever seeing each other, and exclusion from tribal events had all been consequences of lying, sometimes lasting a lifetime.
But silence is not deception if the council doesn’t ask questions. Is it?
“Meritus! Don’t say anything!” I shouted. His cab turned out of view. “Dammit.”
Throwing the two weighty kills and the spear under my arm, I sprinted on the winding trail after him, kicking up dust. At a long, straight run of the path, his vehicle should have been in view. It had disappeared.
Given he’d been rash enough to go into the Wind Cave, would Erikal have considered the repercussions? Would Cleo and Alana? I needed to find them. Meritus would go along with what Erikal wanted if he could keep his mouth shut in the meantime.
A hazy Sun glowed through the canopy of enormous oaken trees. Based on the blue orb’s position, the afternoon edged towards four, if not later. The others might have already been at our gathering spot.
I had little time. Ever since Meritus had started his nightly cab races months ago, scores of youths gathered at our spot when the sky yellowed at dusk. I couldn’t risk my friends saying something to them.
My parents’ scoldings would need to wait.
Turning on my heel, I raced to the commons.