When Kritha Met Misha
From worlds far across the desert sands they met, the dark girl with pale skin burying something in the ground, burning feathers and sticks that held a stench about them like that of carrion baking under the hot sun, and sooty, gray-white smoke rising up from their ashes to swirl in the breeze like tiny, angry spirits with terrible, fanged faces.
Perched above her in the branches of a strong desert tree — his graying once-red feathers hidden amid the patchwork green leaves, a tattered ghost of age and all the conflicts visited upon him during his time beneath the olive sky and black sun — the bird-man watched quietly. Much more quietly than the noisy girl below kneeling in the white sand, chanting and breaking, cursing and burning and pleading like a child sacrificing to the long-dead spirits of the desert wastes.
He shifted slightly, to relieve the weight of age that made his bones so sore, and as he did so, a crude bone necklace hung ’round his long thin neck clicked against another made of silver and gold and clay.
The pale girl turned her dark eyes — haunted and hate-filled — upwards, to him, and swore in her thick, earthy language. The words of magic spilled from her lips, her hands and fingers swept quickly through familiar, arcane gestures…only to cease the practiced ritual suddenly, violently, as though the very act of calling up the magic had burned her painfully, and instead moved swiftly to grasp the bone dagger at her waist.
The bird-man chirped a few times, then his words came down to her in her own earthy tongue, “Who are you?” It was a simple question, yet one that infuriated the girl.
“That is none of your business, and unless you leave now, you will wish you had never set your eyes upon me,” she threatened him boldly, her haunted, furious dark eyes holding his own depthless, black orbs, her hand yet gripping the hilt of the sheathed knife, quivering with anticipation of the draw.
The aged bird-man tilted his balding head to study her tensed, kneeling form, his glance brushing quickly, slyly across the crude fire-pit filled and its store of pale ashes, “Why do you intrude upon my sanctuary and burn the things of the defiler?” It was a very direct, and very well-informed question.
The girl, though still tense, eyes still challenging, paused and considered. She responded with her voice holding an edge as hard as her sheathed blade, “I did not realize this was your place.” She seemed unable or unwilling to respond to the bird-man’s naming of the broken, charred things in the fire-pit, avoiding any mention of them.
The bird-man moved branches aside with stiff, worn fingers whose digits were adorned with tight clay rings and hemp circles, asking another question as though he had not noticed her omission. Thin metal bangles and a bracelet decorated with a wizard’s charms shifted and clinked across his bony wrists, adding cheap music to his words, “What magic do you know?”
She narrowed her dark eyes, suspicion glaring from their depths, and met the bird-man’s unreadable black gaze, “None…now. None useful. None that does not imperil you by my speaking it!”
Her words held unspoken challenges, and her hand clenched around the worn hilt of the dagger, each action a reflection and emphasis of the other.
The ancient bird-man trilled a few unconcerned, meaningless notes as he mulled over thoughts before giving voice to them. “You,” he emphasized that word, “are a defiler.” It was not a question, yet there was no fear or trembling in the voice, no horror in expression of the fact, no judgment of her wielding the black magic that had burned the world into dust an age ago.
“No longer,” she spat on the ground, into the pit of ashes, “But I’ll stay one long enough to remove you from my presence in one fashion or another.” Her knuckles whitened to the color of bleached bone in their grip upon the dagger, still sleeping in its cheap, worn sheath, and she growled like a cornered tiger preparing to strike. Her dark eyes, however, caught upon the wizard’s charm’s upon her aged companion’s wrist, and caution was kindled, “What do you know of it?”
The bird-man shrugged, bony, gray hands still gripping the rough bark of the green branches, “Nothing. I know the path of harmony.”
The dark girl with the pale skin sneered, contorting half her face, and drew the dagger out, waving it up at him as she crouched over the fire-pit and its blackened remains, “Then leave me be!”
“You try to fly towards the aerie from the wrong direction,” the bird-man responded nonsensically, unblinking in the face of the promised threat below, his large eyes pools of unreadable black.
The girl stared back, the hate and challenge which had filled her eyes muddied now in angry confusion, “What?”
The bird-man trilled, paused, then spoke again, “Water flows downhill.”
The girl glanced around the barren desert, the dusty brown sand and rock broken only by the few trees of this small grove, and the stiff grasses sheltered by the rocks, all life graced by some unknown source of water deep below the barren earth, but nowhere near the surface. Finally, her eyes fell upon a deflated skin of leather capped with bone, which lay near her, and after considering it for a moment, she turned to look back up at him, “What do you mean?”
The aged bird-man released the branches, the leaves rustling with his passage, and dropped lightly a dozen feet to the ground below. His tattered wings fluttered just barely in the hot, dry air, guiding him to a gentle fall near the hostile girl, whose knife remained gripped in one pale hand, the sharp, bone blade angled dangerously towards the unconcerned bird-man.
Upon the sandy ground, the bird-man stood, bent forward with age, his thin body almost naked except for the jewelry upon his wrists and an ancient, woven sash slung around his shoulders, the sash sun-bleached of any color it might once have had, and worn gossamer thin. The bird-man’s skin was gray and wrinkled, stripped mostly bare of feathers, shed now by age, though some still clung around his shoulders and here and there upon his arms and waist.
His large, dark eyes watched the girl, head tilting back and forth in the manner of all curious avians.
The girl slowly sheathed the use-polished blade of her dagger and stood slowly, towering above his small, bent frame, fury and hate still scrawled deeply into her narrow, pale face, mixed now with caution and mistrust.
The bird-man motioned for the girl to follow him with one scrawny, clawed hand, beginning to shuffle away before pointing to her other belongings as an afterthought, “Gather your things. We find water for you.”
The feet of the two companions kicked the fine, white sand as they traveled the wastes stretched out beneath the hateful glare of the hot, black sun. Girl and bird-man crested and then slid down towering sand dunes or sometimes walked parallel to the giant wind-shaped hills of sand, either trudging along the blazing tops or in the slightly shadowed valleys between the great, gritty waves.
The ancient bird-man moved impossibly with both less difficulty and more stamina than the pale young girl, and he encouraged her to keep moving with little words and gestures, waiting for her to struggle after him when she constantly and unexplainably fell behind. His brown sash was unfolded now into a gossamer thin cloak, serving in-part as a hood for his narrow head, tied at the waist and neck, with tatters trailing behind. The girl stared at the dark, graying beak protruding from the hood, all she could see of his head that was not covered in gossamer thread, her black eyes still upset, still angry, tiny storms of emotion visible within them.
Above them, the sky was empty and almost white with the heat surging from the now faintly crimson-colored orb beating down upon them, the sands reflecting the heat and light back towards the darkly blazing orb tenfold, leaving no cool shadows or place of rest to be seen…yet the two kept moving forward, for there was nothing else to do but fall dead.
“The sun was not so black,” the bird-man offered inexplicably at one point, and the girl’s eyes narrowed in confusion, wondering if he meant to address her, or if he had gone mad from the heat.
Panting, the pale girl painfully forced as much spit as her dry mouth could make onto her parched tongue just to ask, “What do you mean?” Despite the dry rasp in her voice, the tone was sharp and annoyed.
“In a lost age, it was yellow,” the girl watched the hood nod and bob as the bird-man agreed with himself. She continued to struggle along behind, laughing tiredly. Her voice cracked from the parching air when she finally worked up the moisture to speak again, “Why not green…or perhaps blue?”
The bird-man turned and peered at the pale girl curiously, his large, empty black eyes not revealing his thoughts, then turned back and hopped forward again, changing the subject once more, asking her, “What is your name?”
There was a short pause of consideration, or perhaps a moistening of her tongue in order to speak again, “Misha.”
The bird-man did not acknowledge her name, “Where is your roost?”
“None of your business,” Misha growled, watching him hop and step through the sand, his bony wings folded outside the cloak. “Why don’t you fly…bird-man?”
“Kritha is old. Walking is easy, flying not so easy,” the bird-man said, nodding his head again, giving his name to her though she had not asked him for it.
Misha fell silent and they continued.
“Water,” Kritha said simply.
Misha’s mouth was as dry as the sands, her tongue swollen from the parching, searing heat. Though the girl stared at the endless white sand dunes around them, she saw no sign of water. A bitter reply danced on the tip of her parched tongue, but neither it nor her lips would cooperate; instead she simply croaked out, “Where?”
“There,” he said, not indicating where he meant, though he continued to move forward. Shortly, he chirped, “Misha thirsty?”
“Yes,” she panted dryly.
He nodded as well, “I am.”
There was a pause, Kritha stood unmoving atop a dune under the burning sky, hooded by his thin cloak as Misha struggled the last few paces to reach him, her feet dragging through the thick sand until she stood by his side. She waited impatiently for him to continue on, and demanded hoarsely after only a moment, “And?”
Misha’s dark eyes widened in shock, and silence fell for a second before she grew furious, eyes narrowed and blazing with anger as hot as the sun above. She viciously slapped her hand to the hilt of her dagger and griped the weapon with rage-white knuckles. A hundred angry replies, threats and condemnations tried to stumble forth from the girl’s mouth, but her parched tongue could not give life to any of them, and she was forced to settle with the only one her desert-dry tongue would cooperate with, “What?!”
Kritha turned towards her, his large, black eyes watching her quietly, his avian expression unreadable, and merely answered, “Water is life, life arises from water. Find life, find water.”
Misha turned a dark, scrutinizing gaze upon the wasteland around them, scanning the burning white dunes, the sandy ground that could never hold life, her eyes watering as they took in the blazing white world around them, a desert world that was completely dead and completely barren. “I don’t see anything.”
Kritha remained quiet, his large, dark eyes blinking once under the gossamer hood, unreadable as always.
Moments passed, the hot, dark sun crushed the world beneath it’s gaze, burned away its soul, stifled the very air and turned it into a furnace, thick with heat and difficult to breathe. Misha stared off into the distance, trying desperately to swallow spit she no longer had, her swollen tongue now thick and choking. Bereft of the distraction moving had provided, her body finally realized the burden of heat it bore and she dropped to her knees, her legs having given out beneath her.
The bird-man remained silent, watching her unflinchingly from a few paces away with his empty, cold black eyes as the girl who had been a defiler slowly expired from thirst, her fingers clutching at the thick sand of the ground as she sagged forward.
The sand was hot between Misha’s long, pale fingers, rough and smooth all at once as it ran from between them, and before she knew it, she was reaching out with arcane senses, searching deep in the barren earth for a source of magic to take her murderer with her. Her hatred gave her spirit strength her body no longer had. She latched on, felt the life-energy flowing into her, rushing in to fill the void inside, making her immortal…
…”Enough,” Kritha stated mildly as he struck her lightly across the cheek with one hard, aged hand. The blow was sudden and unexpected, lost as she was in heat-borne dementia and the infusion of magical power. It was light, but swift and with enough steel in its touch to break her concentration.
Misha choked and gasped — a thirst-slain scream — as the life-energy she had tried to gather up fell away, fell back into the earth in ropy strings across the land. She desperately tried to grab it up again, reaching out for the tattered ends which fell away from her…but she had nothing left, no strength to give life to the motions of the ritual, no voice left with which to mutter the incantations that would shape the magic to slay the foul, murdering bird-man.
“Enough,” Kritha said more firmly, reaching down to take one of her pale hands in his own gray, clawed one, breaking her concentration completely and finally. The last tatters of the glowing life-energy drifted away and were gone. Misha’s black eyes stared out as though emptied of her soul. Exhausted and parched, the girl could not struggle out accusing words, nor the curses and maledictions that leapt forward.
Kritha spoke instead, “The path is addictive, like the fruit of the Birbirr tree. Once enjoyed, it is not easily forgotten.”
Misha’s painfully empty eyes stared out at the barren land. She could not argue with that.
From somewhere, Kritha produced cool water and dribbled it upon Misha’s parched lips. The exhausted girl sucked at it greedily, washing the dust from her mouth.
The two travelers crested another dune and Misha’s dark eyes widened.
In a valley between the dunes, a shallow pool of water reflected the olive-tinged afternoon sky, sparse brown desert grasses and a few stunted trees surrounded it — if that is really what one could call the brushy, barren sticks poking up from the ground. Misha stumbled quickly down the sand drift towards the oasis in an exhausted half-run.
Misha splashed into the pool and fell to her knees, greedily scooping it up and drinking handful after handful until her parched tongue and throat were fully sated, afterwards taking time to splash water upon her face to cool her dry, burning flesh.
Kritha had glided down the side of the dune and landed at the side of the pool, taking his own drink with less fervor and abandon than the girl. Finally he sat back and watched Misha, asking her, “Had it been an oasis-beast?”
She snarled her reply between mouthfuls of water, “I’m no fool, you tattered old bird. I know the signs to look for.”
Kritha nodded to himself as Misha uncapped her waterskin and plunged the container into the now muddied pool in order to fill the dry leather sack. When she was done, Kritha stood and moved over to the largest of the stunted trees to rest his bony back against the rough bark and curl his head into his shoulder. “We rest here. Not long.”
Standing in the muddy pool, Misha capped her bulging waterskin and sloshed out of the small pool to lie near the water’s edge, too tired to argue. She lay her head upon the small, worn pack that held her few belongings and her hand slid down around the smooth, comforting hilt of the bone dagger at her waist.
Kritha made a repeated sigh-and-chirp she took for a snore, meaning he had fallen asleep. Misha, too, drifted into an exhausted, fitful sleep next to the tiny oasis. Above, the glaring, dark sun still burned the sky and earth in its heartless fury.
When Misha awoke, the hot, black eye of the sun had begun to close, the black orb touching the horizon, turning the sky red and scattering the dunes around she and Kritha with thick, dark shadows.
She sat upright, noting Kritha was already awake, and her eyes narrowed fearfully, searching for any possible enemy or danger nearby, but the bird-man simply stared deeply into the pool of water, clear now that the silt she had stirred up had long since settled back to the pool’s bottom.
Kritha’s worn cloak was wrapped around his shoulders as a sash once more, and he huddled beneath it as he swirled the water lazily with one thin, clawed hand, eyes fixated upon the motion. After a moment of his odd peering, he turned towards Misha.
Anger surged suddenly into the girl’s dark eye. She grabbed her dagger again and drew it partway from its sheath, “Give me one good reason I shouldn’t kill you?”
Kritha cocked his head in answer and asked, “Water?”
Misha glanced at the pool and felt the full water skin hanging heavily against her thigh. She sighed and slipped the polished bone blade all the way back into the sheath once more. Though she dropped her hand from the dagger, she still angrily confronted the bird-man, thrusting accusing fingers through the air at Kritha, “You tried to kill me.”
“No,” he answered without explanation, and further confused his answer by adding a statement, “Water.”
Misha shook her head in weary confusion and glanced around the barren oasis among the dunes once more, taking everything in once again. “You’re a strange old bird.”
Kritha clicked his beak together in a response Misha could not fathom the meaning of. The two of them, the dark-eyed, pale girl and the aged bird-man, stood for a while longer, simply staring at one another. Misha finally broke the silence, uncomfortable and demanding, “And? What now?”
“Water,” Kritha repeated, motioning her over to him with a bony, clawed hand, “Hurry.”
“Water, water, water. My skin is full, what is so important about the water,” Misha snarled and stomped towards the ancient birdman, voice quickly trailing off and dark eyes growing as wide as the two moons hanging in the darkening velvet sky above.
In a near whisper, she finally managed to force a question from her throat, “By the moons! What is that?”
Misha fell to her knees by the side of the pool, staring at an image of a garden that seemed to blossom green and rich from the depths of the clear, shallow pool. She reached forward a hand to touch a flower and the image vanished, shattered by the rippling water.
“What?!” she went for her dagger with a cry and spun around on one knee, eyes going immediately to Kritha as though she expected him to be in the midst of striking her down amid her distraction.The bird-man stood calmly still, large, black eyes blinking once as he unconcernedly examined Misha’s crouched form, her dangerous, attack-ready stance, and the bone dagger she gripped, half-drawn.
“What?” Kritha echoed the girl, and Misha’s face darkened, the bitter reply rising to her lips cut short by Kritha, who continued to speak as though he had never meant to pause, “What now. You asked for water, you have water. What next?”
Misha pursed her lips slightly, glaring at the aged bird-man with his tattered wings and sash and jewelry-decorated graying body, “That garden. What was it? Where was it?”
Kritha chirped and settled down at the edge of the oasis.
Misha hesitated then moved to join him, settling nearby, studying the bird-man, truly seeing his age for the first time, his frailty in the shape of the bones and ribs clearly outlined beneath his grayed skin.
“You aren’t afraid I will kill you?”
Misha considered, “Why?”
“Kritha is old. Kritha preparing to die. You interrupt. I die either way.”
Misha rocked back a little, stunned at his candor, at the lack of fear or denial, “You are very casual about that.”
“Sun rises, sun sets.”
Misha blinked and squinted in confusion, looking around, glancing up at the darkening sky, a few stars dotting it like tiny grains of white sand on impure obsidian.
Finally she shook her head and turned back to face the dying bird-man, “So why help me?”
Kritha was silent for a moment, and Misha about to press him again, dark eyes narrowing, when the ancient bird-man broke his own silence, “Garden not far. Cross badlands. Not garden, not really. You see.”
He looked up at her, his large, black eyes reflecting the stars, “Surrounded by temptation, what more important?”
Misha stood staring at the old, graying form, until he turned, clucking, and shuffled off through the sands…moments later she sprinted to catch up with him, never answering the question.
The larger of the two moons had risen full and brilliant into the obsidian night sky, casting Misha’s pale skin in a silvered-green light, which in another age might have been compared to the color of foam on the sea.
Ahead — across the black, cold desert — loomed a cliff of dark rock, outlined in the same moonlit glow, steadily growing nearer as the night passed.
Though the heat of the day had passed, the chill of the night was seeping into Misha’s bones, causing her to shiver. Kritha remained as seemingly unaffected as ever by the elements, though the gossamer thin shawl thrown across his narrow shoulders could not have been enough to ward off the freezing night air of the desert.
The girl’s lips were cracked from dryness, and even the leathery-tasting water from her skin was not helping to do more than sate her thirst — which was enough, she supposed, for at least she was not dying.
“There soon,” Kritha said. And that was all.
Finally, the cliff towered above them, its once-jagged surfaces — formed by the endless cracking cycle of heat and chill of day and night — were worn smooth by the endless polishing of the sand and wind. Directly ahead was a break in the high cliff. It lead through a narrow, barren pass into a valley of wildflowers and thick trees, where a garden grew and a strange sound echoed.
“The garden,” Kritha said, and again, that was all he said.
The two desert travelers entered the valley through the narrow defile in the cliff wall, and Misha found the valley garden was less expansive than she had believed at first sight. Tiny, trickling streams of pure water ran down the rock walls and across the sandy ground, pooling together in the center to form a crystal-clear pond surrounded by lush, green plants and flowers the like of which Misha had never before seen. Small, buzzing insects darted through the air and lizards sunned themselves on rocks, before noting the two visitors and slipping off into hiding among shady cracks.
“What…why are we here?” Misha’s dark eyes bore puzzlement then narrowed suspiciously again, “Why did you show me this?”
Kritha moved to perch upon a rock by the clear pool, frail, his aged body glowing slightly in the moonlight spilling over the edges of the surrounding cliffs.
“So…you’ll give me whatever I ask for? Suppose I ask for the wealth of merchant prince?”
Kritha chirped and clicked his beak, and Misha thought it must be in amusement, “Kritha cannot give what Kritha does not have.”
Misha stood back a-ways from him, near the entrance to the small valley, among the leafy, feathery plants that bloomed from the valley’s soil. Her suspicions grew and her eyes hardened, “You know I am a defiler, so why bring me here, to this place? Don’t you fear I will rape the land of its life?”
“You curse and burn your past.”
Misha’s brow furrowed, a sarcastic, biting reply nearly emerging, calling into question what the bird-man had said to make him fear that it was a foolish choice he had made in trusting her. Eventually, she sighed and spoke quietly, dark eyes shimmering, “You are right. I long to abandon the path, but…”
Kritha waited silently, head cocked to one side, large, black eyes watching her like pools of liquid night…she felt herself lost in them as she found the courage to speak again.
“You know what they say about wizards, don’t you? That the elements reject them, that when they die, their bodies will not be taken up by sand, silt or sun, that their spirits will wail for breath forever, that even fire will reject them and the earth will spit them out…I was pleading with them, back where we met, you and I. Begging them to take me back, to forget I had been a wizard, that I had defiled them and blasted them and wounded them with magic…I don’t want to wander this land forever…I’ve seen the dead, the walking ones…” Her voice was a whispered crack at the last, and her dark eyes shimmered with fear.
The aged bird-man remained silent, and so Misha continued, quietly, “…but I don’t think they heard, or believed…then, in the desert, with the water, if you hadn’t…I would have again…”
Misha’s voice was very quiet, almost a whisper, her throat clenched in raw emotion, “I can’t control it. I keep using it to survive…just to survive…even though I’ve tried to give it up.”
She hung her head into her pale hand, dark eyes closed for a moment before snapping open to look up at Kritha perched on his rock. Her voice shook with anger, “Why did you bring me here? I am a defiler, I can utter words that will turn this place into a barren hole, and leave your bones to bleach in the sun!”
Kritha blinked his great, black eyes once at Misha’s shout, and said but one thing, “Will you?”
That was all he had said to her, before returning his stare to the crystal pool of water in the valley’s center. She was too stunned to speak, too stunned to do anything, to even scream at the birdman.He was mad, that much was clear to her now — too much sun, too long in the deserts, age-addled and senile.
In the desert, she would have defiled the last living spirit of the land to find its water, had the ancient bird-man not intervened and stopped her…
She dragged a hand through the sandy soil, felt the soft blades of small grasses tickle her hand as they touched it. Kritha spoke suddenly, aged, chirping voice breaking the lengthy silence that had ensued, “Once, when I was young, I found a garden. It was not large. Small. Like this.”
The bird-man gestured at the valley around them, and Misha’s hand paused its silent, unconscious tracings in the soil as she took in the fertile valley once more.
“Wonderful garden with many secrets. Then he came, smelling life,” Kritha remained still upon the rock, only his beak moving, the rest of him as still as stone…even his eyes, which stared back into a past Misha knew nothing of.
“Nearly kill Kritha. So Kritha, in his youth, attack him. Not powerful enough to fight him — so I get more power…very easy to fly when you have wings. Harder just to walk. Now I walk, even with wings.”
The aged bird-man turned slowly, pointing towards the barren defile leading into the valley, “See there. Nothing grow. Wonder how long it takes the earth to heal? How long before new spirits come? A year? A decade? A lifetime? Wonder why world is ruin and wasteland?”
Misha peered at the narrow canyon leading in from the desert, bereft of anything but sand and barren, wind-worn rock. Nothing grew in it, nothing lived in it…and she noted now how even the small creatures would not pass near it as they scrabbled or slithered through the pre-dawn light.
“Once, when I was young,” Kritha repeated again, then turned back to stare at the crystal pool. Misha stood quietly and wondered at the bird-man’s age, and the land he had defiled to destroy an invader, “Once, when flying was easy and walking was foolish.”
“You are…a wizard?”
Kritha nodded after a time, “Wizard. Yes. Preserver of life. Yes. Take little, not so powerful. Once though…”
Misha sat quietly, a shocked expression upon her face, there was too much to think about to respond.
“But you did what you had to do! Right? The defiler would have destroyed this place if you hadn’t…hadn’t…”
Kritha sat silently.
“What do you want of me?”
Misha drew her dagger quickly, “I knew it!” she snarled venomously as she backed away, keeping the blade between her and Kritha. “Keep away or I will destroy this whole valley with my power.”
Kritha blinked lazily twice while the pale-skinned girl continued to stare him down with drawn dagger and the equal in her eyes.
“Draw the life for magic, then strike, my life will join the land instead, flow out, not in.”
Misha’s hand holding the dagger quavered, and she lowered it slowly, understanding the true meaning of his statement, her voice following the example of her hand, “I…I can’t.”
“So quick to slay me a moment ago.”
“That was different,” she snarled, “I was protecting myself. Preserving…my…life…” The voice of the pale girl with the dark hair trailed off as she stared around her at the living valley, a realization dawning within her, as bright on her face as the glare of the sand beneath the sun at noon.
Kritha clicked his beak once, then hopped down from the rock, “Do it?”
His thin, frail fingers closed over hers, which still gripped the dagger, tightening her hold on the worn bone handle.
She licked her dry lips, uncertain, stunned, confusion flashing through her dark eyes like a sandstorm on the desert winds.
Then she felt it and turned swiftly, facing the narrow defile through which they had come.
“It is one of them…one of the hunters.A defiler,” she breathed, sensing the probing fingers of dark magic coalesce around her, “He must have been following me.”
Kritha released her hand, huge, black eyes narrowing, “Him. We must protect the garden. Always protecting the garden.”
Misha nodded quickly in response, but stood frozen, uncertain what to do, how to react.
The aged bird-man felt no such uncertainty, he had defended this garden of life many times in the past, and so moved forward with purpose and certainty, taking a hopping stride into the defile, picking loosely at the web of glowing life around him with a wizard’s ephemeral limbs, their work unseen by any.
In the sands beyond the garden, the defiler struck a wall, a wall of magic and force that repulsed him because of the very thing he was. He snarled in annoyance and anger, reaching out to draw life from the long-dying land around him, turning the sands to ashes beneath his feet. Misha could even feel him tug upon the life within the garden, sapping a little of it away as he gave form to his own magics, shattering the barrier before him with draconian efficiency, the energies that formed it crumbling swiftly to the ground rather than merely bleeding away.
Misha knew he was too powerful for her to face alone, and she had already destroyed her most powerful items of wizardry, out in the desert, beneath the tree where Kritha had encountered her. Fear filled her, that Kritha’s magics would not prove strong enough, either, not unless he drained the garden dry of its life…as he had done to the defile in front of her so long ago.
Her cry escaped her lips before she realized it, before she realized she was rushing through the defile, past Kritha, the smooth handle of her bone dagger gripped in one white-knuckled hand as she raced to confront the advancing defiler, the deadly blade bared in equally deadly intent.
A blast of magic roared up from the sands like a beast lying in wait for prey, savaging into her, nearly tearing her apart, but becoming nothing more than a cloud of dust in the air around her before it could fell her. She felt strands of magic wrapping around her, shielding her, and knew Kritha had saved her with his own sorcery.
She did not pause to consider this, but merely continued her rush forward, buffeted back by another lashing, swirling attack of terrible magic that leeched the land of its life, and left grit and choking gray dust floating in the air. There was almost nothing left here for the defiler to draw upon, only the garden behind her…and he could reach that far, she was sure.
But the defiler had noted her imperviousness to his magic, had noted its source, and switched his tactics even as she lunged towards him, dagger held up to strike, to stab and slash, to cut the defiler’s heart from his chest with one killing blow…
…the magic roared through her, past her, tearing apart the fragile life in the garden, withering flower and turning water to dust, soil to ash…
…her dagger struck home, plunging deep into the defiler’s robe, catching him off-balance in the midst of a hastily recited incantation of defense, one that would now never see completion. He slid to the ground and fell forward, dead.
Misha’s dagger was streaked crimson, and her hand ran red from the defiler’s blood.
She turned, eyes widening in horror as she took in the ashen devastation of the desert, and more importantly, the garden beyond the defile. She reeled from the assault of memories the destruction brought forth, memories of her own savage hunger and callous, brazen working of the ancient rituals. The bloody bone dagger slid from her red-slicked fingers to the devastated earth, as if the weapon itself was tainted itself by the defiler’s blood, and then her gaze landed upon something: an unmoving husk in the defile, gray and emaciated, a slight breeze rippling the few aged feathers that remained, gray and gossamer thin, like ashes clinging to a shape they vaguely remembered.
Misha rushed to him, grasping the feathers and gray parchment skin in her hands, the fragile bones and gauzy shawl, great black eyes closed to the world and the hateful sun, all of it empty of Kritha.
Her screams of denial become thunder in the air.
She buried the ancient, empty sack of dried flesh and bone there where they had met, beneath the great tree growing up out of the desert. It was a shallow grave, but it was just a body, there was nothing of Kritha in it…an empty sack of parched flesh and brittle bone. A lone, white feather was now braided into the woman’s dark hair, plucked from the body, a token and a reminder kept of the past for the journey that lay ahead of her. Her worn bone dagger rested in once more in its sheath at her hip.
“You’re right, old bird, I was going at this all wrong…I was motivated by selfish concern for myself, exactly what got me into this, exactly what defiling thrives on…” she stayed quiet for a long while, thumb rubbing the dagger’s worn hilt, “To fight for life itself as I fight for my own, that’s the path, isn’t it? The path of preservation…”
Slowly, her hands dropped to caress the sands, “But I still don’t understand…how can I protect life if I have to let it die to protect it…how…how can I defend life when its enemies are more powerful than I? To use it is selfishness, but, if I don’t…then it dies…but…it dies either way…” Misha trembled, running the desert sands through her fingers, a slight breeze turning its dust into small plumes, “I don’t know what to do…I wish you could tell me…”
The breeze swirled the grit of the desert sands around her and she sank back, “But you can’t hear me anymore, so why do I think you will answer?”
Though she would not see it, the rains that fell that night upon the desert fell over the cliffs and the ruined valley, washing the ash from the golden sands and black soil, causing a garden to grow, green and lush and filled with life, the scarred land nourished by the crimson blood of a defiler and the last breath of an ancient preserver.
At least, that is what Misha dreamed, for, though she did not return to the lost garden, she did not have the heart to lose faith in its possibility.
Copyright (c)2002, 2003, 2005 Raven Daegmorgan