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Red as Coals, Black as Night Chapter 4
Jose set out three days after his talk with Shalamar, as asked. He knew he had a long, hard journey ahead of him, and that he wouldn’t be back for, most likely, at least two and a half months. Eight or nine weeks’ journey, there and back, plus however many days or weeks he had to observe the girl to determine her power, then kill her. He refused to think that he would not come back. After all he told himself. You’ve had hard kills before. This one can’t be much harder. He also tried not to dwell too long on the killing itself, for then he tended to get slightly sick.
Before he left, Jose said good-bye to his friends, saving Kar for last. Goodbyes were sad, as he well knew, especially when you weren’t sure if this would be good-bye for good. He still remembered his last good-bye to his father. He had been only eleven years old, about the human equivalent of four. His father had towered over him. Jose remembered looking up at his dad, small brow wrinkled in concern. “Will you be back soon, dad?” he’d asked. His dad had smiled, then said quietly, “I don’t know, Jose. I’ll try to be back soon.” After three months had passed, Jose had become concerned. Eight months after his father had set out, they declared him dead. They never found his body. Jose remembered crying. He remembered feeling the hot, alien tears running down his cheeks. Shanese never cried. And he remembered Shalamar summoning him, and saying that “It was a pity his father had died, but you’re here to replace him, so it’s fine. That way we aren't short on warriors.” Those words had stuck with Jose for twenty nine years.
Jose packed the last essentials he would need for the journey, putting them all in a leather pack: dried food and a water skin, clean robes, and a bedroll to sleep in. His dagger was strapped to his waist.
Finished, he left the room, silently saying his own good-bye to it. Then he started down the gloomy hallways towards Kar’s room. It was in an entirely different tower than his, though luckily he, too, lived in the palace. The room, when he reached it, wasn’t as large or as glamorous as Jose’s. Shalamar didn’t like Kar as much as Jose.
When he knocked on the door, it opened quickly to reveal Kar standing there, eyes sad. “Jose!” he cried, relieved. “I was afraid you weren’t coming.” Looking at Kar’s narrow, pointy features gave Jose’s heart a jolt. I may never see him again a treacherous voice whispered.
He forced a smile onto his face and clapped Kar on the shoulder. “Of course I came! Otherwise you would have followed me, and, in your frenzied rush, would have been killed in the ditches. This would be terribly, awfully sad, seeing as you’re my best friend.”
Kar smiled slightly, part of his mouth twitching in the corner.“Well, if we’re done with the touching good-byes…” he teased. Then, suddenly, he lurched forward and hugged Jose as hard as he could. Even Jose, with his strong build, ached. “Why did you have to be sent out again so soon after you returned?” he whispered.
They released each other, Kar looking on glumly. His expression was so dejected it made Jose laugh for a brief moment. But he sobered up quickly. “Shalamar had a job that needed to be accomplished,” he said quietly. “I could hardly say no.”
Kar frowned ponderously. “What could be so important that he would send you out barely three weeks after you came back?”
Jose pursed his lips, considering. This was a very important mission, and should be shrouded in as much secrecy as possible, but this was Kar. He was Jose’s best friend, and if anyone knew how to keep a secret, it was Kar.
“This isn’t just any Gifted One. The rumor is that she can control plants. That is a very strong power, and, more importantly, not a single Shanese alive today is immune to it. She also has very odd behavior and appearance. She never lets anyone see how tall she is, and constantly wears a black cloak and cowl, like us. Shalamar sent me to…deal with her.” They both knew what that meant.
At first Kar’s eyebrows shot up, then they met in puzzlement and concern. “But why send you?” he inquired. “There are plenty of others with more experience.”
Jose grimaced. “I asked the same question. Shalamar replied that one gained experience by doing things.” Jose neglected to mention the other reason Shalamar had given, about him being so close to the throne. Kar was touchy about things like that.
Kar looked troubled. “But that still doesn’t explain…” he murmured. Then he snapped out of it. “Oh, here I am, wasting your time. You’ll have to get going before Shalamar gets annoyed. You know he hates people doing things late.”
They said quick good-byes, and Jose set out once again. This time he went outside into the glaring sunlight, walked through the courtyards, and then out of the castle itself. He walked through the grounds surrounding the castle, the heady smell of flowers filling his nostrils. The smell filled him with a temporary euphoria and confidence, and, as always, he wondered why such gentle, beautiful things could instill such love in the otherwise cold hearts of Shanese. Perhaps it worked on a similar principle to the eyes. If they didn’t have some love inside them, it could kill them when they encountered it.
As he traded good-byes with the last few Shanese and passed through the impenetrable gate, Jose felt a wave of homesickness crash over him. That’s silly he told himself. You’ve barely even left. But he didn’t know when he’d be back again, if at all. No. He couldn’t think that. He hadn’t thought like that since his first mission. But, though he hadn’t shown it, this mission frightened him. He would be thousands of miles from his home, facing a girl whose power he did not have immunity to. Whether or not he survived would depend upon pure skill.
He nimbly crossed the ditches, then entered the forest on the other side. The forest covering the two mountains was like short, bristly fur. The trees were often bare of leaves, their naked arms stretching to the endless sky, occasionally swaying even when there was no wind. Hardly any animals lived in this lifeless place, so if the Shanese wanted to hunt, they had to travel farther. Many Shanese believed that the spirits of the Gifted Ones they’d killed lingered among the broken pines, but Jose was not one of them. If they had wanted to haunt him, they could have done it for the past nineteen years he had wandered through these trees.
That night he had a very strange dream. Perhaps he had believed the stories more than he thought. In his dream, he lay spread out on a plain that seemed to stretch forever in every way. More than two dozen girls stood around him. His eyes widened when he realized there were exactly thirty. After that he looked more carefully at the faces. There was the first girl he had killed, the one who could project her voice, her innocent blue eyes staring at him accusingly. And there was the girl he had just killed, her light brown skin and dark brown eyes hinting at Vunish ancestry. She openly glared at him. Looking around, he saw all the gifted girls he had ever murdered. Their faces ranged from subtly angry to openly hostile. He felt an irrational terror take hold of him. "What are you going to do to me?" he whispered.
His first kill spoke for them, her clenched fists the only sign of anger. "Only what you did to us," she replied, her mellow voice not hinting at the power it contained. "That's only fair, isn't it?" As she spoke all the girls drew daggers or swords from their belts, eyes suddenly seeming to glow.
"We will do to you all that you did to us," they whispered in one voice. Leaping forward, hair flying, they cried, "We will make you pay!" That's when he woke up. After gathering his pack and bedroll, he hastened out of the swaying, whispering trees.
Jose was traveling northward, the opposite direction from the trail he'd taken to the castle after his last mission. On the northern side of the mountains were lush, grassy plains. The springy turf was a good place to run, but the endless flats became monotonous after a while. He had decided to head for Bazlo first, then Saleen if it wasn't successful. If she was in neither of these towns, he would head even farther north and west, visiting the towns Tukshole, Golman, Respi, and Heilath. He hoped he wouldn't have to travel that far. That would be even more time away.
Going in an easterly direction after he cleared the mountains, he was running parallel to them. When his muscles started to burn, he would switch to a brisk walk. The flies buzzing around his head were annoying, as were the bees. It was too hot and sunny out for comfort. To distract himself, he made up a little song.
To walk in the sun all day
All the way
Bees buzzing, buzzing, no delay
All the way
Grass turning to brittle yellow hay
All the way
Burn to a blackened crisp I may
All the way
He sang it cheerfully, as if he wasn't upset by the thought of burning to a crisp. He was grateful now for the bedroll he'd brought, because he knew there would be no cover to sleep under for days. As the clear night filled with stars, he set up his bedroll and climbed in for what he hoped would be a peaceful sleep.
Jose woke up suddenly, ears straining, wondering what had jolted him awake. And then he heard it. A faint rustling and snapping. It grew louder, progressing to a rapid, scraping sound. He carefully eased out of his bed, working to stay silent. Peering around in the night, his vision almost as good as if it were day, he saw a medium-sized creature prowling quietly not ten yards from his sleeping spot. Its head was shaped like a canine's, muzzle and all, with sharp teeth curling over the lips. The body was slimmer and longer than a wolf's, and covered in dull gray-green scales. The legs were like a horse's, swift but narrow. Its tail was thin and whiplike, with a dome-shaped ball at the end.
A cospi Jose thought, awe and fear mingling in his head. Cospis were one of the most dangerous creatures that roamed the plains, yet they generally preyed on defenseless animals and humans. One of the things that made them so dangerous were the spikes. The ball at the end of their tail was covered with tiny, almost soft spikes, similar to that of some cacti's. However, each of these spike could inject a toxin that shut your body down completely, while leaving your mind intact. They generally hit their prey with their tails, then devoured them slowly, although with humans they generally drained their juices and absorbed them. Jose strongly hoped that the cospi would choose not to encounter him, since he was not defenseless. Remembering the poem Cirwel, or Crawling, Jose shivered. (refer to page 53)
Several tense minutes passed. The cospi lifted its nose to the sky and howled. The sound was so raw and echoing that Jose felt chilled. Then it shot off to the west on its horse's legs until the night engulfed it, like quenching a flame, as if it had been nothing but a dream.
Jose spent several days like this, steaming in the miserable sun. On the seventh day he spotted a small, rodent-like creature that appeared to have purple fur. He didn't get to investigate further, since it scurried off hastily when it smelled him. A day later, on the eighth day of his journey, he reached a small town called Ygof(Ee-gahf). He spent as little time as possible there, getting in quickly to acquire provisions then getting out. When he passed the temple, followers crowded outside muttered strange words and twirled the amulets around their necks three times. What this was supposed to do, Jose hadn't the slightest inkling.
As he left the village, Jose wondered if the whole trip would be this boring. The journey seemed to be the opposite of what he expected his encounter with the Gifted One to be. Important. Scary. Thrilling. Action-packed. The journey itself was boring and predictable. He guessed that the whole trip would most likely be like that. It was not an inviting prospect.
When he reached the river four days later, he couldn't decide whether it was a blessing or a curse. He needed the water to refill his water skin, but he didn't enjoy the bother of crossing the river. He was strong enough to swim across, but it was hard physical labor that left his muscles aching for days afterwards.
Safely on the other side of the river, Jose knew he had to change his course slightly. If he continued directly east, he would encounter a narrow chasm that ran east horizontally for some miles. He definitely did not want to cross that. Instead he headed slightly southward, still going east. Nine days later, to Jose's great relief, he encountered hills. He had become very sick of plains. But the most surprising feature came three days after, when he had crossed the last of the hills, and entered a forest.
This forest wasn't bright and young, with sunlight filtering through all the short trees' branches, or old, rotting, and decrepit with little to no sunlight reaching the forest floor. It was old, very old, he could tell that. But it wasn't the least bit decrepit. Everything looked fresh and healthy. It was also very dark, but in spite of this, plants and flowers flourished. He saw many flowers and plants he had never seen before. All were colorful, and seemed to almost glow. This was very strange. However, most unnerving of all were the fish that swam in the stream trickling through the forest.
They weren't trout, or bass, or goldfish, or any type of fish he had ever seen or imagined he would ever see again. Their bodies were like normal fish's, but they shone like polished silver through the clear waters. It looked like their whole bodies were made of the bright metal, yet they arrowed through the water with otherworldly grace. Most shocking, though, were their heads. They were not fish heads. They were human heads. They were all the faces of young boys or girls, and undeniably perfect and angelic. Jose felt himself freeze when he saw this, like something was making him incapable of moving. Was it a magical power of theirs, or was it merely his awe that left him immobile?
Most of the fish ignored him, or pursed their lips when they looked at him then swam away. So he was surprised when one fish stopped by where he was standing and stared at him. The face was a girl that, if it had been a human face, he would have guessed to be about six years old. Her hair shone as silver as her scales, falling wetly across her back. She stared him silently for minutes, not saying a word, until suddenly her pale eyes went wide and he could move.
"Is that a power of yours?" he inquired cautiously. He didn't know the creature's agenda. The girl looked him over, as if deciding whether he deserved an answer, then nodded. She used one of her fins to beckon him forward.
Jose obliged. If these creatures could immobilize him, he was in their power. He might as well comply with their wishes. She didn't stop beckoning until he was at the very edge of the stream. Then she reached up a fin and tentatively stroked his leg. The scales weren't slimy and soft, but hard and damp, as if they really were made of silver. Then she spoke. It was like many lutes being played, yet whispery and mysterious. "I saw for you. All the others who passed you, they couldn't see. They thought you were a threat, so they wouldn't let you move. When I passed you, even though I wasn't looking for anything, you were so bright. So I looked harder. It was so interesting! Do you want to hear about what I saw?"
Jose furrowed his brow. He had a sneaking suspicion about what the girl-fish meant by "see, “but he wanted it confirmed. "When you say see..." he began.
"I mean the future," she interrupted lightly. "Very few of us have the ability. And we don't see anything clearly. Just the very important things. I see more clearly than most…I was so enthralled by what I saw for you, I decided to free you and let you hear it for yourself if you wanted to. Do you?"
Jose inhaled sharply. To hear about one's future, even if it wasn't detailed...it was a frightening thought. But he felt like he was standing on a rock in the middle of a stream, and could jump to either side. Even though he didn't know what the sides were, he wanted to know which he would choose. Sighing heavily, he whispered, “Tell me."
She tilted her head back and closed her eyes. Whispering in reply she said, "I see green. And white. I see a journey, a very long journey. I see preparations. And I see great, great danger. And-" Her eyes opened now. They were shining with an emotion that looked like joy. "And I see something I'd never have thought I'd see in your kind. But I'll let you find that one out on your own. All this depends on a choice. Make the right choice! And good luck to you." Then she swam away, leaving Jose staring after her numbly.
Green and white? Long journey? Danger? A choice? Jose was hopelessly confused. After a while, he decided to just continue what he was doing and, as things played out, these would probably make more sense. Strolling through the forest more quickly, he decided he liked this place. No painful rays of sun peeked through the branches, but the whole forest, not just the fish, shone with beauty. A day later he left the beautiful Dark Wood.