A new day is a new chance to become our better selves, my mother used to say. She still says it, but she used to say it, too.
I think of the strange but loving woman and her weird obsession with us bettering ourselves, and hope that today makes me a better self. I say a prayer to Kaleel, and to Tomoy for good measure, and push my boat off from the shore.
The first few strides are across soft sand, and I sink a little as I push the boat away from the shore, then I hop into the boat and row hard and fast, and just manage to avoid an underwater rock I'd not noticed until now. I curse the unfamiliar beach and long to be back home, to set off from the shore that I know so well.
Better self, I repeat to myself, and set off toward the rising sun. The cool blue light illuminates the shore and glances off the ocean waves, flits across the ripples, and ignites my soul. I hold steady and row straight out toward the sun, watching as the shore recedes and clear features disappear into a strange blend. I concentrate on rowing for a while and only look up again after a few miles. The island, from this distance, looks like a moss-covered rock, the jungle's thick canopy of greens and yellows blend together and it's hard to make out individual trees.
I turn the boat and travel parallel to the shore for a while. The island is on my right, the rising sun on my left.
A large dark bird is in front of me. It is coming closer. It's also doing that thing that birds usually do not do, it is smoking. Black smoke rises from its back, a thick finger of soot stretching across the sky.
The bird looks like it's falling, but ever so slowly. It passes overhead, so I change direction and row toward it. The bird drops into the sea when I am still a hundred spans away. I look down and try to estimate how deep the water is below me. It is deep here.
I row faster and eventually come to the spot where the bird came down, crashed. There are the bubbles that come to the surface, so I must be at the right place.
I dive down and follow the trail of air bubbles to the gigantic bird. The water is getting darker, my lungs are beginning to hurt, but I press on. The Freel necklace around my neck begins to glow as the light fails to reach this far down, its flickering green tint a familiar and reassuring presence.
The bird is larger than I thought, it is taller than the tallest trees on the island. Bubbles come out of a dozen cracks in its strange dark carapace. Seeing the bird up close, it looks more like a bug, a hard-skinned buzzing bastard.
I swim around the bird and see a source of light. It is a great cracked eye. The bird is a cyclops, and the cracked eye sits at a small mound at the top of the bird.
There's motion! Something twists and turns inside the eye.
I look closer and see a form. A person!
My lungs ache and I swim rapidly to the surface. I do my breathing exercises, inhale a few times, and dive back down. Now that I know what to expect, where to swim, I am able to move more quickly.
The person inside the eye is struggling, He is tugging at His leg as if the leg is stuck.
He has not noticed me, I do not think. He has a clear mask over His face, air is trapped behind the mask. It is the strangest thing I have seen.
His eyes finally notice the glow off my Freel necklace and He is startled.
But oh, what is this, the stranger has soft features. The stranger is She.
She looks at me, then looks down at Her leg. I swim closer and examine the leg. The bird has crumpled in spots, and here it has pinned Her leg down.
I slowly reach out and touch the dark carapace of the bird. It is strange and rippled, the strange grooves on its surface grip at my fingers. I must push down the feeling of disgust that floods my brain. I wrap my fingers around the carapace, plant my legs, and pull. The carapace moves, moves slowly, but moves. I glance up at Her, and see that there are tears in Her eyes. She is in pain!
I pull harder and the carapace comes away. She slumps down and Her shoulder touches my skin. She is sheathed in the same sort of carapace. Many-sided plates come together all around Her, leaving no exposed skin. I recoil and finally remember that my lungs ache and I need to go back to the surface.
I grab Her by the waist and kick away from the strange bird. We swim up through the torrent of bubbles - which has now slowed to a mere trickle - and we soon emerge at the surface.
She looks asleep. I swim to my boat, pull myself aboard, then try to pull up Her shape, but She is far too heavy for the boat and we almost sink.
It is not too far from the shore, I tell myself, then tie Her form to the end of my boat and row as quickly as possible to land.
When we are about twenty spans away from the shore, I hear and feel a strange vibration.
A great wall of white shoots up from the ocean and reaches for the heavens. After a few short breaths it sinks back down. I look up in awe and do not notice, not until the very last moment, that a dozen-dozen waves are speeding toward me. The waves pick us up and throw us onto the jungle's canopy.
I am in a strange configuration, my head is close to my legs, the world spins and I pass out.
Head hanging upside down over an abyss, I see the world as upside down, but it is just me. I am upside down. I climb down off the pile of trees and reorient myself. The boat is over there, and miraculously it is unharmed.
I am standing in a field of felled trees, there is about three feet of water around me. The water runs and tugs at me, almost pulls me back into the ocean. But I can't, I must stay here. The stranger is hurt.
She is on the other side of the boat, farther up the beach and into the felled rain forest.
Her leg is broken, the bone is jutting at the dark carapace that covers Her, but does not break through. I can't imagine such pain.
I retrieve a splint and bandages from the kit in my boat. Thankfully it wasn't washed away. I straighten out Her leg and wrap a few loops of bandage around the splint and secure Her leg while She is unconscious. I say a prayer under my breath, apologize for the pain I am inflicting on Her.
I drag Her and some supplies inland, up a steep incline towards a row of trees that weren't hit by the waves.
I set up camp on an outcropping that affords us steep drops in three directions, the jungle to the fourth, and we stay here for the night.
Her breathing is slow, steady. Her heartbeat is close to my own, about the same frequency. Wherever we are from, She and I share a lot in common physically.
I wonder if this makes me a Hero, I ponder as I wait by the fire.
Her mask is off and She has been washing Her face. She still keeps the carapace on.
N-------- O------ H-- I---- L----" She says from Her bed by the fire. It is the first thing that She has said to me since She woke up. She is calm and composed.
She looks down at Her shoulder and frowns, then smacks Her shoulder. She is a strange one.
I introduce myself, point to myself as I slowly enunciate my name a few times.
Liiiiiiii- Viiiiii- Yaaaaaa-" She says, and points to herself, just as I did. Liviya.
I recount what happened, explain that I was out on a hunt when I saw Her bird come down from the sky. I saved Her, I say and pantomime, and She lies there and Her face looks like She understands me. I show that I set Her bone, wrapped it. Liviya bows, a strange posture for a bed-ridden invalid.
Her skin is the color of the night void, the emptiness between the stars. I think Liviya looks like an ancient god, or at least a god as imagined by some legendary hero from my own history.
She sings to us in the evening, then goes to sleep. I stay awake, on guard duty.
The sun sets and the moons are up. Tonight the Triple Pearls are in the Fourth Orientation. I tell myself the tale of the wise Kaleel who rode the volcanic tides (so reminiscent of today's impromptu tsunami) to destroy the Kraken in the Third of Her Feats, and day-dream of my own heroic undertakings. One of these days, I will be able to return to my village, return to the love of my life, and claim myself a Hero.
I glance over at Liviya and wonder if that day is soon.
Liviya is asleep, so I face away from the fire and listen to the jungle. Every so often I grab a pinch of ground up jerule seeds and munch on them. They numb my lips and jolt my mind, so I have no trouble staying awake.
After the Last Hour, when the darkness is deepest, I hear a predator in the woods. She is a lizard, one of a local species common in this area. I can hear her mouth slap open and closed, she is hungry, probably a recent mom, it is after all the season, and she is out for blood.
I blend into the jungle. My knife is out, unsheathed and ready to kill. I slither through the forest, quietly follow the lizard. I stay six spans behind her, give or take, and watch.
I am rusty, out of practice, or maybe she is just keyed up after the tsunami, but she is paranoid and keeps looking behind her, as if she is hearing me on the subconscious level. I curse my ineptitude. The lizard is twice my weight, can outrun me on a clear beach, and one swipe from her claws can snap my spine in two. I remind myself of the dangers as I sneak up through the branches, into the canopy, and follow, quietly, above her.
I drop down and put all of my weight into the blade. My knife slices clean through her throat. Her head goes flying into the darkness and hits some leaves to create the loudest jungle sound over the past hour. I enjoyed this dance, lizard. I bow to her, then return to camp. I snag her head and bring it back to camp. The hunt will be a good story for Liviya to hear when She wakes up.
The lizard's corpse being this far from camp is helpful to lead some other predators away from us. And I rustle enough branches to spook the curious away.
The sun comes up and Liviya is awake. I offer Her some of my best rations and for a moment we sit and enjoy the brand new day.
The lizard's head is mounted on a pole at the edge of our camp. I point to it and make a slicing motion with my knife across my neck. Liviya sees the giant head and looks at me and then back at the head a few times. I think She is impressed.
She looks at my knife and brings out one of Her own. It is a curved, clear blade. She touches a jewel on the hilt and the blade is gone, replaced by an awkward length of netting. She flips the handle this way and that, the netting twists around itself, She touches the jewel again and the clear blade is back. It's now in a beautiful corkscrew shape, perfect destructor, destroyer of flesh.
Liviya makes a sort of spreading, contracting, spreading, contracting gesture with Her left hand, palm up, then pantomimes sliding the knife along Her throat. Then She repeats the hand gesture with Her right, while holding and then pretending to slice with the knife in Her left. She switches the blade from hand to hand again and does the gestures. I nod. Whatever this is, I hope I've learned it.
Liviya thumbs the jewel on the hilt again, the blade becomes a web, and She throws it to me. Her face is set. In a moment I also hear it, another giant bird has come. It flies in from the direction of the sun. Liviya makes rapid motions with Her hands. I think She wants me to leave. To hide?
I keep both Her and the new-coming bird in sight as I blend into the jungle. Liviya sits up straighter.
The giant bird swoops over our campsite once, twice, then stops on the beach. This bird is even larger than the bird that carried Liviya. It stands taller than the tallest trees, its pitch-dark carapace is shining eerily in the blue morning sun.
A man walks out of the giant bird. He is also wearing a carapace skin, similar to Liviya's own covering, but His is not dark, but the color of great big puffy clouds. He wears a mask of blue, the only other color on Him.
It takes the man a dozens breaths or so to walk from the beach to our campsite. He is unburdened by the tsunami damage and easily jumps up to the outcropping where we have made camp. His blue mask slides up and reveals a face not unlike my own. His brows are larger, His nose is wide, and there are other differences, but they are harder to pin down. Our origins are not too dissimilar, and His presence evokes the same god-like awe I experienced when first seeing Liviya.
I lie on the ground, behind a tree, and watch. I have a feeling that this opponent is much more dangerous than last night's lizard.
The newcomer asks Liviya a question in their strange language. She responds seemingly in jest, but I can see the tension in Her body, I think She's terrified of this interloper.
While the two talk, I glide through the jungle, one eye watching the forest and another on our campsite. The newcomer doesn't seem to have noticed me, so I circle slowly to get to His backside.
The strangers' conversation turns louder and more forceful by the time I'm at the newcomer's backside. He strides toward Liviya, grabs hold of the carapace around Her throat, lifts Liviya into the air, and says something gruff, almost as if His throat is full of sand. She gurgles out a weak response, a plea: "
R---- W--- Y----- P----- O----"
Liviya's fear-filled eyes are pinned to Her attacker, but I notice that Her left hand makes the spreading-contracting-spreading-contracting motion. I slip behind the newcomer, stand up to His height, and from behind sweep the clear-bladed knife through His throat. The white carapace is ripped open by the strange knife and a torrent of blood soaks Liviya and our campsite.
He drops Liviya and She quickly crawls away. The man crumples to His knees and His hands move to His throat, but it is too late. I angle the knife and push it through the carapace on His left side, hoping that the heart is in the same spot on these strangers.
The knife slides out and the newcomer collapses onto the camp fire. Bright sparks explode into the air and red-hot embers spread out into our camp.
Liviya reaches over to the man's shoulder and dislodges a white disc. She pushes the disc with Her thumb, then speaks in Her strange tongue: "
P------ E----- A-----"
"Thank you for saving my life," the disc speaks in Liviya's voice.
I am overwhelmed and overjoyed. I bow to this beauty, this God from the stars, and kiss Her hand. I am reminded, of course, of Kaleel after battle, being presented with the Hook Of Destiny by the Triplet God. I am sure that this Goddess is going to reward me with a worthy trophy and title. Oh, what joy it would be to show Her my village, to honor me in front of my family and friends.
Liviya points to the newcomer and speaks with the assistance of the disc: "Bring me the pack that belonged to the Fallen."
On the Fallen's side is a white bag with a red cross on it. I take the bag and pass it to Liviya, then kick dirt onto the Fallen until the last remnants of the fire die down. As I'm doing this, Liviya takes an instrument from the bag and jabs it into Her leg, just above the break. She cries out in agony and I run to Her side, but She waves me away.
"I am fine. Bring me the sword that belonged to the Fallen." She once again points to the dead body.
I fetch Her the longsword from the Fallen's back. It has an intricately engraved blade that depicts a bloody battle. I wonder which fabled battle this is, but cannot tell. There are many images that do not make sense.
I hand the sword to the Goddess, and She uses it to stand up. She takes the improvised splints off Her leg and I prepare to catch Her should She fall. But She does not fall, She stands upright and towers a full head above my already-sizeable frame.
Liviya bends down and removes a necklace of linked metal plats off the Fallen's corpse.
"Brave One, you have saved my life, I thank you. The Ring of Dreams will help your ancestors find you, and you will have everlasting life Beyond the Arches." She puts the necklace over my head, rests it on my chest. "With this sword I confer upon you the holy duty of safeguarding your people." Liviya presents the sword to me, horizontally, holds it up to me as a peace offering, on upturned palms. I take the sword in my right hand. I've heard the stories since childhood and know the correct actions. "You may now ask me for a favor. Speak it and I will make it so."
My head is swimming, but my mouth is already moving, the words are coming from a place deep within me: "Come to my village and feast with my family and my friends. That is all I have ever wished."
The disc speaks in its strange cadence, and once it is done, I look up into Liviya's eyes. She smiles and nods.
Our farewell is brief. Liviya leaves in the Fallen's giant bird. I watch as the great creature leaps skyward, and keep watching it even after its pitch-dark carapace has become too small to distinguish. I blink and it's finally gone, a speck I cannot locate anymore.
I take my boat down to the beach and go over it, make sure that it is still seaworthy. It is, to my pleasant surprise. I gingerly touch the Ring of Dreams and thank my ancestors for watching over me.
I pack the remnants of our camp, some fruit from the jungle, the lizard's head, then chew some more jerule seeds and set off on my trip back home.
At sunset of the first day I find a friendly-looking beach and sleep out on the surf. My dreams are of my mother's father, the Old Loon. We share a fish and talk about good diving spots. The bright blue sunrise wakes me up and I continue.
The second day is long, I push myself and cross the Berling Strait in record time, and make it to the edge of the Archipelago just as the sun is setting. It's going to be a difficult push home, so I find another beach and once again sleep out under the stars. The Ring of Dreams glows a faint shade of red in the twilight and I have more dreams of my ancestors. It feels like they are already watching me, cheering for me to come back as a Hero to my people.
Old Loon is in my dream. He sits upon a throne of bones and swords, a bastardization of the real throne, and speaks in an unintelligible tongue.
I find myself on the familiar beach, the one closest to the village, the one I set off from not that long ago. It is night and I see dozens of fires, larger than even that great bonfire, and they are raging through the village, no longer blocked by the jungle but instead fed by it.
A shadow walks out onto the beach in front of me. It looks strange and surreal, but also familiar. Liviya, I realize.
I am stunned, unable to move, unable to even think.
She walks up to me, Her hand grabs my throat and yanks me off my feet. I am hanging over the beach, above even Liviya's towering frame.
She looks me up and down, hanging and struggling there like a hooked fish, then speaks Her ancient language. Her disc once again translates for me: "Welcome back, hero. I am grateful that you saved my life. So you will live, for now."
Liviya laughs and throws me down on the beach. It is only now that I notice the other carapaced figures around us. Liviya has brought an army to destroy my village.
I take the Fallen's sword from my back and face off against Liviya.
"I have saved your life three times. Not now!" I scream and charge. The disc translates, but it now speaks with Old Loon's voice.
I awake from the dream and watch a legion of birds fly overhead in the predawn light. They are heading north, in the direction of the village. This is a sign, I am sure of it, that I am needed back at the village. I set out on the sea and eat rations as the bright blue sunrise brings with it a new day.
I push myself once again and, miraculously, I am within view of the village by sunset. I can see it from afar by the great big bonfire. Mother and Old Loon must have had dreams of my arrival.
I row, think about the Hero's welcome I will receive, and ponder what to say. "What an honor", "I'd like to thank my family", "mother was always in my thoughts". No no, all too cliche, not worthy of a Hero's Speech. I start over and remember, this time, to thank the Gods. Kaleel, of course, must be brought up, but this time I can retell Her story with my own details. The tsunami! The lizard! Killing a God with one of their own weapons!
The sea is pitch black when the bow of my boat slices into the beach. I jump out and pull the boat up higher onto land. I am out of breath, my pulse is pounding in my ears loud enough to drown out the sounds of the feast, so I take a moment to calm myself.
I remember a fateful evening out on the beach when I was fifteen. My love and I stole away from a great harvest feast and made our way down to the beach. We kissed, and more, and mid-climax I found myself staring upland, the jungle simultaneously blocking and being lit up by the bonfire and the countless sparks it threw to the heavens, and in that moment I felt one with the world.
I look upland and see the great bonfire, and out of the jungle come familiar figures: mother, Old Loon, the love of my life, a few village elders. They wave to me, and I wave back. I am home, a Hero, and the world feels once again at peace.
There is a sound in the air that I do not recognize. Old Loon points a gnarled finger at me, but not quite. He is pointing past me, out toward the sea. I turn around and see a dark carapaced bird approaching from the south. It is illuminated by the triple moons and a strange blue glow that is coming from its far side, and it shines eerily. I have seen one like it before, as it careened into the ocean, but that one was smoking, on fire.
My people have never seen one before. I trudge up the beach and call out: "No need to fear!"
I embrace mother, Old Loon, and the love of my life, and together we stand and watch as the large bird slowly approaches the shore. It hangs just above the spot on the beach where my beached boat lies. A carapaced figure floats out of some hidden space in the bird. Even at this distance I recognize Liviya's shape. She has returned!
She floats down to the shore and Her feet touch down on moist sand. Her carapace is dark black, but unlike the outfit She wore earlier, this one is decorated with thin strips of green and gold. The colors from the stories that everyone in the village knows by heart. This must be what the Goddess wears on special occasions.
She walks up the beach toward us. One by one, starting with the elders, everyone takes a knee and murmurs a quiet prayer of welcome, as the ancient tales have informed us. I remain standing until Liviya is close enough to see the whites of Her eyes, and then I bow down to Her.
U----- I----- W----- H-----" Liviya speaks, and the disc on Her shoulder translates: "Many thanks for welcoming me, Hero. Stand."
The villagers are shocked at the strange voice, but recover when I stand and smile back at Liviya.
I make the introductions, first of my family, then the village elders. Liviya smiles and is happy to learn about us, our way of life. I lead her toward the bonfire, to the royal throne, where Liviya stands and speaks.
"Your people must be proud to have produced such a spectacular Hero, one who so reminds me of Kaleel..." She mentions the ancient Heroes, and in the same breath brings up my own heroic feats. It is just as I imagined a holy visit to be. We offer her our food and drink and she partakes.
We have a feast, the goddess is the guest of honor, we ply her with mounds of local food, endless rivers of alcohol, and other chemicals besides, and ask her to tell us stories of the ancient ones. Our village runs on stories, and so we alternate and tell each other stories. Liviya listens to us and we learn about the ancient heroes like Kaleel, and the gods of old who ruled the skies on golden wings: Mars, Venus, Jupiter, and Neptune.
These are strange names to us, but we learn. The disc translates without thought, it is not alive, does not even have an artificial intelligence. And so it is not able to understand, just interpret.
While Liviya is telling us her stories, I listen to the disc and learn her language. While one of us telling a story to the assembled, I listen to the disc and learn her language.
We are a simple people. We sail the ocean in simple boats. All we have are our tales, which we tell over dinner, over a fire. That is all I have, and all I need. And I can tell that Liviya is a liar.
She and her partner came to my planet on stolen ships, ones that are dumb and can be operated by voice. Her ship exploded, but they could still enslave our kind, if they pretended to be gods and goddesses. This is what Liviya said to Winston when they argued. She pretended to think about it, about sharing us with Winston, but then she signaled me to kill him. I remember the scene, their conversation, word for word. And during her speeches, and during our tales of ancestors, I was able to understand her language, and learn the truth of her existence, her intent to rule this world.
She is mid-sentence when I stand up and hold a cup up in the air. The universal sign for "silence, I've got something to say!" And I do.
R---- W--- Y----- P----- O----" The phrase that Liviya said to the Fallen, the phrase that I pronounce with perfect clarity, with an impeccable accent. Better, even, than what was spoken by Liviya to Winston, as I do not have anyone holding my throat and choking me.
"They are a brainless species, we can rule them together.", the disc spits out.
V---- K----- I----- O------- E-----", I and two hundred thirty eight members of my village say.
"You are found guilty of attempted genocide. Die.", the disc translates to no one in particular.
I use the Fallen's sword that Liviya gave me, and stab her through the throat down into her body. There is no carapace there to protect her, and Liviya crumbles before me.