Today was the big day for Isdralia; she barely slept last night in her leaf cocoon just thinking about it. She donned a dark blue cloak and hood, the colors of her people, feeling weightless with excitement. Today she would become a whisperer and be allowed to channel the Endless.
High light was here, the lucerium great lamps were shining brightly above the Uxmalosk cavern. A forest made of stone covered it entirely, the ground was blanketed in long stalks of white grass. Great spires of red, orange and even copper-color stone shot up upwards with crooked and with smaller stone branches jutting out from every direction, it gave the impression of a very strange, perfectly still colorful forest. This was the site where the Na’thrae from her city, Ishkandor, took the trial to determine if they were worthy of becoming a whisperer.
She was still young, with only thirteen full turns from the Great Wheel that stood at the center of Ishkandor. Most Na’thrae girls took the trial around the age of fifteen, but she had shown promise ever since she was a pod, a youngling of her people.
“Each time the Great Wheel does a full turn you are one year older.”, her mother, Kordallis, reminded her as she often did, to the slight annoyance of Isdralia while they entered Uxmalosk.
“Today the Wheel has fully turned again and you are now thirteen, sweet leaf.”
Isdralia flinched, she wasn’t a pod anymore to be calling her such youngling names.
“Alright, alright…Isdralia. It’s just a bit hard to let go.”, a sad smile formed on her lips. “Maybe one day you will be blessed with younglings of your own and understand.”
She shuddered from head to toe, feeling black curls of hair shake on her head. “No, thank you. Whisperers don’t have time to raise pods!”
Kordallis smiled and laughed, shaking her head. “By the Endless, and what am I? No, child, there is always room for more than just your ambitions, don’t forget. But now the time has come, today you will prove your worth.”, her smile vanished and her purple eyes opened wide, staring unblinking at her daughter…no, her pupil. Isdralia instinctively stood up straight, feeling nervous and excited.
“Isdralia Shanli, you have trained for three years as is the way for all Na’thrae women, to be able to be a part of the Endless as those that came before us were once before returning to Her embrace. Today you shall be tested to see if you are ready to become one of us. But before we begin, recite the Three Truths.”, her unblinking stare made Isdralia feel like a pod again, her throat felt a bit dry.
No, I’m almost a woman grown, the daughter of Kordallis Shanli and grand daughter of Landinastar Shanli, matriarch of Ishkandor. I will step forward.
“The first truth, the Endless is everywhere. Inside us and around us, we are always connected, and thus must always heed Her call.”
As she started reciting the words, a soothing calm began to take over her.
“The second truth, as we take from the Endless, so must we give back to Her for that is the eternal cycle that renews the world.”
Kordallis continued to stare, but the slightest trace of a smile seemed to peek on the corner of her lips.
“The third truth, as the Endless has sheltered and nurtured us, so we shall nurture Her.”
Isdralia looked at Kordallis briefly, the older woman nodded.
“You have spoken the Three Truths, now you must go to the centre of this stone forest, there you will find a slumbering visdal tree. Awaken it and yourself. If by low light you have not accomplished this task, then you shall prove to not be fit to become a whisperer.”, Kordallis’s eyes grew a bit darker, or so it seemed to Isdralia.
Isdralia nodded, her body shivered. She stamped her feet on the ground to steady herself. She would become a whisperer, no matter what. Closing her hands into two small fists, she walked into the stone forest. When she turned back her mother was out of sight, only the stone pillars remained looming, watching her.
After a while she came upon a large circular clearing where the tree was. An ancient, great crooked tree, leafless. It’s gnarled light blue trunk had the color of the lucimere lamps in Ishkandor when they shone during dark light hours.
Isdralia stopped on her tracks feeling a slight ache in her heart for the tree. It looks so sad and alone. I must wake you from slumber.
Isdralia approached the tree, reaching out with her hands to gently caress the rough wooden bark of its trunk. She gently pressed her open palms over the trunk and closed her eyes.
“Oh Endless, please come to me. Hear my voice and awaken. For you are me and I am you. Together we are.”
Her voice was the faintest of whispers as she tried touching the tree’s essence with her own. The tree did not respond. She tried again, but again it remained silent. She sighed and kept trying.
“Oh Endless, please come to me. Hear my voice and awaken. For you are me and I am you. Together we are.”
Over and over she repeated the phrase. She knew that saying the words didn’t really had any effect. They were used to help focus and channel her aetherium essence, to connect with the tree’s own aetherium essence.
The tree did not stir.
Somewhat frustrated, Isdralia took her palms off from it and stood there awkwardly, shifting her weight from one side to the other.
“Please talk to me.”
“Please, please! I want to hear you, I want to talk with you, please!”, she said more eagerly.
“Sure, I’ll talk with ya, you chatty brat!”
Isdralia’s heart skipped a beat and she quickly turned around to see a man just a few feet away from her. He had a pockmarked face, red long hair brushed back and brown eyes. He wore brown leather pants and vest without any shirt underneath. His chest showed several scars traced from navel to the base of his neck. A long chain was coiled around his body from one leg all the way to his torso and one arm.
“This one’s a real cutie, Maldos, maybe she’ll fetch double the selling price!”, a voice from behind the man spoke, then from under his shadow another man emerged. Tall, skinny, wearing a black cape and hood . She could only see his gaunt face, a thick black beard covered the lower half., his eyes were sunken and grey.
The man named Maldos chortled loudly, his companion grinned, showing razor-sharp teeth. Isdralia took two steps back, reaching down for the thorn dagger under her cloak. Like any Na’thrae older than eight wheel turns, she always had a weapon with her.
In an instand the dark-hooded man sunk into Maldos’s shadow and rose from Isdralia’s shadow in front of her. The man towered over here, a slipsword was already pointed straight at her face.
“Little girls shouldn’t play with sharp things. You may cut yourself.”, his grin widened, teeth slowly parting, a black tongue peeked lasciviously for an instant. A black tongue…she had read of these before, but her mind was drawing a blank as the blade was only a few inches from her right eye.
“Oi, oi, Vordal, don’t damage the merchandise! One cut and she loses half her value at the flesh parade.”, Maldos took a step forward, the chain coiled around his body shook slightly. Both were Magisters, as no man of the Na’thrae were known to be aetherium-users, and she was only thirteen. A pearl of sweat dangled on her right temple, but she dared not make the slightest move.
Vordal stood still for a moment, his slipsword still pointed at Isdral’s face, still grinning. The blade coiled back up to his arm while taking a step back. Quick as lighting he pulled out something from under his cloak and reached for her right wrist and neck down with both hands to grab Isdral’s shadow like some rag, and in a quick motion he melded it with his own shadow. Isdral had tried to jump back to run away but she found she could not move at all.
Vordal stood back up and reached from under his cloak, he pulled out a collar made of iron with dark green lucerium crystals shinning dully. He placed the collar around Isdral’s neck and clasped it shut. Vordal then grabbed her right arm and twisted it hard. She screamed, or so she thought she did, but no sound came from her at all despite feeling herself screaming in pain. Isdral looked at Vordal’s face, his grin, if possible, had widened more, making rows of wrinkles form around his gaunt face, like a smiling corpse.
“There, she’s bound and silenced. Lets go.”
As soon as Vordal started walking her body began to imitate his style and speed. She screamed again, trying to get her mother’s attention but still no sound came from her. Even her footsteps were silenced under the grassy ground. Maldos was ahead, swinging his chain back and forth.
Something glinted from among the stone trees followed by a loud crack, an instant later Maldos howled in pain, grabbing his left arm.
Isdralia briefly saw a few brown thorns the size of an adult’s index finger sticking out from Maldos’s shoulder. He was breathing heavily and grunted as started to pull them out.
With the flick of a wrist the vine whip retracted back to its owner’s hand, thorns were slightly poking out, the tip of the whip was dipped with blood.
“Let her go, or I’ll make sure your entrails adorn my family tree.”.
Kordallis’s voice was calm, almost detached . She stood a few feet in front of them, her face showed no emotion. On her left hand she had her vine whip, on the right her slipsword, ready to strike. Her eyes were shining brightly, the only hint that she was furious.
Maldos’s chain slowly uncoiled from his body with a life of it’s own. Isdralia saw that the chain was growing what appeared to be small, sharp hooks.
“You know, an older female won’t fetch that great a price, but she seems to have spunk, maybe we can get something decent out of her. She still looks fresh.”, Voldar’s voice was amused as he swept Kardollis up and down with his eyes.
Maldos had already pulled the thorn out and was glaring at Kordallis. He spat on the ground, the chain shaking with his rage. “Bitch poked me. It hurts, a lot. I say we flay her and sell the skin. Probably get enough for a decent meal after we sell the wee one.”
Voldar remained in his place, not moving.
“I am feeling a bit peckish.”, he whispered.
Maldos flicked his hands forward and the chain sped towards Kordallis. She barely evaded it by side stepping and began to run towards him. In one motion she jumped forward and swung her whip hard, thorns coming out of the vine as the whip uncoiled towards the man. Maldos’s chain was faster and part of it deflected the whip’s blow, scattering thorns all over, he snarled and licked his lips in anticipation. Kordallis landed close enough to Maldos and with a scream lunged forward with her slipsword, attempting to stab him, but he was quicker. His chain had not stopped moving in all this time, positioning the tip behind Kordallis and striking her from behind.
She turned at the last instant before it hit her with full force, but some of the hooks managed to latch on and tear some of her flesh. She screamed and rolled on the ground, blood splattering over the grass, while tears and sweat blinded her briefly. Maldos howled in laughter while the chain retracted and coiled back on his body, he grabbed the bits of flesh stuck on the chain’s hooks almost with glee.
“Think they’ll give us half an iron if we damage the skin a bit?”
“I’m sure we’ll get something, but finish it quickly now.”, Voldar’s voice was still calm, but something about it made Isdralia’s hair on the back of her neck stand up.
Kordallis was kneeling, still reeling from the pain of the attack. She had been wounded considerably and was trying to regain her stance.
“Never time for a little foreplay. Eh, fuck it.”, the chain thrust itself again towards Kordallis, this time the blow would pierce through her head.
Don’t!, Isdralia screamed in silence.
Maldos’s chain fell limp to the ground, only half a feet away from Kordallis. Her mother was staring at Maldos, surprise finally showing on her face. Isdralia’s eyes grew wide when she turned to look at him.
Maldo’s body was impaled, groin to head, from what appeared to be a crude wooden spike covered in dirt, and now Maldos’s blood. His body twitched a bit before becoming still.
An enormous presence suddenly filled Isdralia’s mind. It seemed to be speaking to her, no…it was feeling, with her, an urge to protect her mother. The spike retreated back into the ground, with Maldos’s corpse falling to the grassy ground. Just then she felt the cold blade from Vordal’s slipsword over her throat.
“Whatever you did, stop it right now, or you die. And your mother too afterwards, but I’ll take my time with her.”
Kordallis had managed to stand up, she was shaking from the pain, but still held her thorn dagger and slipsword out, ready to strike.
“Let her go, noctum, your fight’s with me.”, Kordallis snarled, composure be damned.
Noctum…black tongue. It suddenly clicked and she remembered what she had read. Vordal was a noctum, a member of the Noctumbra. Assassins for hire, said to come from the Triumvirate cities.
Why was a noctum after her? Was she the target? Was it her mother? She had to get free from his hold before…
In one motion Vordal thrusted his slipsword and half his arm into his own shadow. Isdralia also bent in that awkward pose, but her arm slammed on to grassy ground. She heard her mother scream. Vordal slowly stood up again, pulling out his arm and slipsword from his shadow. From the tip and up to halfway its length, the sword was covered in blood. Isdralia then caught sight of her mother’s body lying on the ground.
She let out a long silent scream, closing her eyes as rage filled her body. Then she felt her body grow and grow until she picked Vordal with her long branches and squeezed hard. Bones snapped, organs were crushed to a pulp while she felt every pore of the man’s body explode in geysers of blood. He did not scream, not even once. She felt the life leave his body in an instant but she kept squeezing.
“Isdralia, let go! The Endless will consume you! LET GO, PLEASE!”
No, she did not want to let go. Isdralia wanted to keep hurting this man, over and over.
Something warm wrapped around her body. This warmth….so familiar, and this smell…it felt good.
Slowly she let go of Vordal’s corpse as her anger subsided, feeling it fall to the ground, a bloody mass of crushed flesh and bone. As soon as she let go her body felt exhausted and she blacked out.
When she came to she was staring at the cavern’s ceiling far, far up. The lucerium lamps were shining a soft bluish light. Her mother was kneeling besides her, a bloody bandage was placed over her stomach area. Mother…
Isdralia tried to get up but she still felt too tired to move. She had to tell her.
“M-mo….ther.”, hearing her own voice again almost made her cry.
Kordallis placed two fingers gently over her lips.
“Hush, dear. I’m alright, nothing the healers back in Ishkandor can’t fix. Though I was lucky, the blade pierced me through my leg, I’ll walk funny for some time, but I’ll live. “You did great, Isdralia…”, her expression was soft, but her voice had a trace of worry. Isdralia’s expression must have shown her concern as Kordallis looked at her and sighed.
“I don’t know what the noctum’s intentions were…probably to kill us both. Use you as bait to set the trap. I guess his partner didn’t know. Just another expendable asset to get the job done.”, bitterness came out of her lips, then promptly sighted, she looked older than her years.
Kordallis looked up, her eyes had a far away look and she continued talking more to herself than anything.
“Regardless, this assassination attempt…mother must be told, someone paid money for this. They’ll probably try again when they know they failed. We’ll need to put the guard on alert and…”, Kordallis stopped and looked down at her daughter. Her face softened again and she shook her head.
“For now, we must get back to the city and get patched up.”
Kordallis picked her up and placed Isdralia on her back while giving out a small grunt of pain, her hands supported Isdralia from below. Once she was settled safely on her back, Kordallis started limping. Despite her wound she had little trouble carrying Isdralia; her daughter’s body was rather lithe.
“Well, it wasn’t all for naught. You passed the trial, my sweet leaf. You are one of us now.”, despite not being able to see it, she felt her mother smiling. A thought occurred to Isdralia; she had only the tiniest amount of strength left, so with a bit of effort she turned her head back slightly.
The tree was blooming with red leaves and white star-shaped flowers, softly swaying amid the still forest. Isdralia smiled and rested her head on her mother’s back, feeling her warmth as they made their way back to Ishkandor.