Annin slumped back against the mattress, her muscles aching from exertion. Too many hours had passed, and the baby had not come. Like too many others, this child was doomed. A mixture of despair and grief plagued the young mother’s heart, and she wept for the daughter that she would never meet.
Cradling her sister’s head in her arms, Tashi whispered, “You must hold on, Annin.” Their own mother had died giving birth to Annin, and Tashi feared she would lose her sister the same way.
“It can wait no longer,” the doula said, wiping blood from her hands. “I must remove the baby or both mother and child will die.” Her dark eyes stared at Tashi, daring her to refuse.
As High Priestess of the Ulihi tribe, Tashi had final say in all matters of the body. The doula could not proceed without permission, otherwise she risked unleashing a plague of evil upon the tribe. Glancing down at her sister, Tashi knew what had to be done.
Gently placing Annin’s head upon her pillow, Tashi jumped to her feet. Stepping outside the birthing hut, she dashed through the village center to her own hut. A flame burned brightly at the center of the one-room dwelling, and Tashi paused before it. The image of her mother, her ebony skin glistening in the firelight, stood before the priestess. Flames replaced her once-raven-black hair, but her black eyes stared knowingly at her daughter. A mirror image of her mother, Tashi looked upon this face with regularity. The image in the flames did not unnerve her, nor did it give her cause for concern. “She will not go with you today,” she stated. The image vanished, leaving behind no trace of its sudden appearance.
Her eyes scanned the piles of bones and sacred stones that littered the numerous tables of her hut. The tools of her trade, a High Priestess was charged with the care of her tribe’s most prized possessions. Many of these items were irreplaceable, thanks to the dwarves who had taken the tribal lands away from her people. Tashi did not care. She tore through the items like a whirlwind, knocking many of them to the dirt floor. Hidden beneath a stack of dyed furs lay a dagger of obsidian. Clutching the blade in her hand, Tashi returned to the fire.
Extending the dagger over the flames, she spoke an incantation. “Weevodo kee-uma,” she repeated, her eyes fixated on the blade. Its edges glowed orange, but still she held it to the fire. “Errda kee-omo,” she said as she flipped the blade over. The fire sputtered, sending a rain of orange sparks over the priestess’s head. With a fluid motion, she lifted the blade high, casting her gaze to the small opening at the top of her hut. The moon shone down upon her, lending its silver rays to the black blade. “Lu-omo, kee-vodo!” Tashi shouted to the night. Hugging the hot blade to her breast, she darted from her home.
All was silent as the ebony-skinned priestess stepped inside the birthing hut. Her heart raced as she scanned the interior, her senses on high alert. Every step felt like an eternity as she moved closer to the curtain that separated her sister from the hut’s entrance. Gripping the dagger tighter, she reached for the curtain and peeled it back. Annin lay unmoving upon her bed.
“Does she live?” Tashi asked, her voice thin.
“Barely,” the doula answered, snatching the knife away. She returned to the motionless girl and lifted the sheet from her belly.
Tashi moved to her sister’s side, once again cradling her head in her arms. Annin’s eyes fluttered slightly, proving that she still had breath in her lungs. Tashi closed her eyes, imploring the gods not to take her sister this night.
Combing her fingers through Annin’s soft curls, Tashi whispered, “Stay with me.”
From the herb pouch on her hip she retrieved a small pot of medicine. Annin winced as her sister rubbed the foul-smelling substance onto her gums, but she had not the strength to protest.
“It will dull your pain,” Tashi promised.
The doula took a deep breath before positioning the blade against the young mother’s abdomen. Whispering a prayer to the gods, she slid the knife over Annin’s skin, creating a passageway for the struggling child. Tashi closed her eyes to the sight of her sister’s blood. Squeezing the girl’s hand, she muttered an incantation, imploring the gods to preserve the life of both mother and child.
Despite her lack of recent experience, the doula’s hand moved steadily as she lengthened the cut. Setting the knife aside, she reached in to retrieve the child. The mother showed no sign of pain, and the child did not move. As she removed the infant girl from her mother, the doula’s heart sank. The child was blue. She immediately began clearing the child’s airway, but still she drew no breath.
“I’ve waited too long,” the doula said, clutching the child to her breast.
Tashi moved away from her sister and approached the doula, a savage look gleaming in her dark eyes. “Give her to me,” she demanded.
Hesitating a moment, the doula handed the child to the priestess. Tashi grabbed the child by her legs, holding her upside down with one hand. Stepping through the curtain, she exited the hut and held the child high, calling upon the Moon Goddess. “Shine your light upon this child,” she pleaded. “Do not take another from us.” For the past ten years, no child of the Ulihi tribe had survived infancy. Most were stillborn, and too many mothers were lost in the process. Despite all of Tashi’s efforts beseeching the gods for their blessings, the situation had not improved. Now her own sister and niece hung in the balance. It was too much to bear.
Seeing no change in the child, Tashi spit on the ground. “You are no Goddess,” she shouted to the moon. Darting back inside the hut, she grabbed a woolen blanket and swaddled the child. Rubbing vigorously against the child’s chest, she implored her to breathe. “Just one breath, Little One,” she whispered. Turning her over, she smacked the child’s back, doubting it would do any good. The doula had already tried everything.
“Your sister is dying,” the doula said.
Tashi did not hear the woman approach, and startled at her words. Turning sharply, she said, “You will save this child.” Thrusting the child into the doula’s arms, she focused her attention on her sister. “I will not let this happen,” she said, squeezing the girl’s hand. Annin’s face grew pale, her breathing barely perceptible. Tears splashed on her sister’s forehead as Tashi leaned in to kiss her.
A gentle cry sounded behind the curtain, and Tashi’s heart nearly stopped. Walking toward her was the doula, her face beaming.
“The child lives,” the woman said.
Tashi stood and looked down at her niece, so fragile, so small. No power of this world or the next would take this child from her. She would live and grow under the watchful eyes of Annin and Tashi. She would become the next High Priestess, or there would never be another. The tribe was too small, the lack of children reducing their number to near extinction. “Our people will survive,” she said to the child. “You are our future, our hope.” Gently she kissed the girl’s forehead. “Give her to her mother,” she told the doula.
“But she is too weak to feed her,” the doula protested.
“Prepare some goat’s milk for her,” Tashi replied. “And give Annin some as well. She must keep her strength.”
The doula nodded once, but her eyes betrayed her true feelings. She did not expect Annin to survive, and the child was weak. Neither of them were likely to live out the night, but she would not disobey the priestess’s orders.
Looking to her sister, Tashi said, “The gods be damned. I will save you.” Glancing at the baby, she added, “Both of you.”
Once more Tashi stepped out into the darkness, bound for her own hut. At three hours past midnight, there were no other villagers about, no one to witness what she was about to do. Cold and still, the night alone would bear witness to her transgression.
Her steps heavy, she made her way back to her hut, the fire reflected in her eyes. On a low shelf sat dozens of clay and wood statues, all depicting the female form. These were fertility symbols, sacred to her tribe. Some had been crafted centuries earlier, when her people reproduced with ease and reared healthy children to adulthood. Those days were long gone.
Lifting an idol in her hand, she turned it toward the light. A wide smile stretched across its clay face, its belly round and full. In a swift motion, Tashi threw the idol into the fire, smashing it against the burning logs. Statue after statue followed suit as she screamed to the night. “No more will you mock my people!” Her voice harsh with anger, she cursed the gods who had forsaken the children of her tribe. “You are no longer gods,” she said as she tossed the last of the idols into the flames. Falling to her knees, she covered her eyes and wept.
After several moments, Tashi finally looked up, fixated on the scene before her. The destruction of a sacred object was known to invite evil into one’s home. As High Priestess, she was expected to protect these items with her life. But Tashi did not regret her actions. In her mind flashed images of dead children, infants who would never know the love of their mothers. All of them she had offered to the gods, their tiny remains bundled and burned, returning to the gods who had sent them to this world. Never would they return. Tashi’s heart ached from the loss.
Guilt crept into her soul as she remembered the eyes of grieving mothers, women whom she had instructed to trust in the will of the gods. All of them had done so, believing Tashi to hold the power to converse with these holy beings. Looking to the ground, she admitted to herself that she had no such gift. Her entire life was a lie, as were the lives of all priestesses before her. They held no power; they could not sway the gods in anyone’s favor. Still her tribe believed, despite decades of failure. Had there ever been a priestess who could truly converse with the gods? Did the gods even care what a woman had to say? Tashi shook her head. “There are no gods,” she whispered to the fire.
Lying back on the dirt floor, Tashi tried to calm her mind. The tiny cry of Annin’s daughter echoed in her ears. The child must survive at any cost, she decided. I cannot sway nonexistent gods, but I can awaken the darkness.
Dark magic was forbidden among the Ulihi. It was widely believed the use of such spells were responsible for the downfall of her people, that they had been punished for summoning dark spirits and requesting their favors. But if the gods did not exist, who would punish Tashi for her actions? Everything had been a lie. Perhaps the dark spirits did not exist either. The priestess decided to find out.
On the far wall of her hut hung a series of ritual masks, each placed precisely according to the constellation it embodied. The heavens themselves were represented, each deity’s face looking upon the priestess. One mask beckoned to her, the one representing a long-dead god. He had slept for millennia, banished to the center of the mountain, never again allowed to roam free. His crimes against the benevolent gods earned him this punishment, and to call upon him could unleash a plague of evil upon the world.
Tashi strode to the wall and looked upon the mahogany mask, its surface cracked and lined with age. It bore the likeness of the dead god, his grim expression a warning to all who dared worship him. “You do not scare me,” Tashi said, reaching for the mask. “There can be no evil if there is no good.” The other gods were deaf to her pleas, they cared not for her people. Perhaps this one would take action.
“Darkness take me,” the priestess said as she placed the mask upon her face. “My life for my sister, my life for my niece.” With careful steps she approached the fire and began to dance. Chanting the words she had learned as a child, she summoned the dead god to aid her. These words were forbidden, and she had been warned against using them. Her grandmother had beaten her after that lesson simply to drive home the message. This was not to be taken lightly.
Raising and lowering her arms, Tashi imitated the movements of the Night Heron. Slow and methodical, she praised the graceful bird, all the while continuing her song. Her dance became wilder as she worked herself into a frenzy, the birdlike movements becoming those of the She-Cat. Her voice crying out to the night, she pounced and leapt with the grace of the predator. Slowing once more, she stalked the flames as if they were her prey.
Within the flame something awoke, the eyes of Tashi’s mother flashing a warning. Tashi leaned close, defying the apparition, the dead god’s mask grinning in reply. Her mother’s eyes vanished, leaving the priestess alone with the flames.
The chant went on for hours, her voice changing from soft to booming, smooth to shrill. A series of different creatures joined the dance, the priestess summoning all their spirits to assist in calling the dark deity. More and more voices joined her own, each imploring the ancient spirit to waken.
Nearly exhausted, Tashi continued, her sister’s life hanging in the balance. If she stopped before the dead god answered, there would be no hope. If he still existed, she must wake him. There was no other way.
As the stars faded from the sky, Tashi collapsed. The fire burned low, nearly suffocated by the presence of so many spirits. The dead god had not answered, and Tashi could do no more. Lying on her side, she wept, her tears falling upon the earth. Her heart cried out for the sister she would lose, and the child who would not live to know her. Was the dead god as useless as all the others? Tashi feared the answer.
As she lay motionless, the ground beneath her rumbled, stirring her from her rest. Wood and clay items rattled on her shelves, some of them falling to the ground. Still the earth continued to quake. Stumbling to her feet, the priestess swallowed hard. A loud groan sounded beneath her, the presence of evil was near.
Somewhere deep in the mountain, an ancient mind began to stir.
High in the mountains, Kaiya stood with her eyes tightly shut, her arms outstretched. Silver magic danced upon the palms of her hands, while her violet locks swayed with the breeze. This was one of a choice few places where the dwarf woman could find peace and meditate with the wind as her guide.
The silence of the mountain caressed her, her skin tingling in response. Magic washed over her, the element of air surrounding her body and filling her lungs. The soft fragrance of mountain pine wafted to her nostrils, reminding her she was at home. Here in the Wrathful Mountains was where she belonged.
Kaiya’s mind drifted from village to village, from lower in the mountains to the king’s throne farther north, and on to the very summit. Snow blanketed the farthest reaches, concealing a mind that she had not sensed before. Curious, she focused her magic to investigate it, but the presence was fleeting, disappearing into the depths. Whatever it was, it had no desire to communicate with the sorceress.
Opening her gray eyes, Kaiya witnessed the setting of the sun. A twinge of fear ran down her spine. Something was hiding its thoughts from her. Something didn’t want to be seen. Standing tall, the sorceress showed no sign of her anxiety. What did this creature have to hide? Did it simply desire privacy, or did it fear her? Do not provoke me, she projected with her mind. Whatever it was, it needed to know that she would stand to protect her people, and she was not to be crossed.
Wrapping herself in her woolen cloak, she turned her thoughts to the impending darkness. The first stars appeared in the sky, the sun’s orange fire disappearing on the horizon. Perfecting her circular arrangement of stones, she closed her eyes and focused her magic to the south wind. Pulling its heat through her body, she placed a hand upon the stones, spreading silver magic across their surfaces. A fire roared to life—yellow at first, then deepening to red.
Hours of meditation left Kaiya unable to sleep. She lay back, looking up at the stars. Silver windows into the past shone down upon her, their secrets stretching back to eternity. What had their eyes seen? Reaching out with her magic, the sorceress attempted to find out. No matter how hard she tried, they remained elusive, refusing to allow her entrance into their consciousness. They held fast to the void, defying all worldly magic. Someday… she thought to herself.
This wasn’t the first time Kaiya had attempted magic beyond her abilities. Growing up with no magical being to guide her forced her to push her own limits. There was no one to tell her she couldn’t.
Dwarves were not known for their magical talents. With the rare exception of metalsmiths who could carve the ancient runes, no dwarf practiced any sort of magic. Kaiya was born different. She had a natural affinity for the element of air, and it had shaped her entire life.
For many years, Kaiya was an outcast among her kind. They thought of her as a witch, one who would cast evil magic upon them should they allow her to live among them. Unconcerned, Kaiya had pursued her magical studies on her own, learning from the wind itself. She was content to live with her parents in their country home, tending to the sheep and playing with her dogs.
The thought of her beloved mother and father brought a tear to her eye, as did the thought of the dogs she loved as her own children. All would perish in time, but Kaiya would remain. Her magic was a gift, one that imbued her with the power of the Ancients, blessing her with the gift of long life. She would live thousands of years, until she chose to leave this world. Assuming, of course, she was not killed by some other means. Disease and age could not harm her, and mundane weapons were no match for her skills, even if she were attacked while sleeping. Only magic posed any sort of threat, but there was little of that to encounter in the mountains. At least that’s what she’d come to believe.
Kaiya had grown complacent over the years. She practiced her skills daily, always eager to learn new spells and perfect the ones she already knew. But there were no troubles in her homeland that required her special attentions. For that, she would have to travel the world, an ambition she held onto for another day. Until her parents were gone, she had no desire to leave the mountains. Unless, of course, she was summoned. Her elven friends in the Vale below might require her assistance, and she would go happily. But beyond that, she hoped not to travel away from the mountains. There would be many years ahead and plenty of time to see the world. For now, she was content staying close to home.
Over the years, most dwarves had come to look on Kaiya with respect. Some still had their reservations, but she had proved herself helpful on many occasions. Her magic could help bring much-needed rain for their crops, and she had been of great assistance when a magical plague descended on a nearby village. Word had spread of her talents, and she’d even had the pleasure of an audience with the king. Not that Kaiya cared much for royalty. Politics didn’t interest her in the slightest, and she had no desire to join the ruling family.
As the moon made its path across the sky, sleep still eluded the sorceress. She could not forget about the presence she sensed in the mountain, a nagging feeling ever creeping into her mind. Refusing to stand back up and try reaching out to it, she forced herself to remain on the ground. I have to get at least a few hours’ sleep, she told herself. Drawing energy from the air, she channeled her magic throughout her body, encasing herself in a soft, white glow. Within minutes the glow subsided, and the sorceress fell asleep.
A hazy vision of her parents’ farm played out before her eyes. Two of her brothers tended the flock, having returned home to aid their ailing father. Kaiya watched idly from her seat beneath an oak tree, leaning against its wide trunk. Lazily she turned a sphere of silver magic over in her fingers, its light dancing upon her skin. Turning her gaze toward the mountain’s summit, she glimpsed a darkened figure, its arms spread wide to the sky. As she pondered who this person might be, it sank back into the depths, disappearing within the rocks.
Before her eyes, the farmhouse disappeared, and she found herself standing high in the mountains, her feet buried deep in snow. A wild wind blew around her, but it carried no snowflakes nor the frigid chill of a mountain winter. Instead, tiny pebbles drifted on the breeze, pelting her face and forcing her to shield her eyes. Again a dark figure appeared in the distance, but as she stepped forward to approach it, it sank into the stone.
Kaiya looked up to the stars, but there was only darkness. A layer of dust and clouds hid the light of the heavens from her view, and she strained her eyes to see past it. Reaching out with magic, she felt only emptiness, and a chill ran through her body. The ground beneath her feet groaned, a rumble becoming louder and more intense as it continued. Without warning, the ground gave way, a deep chasm opening in the mountain.
Down she fell, grasping desperately at the edge of the rift. It was a futile effort. Her fingers found only loose rock, and she slid, her breath stolen away in a single gasp. Instinctively she called upon the wind, attempting to bend it to her will. But she found nothing. There was no wind, only stillness.
A sense of panic overcame the dwarf woman, her mind racing with spells she could not cast. How could this happen? How could her magic fail her? She should be floating upward on the air, not plunging deep inside the earth.
Crying out, Kaiya tried to call upon the air, but her voice would not project. Instead, she heard nothing but the beating of her own heart, thumping wildly as she continued to fall. Dizziness came over her, the air escaping her lungs. All around her was darkness, the mountain itself closing in on her. Bracing herself for what she might see, she turned her eyes downward to peer into the abyss. Below was only more darkness.
Never one to give up, the sorceress continued to call upon her magic. Perhaps she could force the air into this forbidden space. Pulling at the magic stored inside her, she felt herself weakening, as if something were draining her powers, feasting on her life force. Steeling her mind, she refused to be prey to the unseen entity. There had to be a way out of this.
As she fell deeper into the crevice, the rumbling grew louder. The walls trembled, shaking loose bits of rock and dust that coated her face. Clawing at her face to wipe the dirt away, she felt herself suffocating, buried alive within the rubble. Yet still she continued to fall.
Flailing desperately and nearing unconsciousness, Kaiya’s eyes spotted a tiny glint of light. It took on a familiar shape, but she could not put a name to it. Forcing herself to stay awake, she stared at the light as it came closer. It shone brighter but still eluded her. If only she could grasp it, perhaps she would be saved. Struggling to lift her arm, Kaiya found it far too heavy. Her arm had become a part of the rock, and it would not obey her command. She stared at the light as her eyes slid shut, her final sight that of its fading silver glow.
Bolting upright, Kaiya woke from her dream and stared into the fire. Looking up to the sky, she stared upon the same stars she had seen before falling asleep. The ground beneath her trembled, and she braced herself, fearing the opening of the chasm she had envisioned. Fortunately, no such event occurred. The trembling subsided, and all was quiet once more.
Disturbed by her dream, Kaiya hugged her knees to her chest. She stared into the darkness, wondering what it could mean. Perhaps it was simply a product of her lack of sleep, but it left her with a feeling that it was much more. A soft breeze caressed her cheek, reminding her of its presence. It was a message, she decided.
It was still an hour before dawn, but Kaiya couldn’t wait. She extinguished the fire and took one last look at the stars before heading back down the hill. Her mind whirling, she marched toward home. Within an hour, she stood upon the hill beside her family’s farm. The home where she had grown up quietly awaited her arrival, smoke already drifting from the chimney. Kaiya’s own house stood a few hundred yards behind it, her refuge from the world. The small cottage had been lovingly built by her father nearly five years ago, after he decided she would never choose a husband.
With a soft sigh, Kaiya proceeded to her parents’ home and peeked inside the door. Her mother, Kassie, busied herself in the kitchen despite the early hour. To Kaiya’s surprise, her father, Darvil, sat in his favorite chair, a blanket over his lap. Though he had grown thin and pale over the past two years, Kaiya still wasn’t used to him not being able to work. Normally, he would already be out in the fields, tending to the sheep. But the farm had proved too much for him in his failing health. Swallowing the sharp pain that came into her throat, Kaiya moved to her father’s side.
“How are you feeling?” she asked.
“Never better,” he replied, grinning.
She leaned in to hug him, noticing more white lines in his thick, red beard. “I love you, Papa,” she whispered before letting go. It seemed she couldn’t tell him those words enough lately.
Kassie appeared in the doorway, her gray hair pulled back into a neat bun. Holding a steaming bowl of porridge in her hands, she asked, “Are you hungry, dear?”
Kaiya shook her head and watched as her mother delivered the bowl to her father. “Careful, it’s hot,” she said at the same time as her mother.
Darvil rolled his eyes. “You two look alike, and now you sound alike,” he said, a playful tone to his voice.
“What brings you here so early?” Kassie asked, taking a seat. She patted the cushion next to her, inviting her daughter to sit.
Kaiya remained standing. “There’s trouble,” she began. “I don’t know what it is, but something is happening.”
“Is it to do with the tremors?” Kassie asked.
Surprised by the response, Kaiya paused a moment. Her mother had always been intuitive, knowing what Kaiya was up to sometimes before she was aware herself. The two had always been close, but sometimes Kassie’s perceptions were eerily correct. “Yes,” Kaiya finally replied. “I also had a disturbing dream, a gift from the wind.”
“Sounds like a gift worth returning,” Darvil commented. “Why is it always your job to fix everything?”
“Because my sweet girl is special,” Kassie answered, her eyes twinkling.
“If I didn’t help when it was needed, I wouldn’t be your daughter,” Kaiya said. Her father was a kind-hearted man, always willing to lend a hand to the other farmers when they needed it. The lesson hadn’t been lost on his only daughter. “I might have to go away for a few days,” she continued. “I have to figure out what’s going on.” If her dream was correct, she might have to travel high into the mountains. “Will you take care of my dogs while I’m away?” she asked.
“Of course,” her mother replied.
Leaning in, Kaiya kissed both her parents before heading out. In the fields, she spotted her two eldest brothers. They had arrived last year to tend the farm in their father’s stead. Kaiya loved the farm, but she was no farmer. Her knowledge of agriculture was lacking, but she was able to shift the winds favorably to bring the rains as needed. It was the least she could do.
With a wave to her brothers, she proceeded to her own house. Greeting her were two dogs, one a black-and-tan herding dog named Doozle, and a smaller red-and-white dog named Flip. They greeted her with gusto, nearly knocking her to the ground to lick her face.
“Settle down, boys,” she told them. “You behave for Mum while I’m away.”
The dogs looked at her with all-too-knowing eyes. They missed her already.
“None of that,” she said, stroking each on their backs and scratching at their ears. “I’ll be back soon.”
Grabbing a leather bag from her closet, she stuffed it with her warmest clothing and a blanket. Despite it being summertime here, higher elevations would still be bitterly cold. As she opened the door to leave, the dogs bolted into the field, greeting her brothers and prancing playfully. They were in good hands.
Kassie stood on the porch, waiting for her daughter to pass by. As Kaiya moved into sight, Kassie called, “Take this with you.”
Kaiya retrieved the bundle containing a fresh loaf of bread and some dried fruit. “Thanks, Mum,” she said. Her mother had always prided herself in her kitchen, and no child of hers ever went away hungry.
“You stay safe,” her mother said, squeezing her close.
“I will,” Kaiya promised. “You take care of Papa—and yourself too.”
Glancing back only once, Kaiya pressed on along the rocky path that would lead her into town. It was the best place to start her investigation. News didn’t reach the farmlands quickly, but the town was always full of chatter. Besides that, there was a friend she had neglected to visit.
Continuing along the path, she couldn’t shake the feeling that someone was tracking her movements. She turned around and scanned the area but spotted no one. Still the feeling remained. It was different than the feeling of being watched. She couldn’t quite describe it, but it was as if someone were aware of her movements, without being able to see or hear her. It could only be using magic, which troubled her further because she could not sense who or what it was. This was a force unknown. Whether it was friend or foe remained to be seen.