“Hello Rashell. How did you find me?”
“Hello, Miria,” it replied. “It was simple. I thought of all the places that a complete and utter failure would flee to. This place was the first that I though of.”
“And now you have found me, you are here to punish me?”
“No. I need some one for an undertaking in which it doesn’t matter if they don’t come back. You are my first choice.”
Years before. Miria had seen the temple the day before, but she had waited until night before she landed. Then, in the crisp dawn air, frost crackling up her feet, she made her way along the path though the forest that led to it. Somehow, she sensed that she had come to the end of her quest.
When the Green Plague had started to ravage her home city, the elders had demanded that the oracles be read. They had and the reply had for once been concise and to the point. Find the Spirit Stone and bring it to the city.
So the Sisterhood had sent out its enchantresses with the charge to search the lands to find the fabled gem and return with it. As she left the shelter of the forest Miria guessed that she had travelled farther than any others of the order. That was of no account, though. She would fly to the ends of the world if necessary to save her home.
When she finally reached the temple, if one would call a ring of obelisks by such a grandiose name, a man suddenly appeared between two of them.
“Do you have the Spirit Stone,” she asked. If he did not speak the common patois, she knew other tongues as well as several sign languages. And if none of those worked, she guessed she would still find a way to communicate with him. She need not have worried. His reply came back as clear as a bell.
“Yes, it lies within.”
“May I borrow it, sir? My home city is ravaged by plague and the oracles have declared that only the Spirit Stone can save it.”
Blunt if not quite what she expected. She was not going to accept it, though. “I beseech you to change your mind, sir. Thousands will die if you do not.”
“The Spirit Stone can only be given to the Chosen One. You girl are not them.”
“And who is the Chosen One?”
“You will know them when you see them.”
“Where do they dwell?”
“You will know that when you arrive there.”
Miria silently employed a series of curses. This was a complication that she had not bargained on. She had expected merely to find the Spirit Stone then return home with it. Now if the priest’s words were to be taken at face value she would have to hunt down the Chosen One. Then assuming they were not as uncooperative as him, she had to bring them back here which may not be easy unless they could fly. In the time all that would take, hundred more would die. Fortunately, there was an alternative. First though, she had to mislead the priest.
“Very well, sir. I will return with the Chosen One.” With a spring in her step she walked out of the temple.
A thin crescent of moon lit Miria’s path as she floated down into the middle of the ring. The glow from it cast a pale light on the stones making them look like waiting ghosts, a circle of foreboding entities standing their endless watch.
As her feet touched the ground, she bowed to the altar and which ever gods it belonged to. In spite of the profanation she was about to commit, she could still respect the local deities.
In spite of her resolution, she still stopped and wondered if there was a better way. As she weighed the deed in her mind, she unconsciously removed the band on her ponytail and shook her long hair free so it cascaded over her shoulders.
The action steeled her. After conjuring what looked like a small ball of fire, she sent it spinning through the air. The ball, an arcane seeker, would home in on the most magical, most enchanted item in the vicinity. Here, she guessed that would be the Spirit Stone.
The ball raced around the temple like a demented fly then took up position over the altar. She stepped over to it and saw, lit by the moon and her magic, a large many facetted crystal. In the dim light the colour of it changed before her eyes, constantly running through the hues of the rainbow. It was, she guessed, the Spirit Stone.
Miria turned to see the man she had seen earlier standing at the north point of the ring.
“Do not touch it. It is not for you!”
Well, she thought, at least that confirms that I have found the right object. “And pray why not. If I do as you ask, hundreds if not thousands will die.”
“You are not the Chosen One. That is enough.”
Not good enough, Miria thought and reached out to take the crystal. She could give the Chosen One it when she met them. Right now she had a city to save.
The instant her hand touched it, it crumbled to dust.
“If due form is not performed,” the priest admonished her, “If due reverence is not taken, then the wrath of the Gods falls upon the world of Man. By your act, by your defiance, the Spirit Stone is no more. ”
If he continued to speak, Miria did not hear him. She was too busy staggering out of the ring. Once there, she retched and retched until her stomach was empty.
Eventually, she knew the Sisterhood would find out what had happened. If the priest did not directly inform the Mother Superior, a casting of runes would reveal all. And once they knew what she had done, they would come looking for her. The Sisterhood was unforgiving when it came to misdeeds.
If only half the tales whispered between the acolytes and younger adepts about the punishment of rogue enchantresses were true, her fate would be less than pleasant. And once that fate was complete, her name would be stricken from the rolls of the Sisterhood. Then, if it were ever needful to mention her, she would be simply referred to as one of the Dark Ones.
So she fled to the only place where she could think of that they would not look; a place of losers and no-hopers. A town where no self-respecting or not so self-respecting enchantress would ever end up in. Drywater.
It lay far out in the desert and linked to civilisation only by half ruined canals dug aeons before by a now lost race. You had to be desperate to want to go there, although desperate seems rather mild a term to describe such an action.
Behind her she left friends, family, enemies, even an offer of a good marriage to a respectable house. She did not look back. She dared not.
From the tales spun about it, she knew that the place would be grim. The reality though was far worse. Only a few of the brightly-topped minarets had survived the years following the passing of its builders; the rest were ruined or had been demolished to provide the material for human dwellings. As for the canal, well they were half-empty with rubbish floating on murky water. A few gulls swirled above them ready to dive on the least scrap of food.
The hot dry air of the desert barely moved so a stench hung over the town. It was so overpowering that she nearly fled back to whatever the Sisterhood would serve to her. But she did not. She had prospered in the cut-throat arena of politics of her native land and travelled to corners of the world to see sights that most could only dream of. She ought to be able to survive a sojourn here.
So she entered what was now home. As she walked through the streets, they felt familiar in that they reminded her of the rookeries of her native city, not that she had frequented such places very often. There were the same shabby buildings lining dirty streets with piles of refuse to step round. The only real difference was that there were fewer people here, just a scattering of dwellers doing their best to keep out of the searing morning sun. They all had the same look though: haunted eyes that did their best to avoid contact with their fellow vanquished.
She took to telling stories to earn the where with all to pay for her food and lodgings; she still had enough respect not to ply the oldest profession in the world even though it would have paid better. As she told herself most nights, she had not fallen low enough for that. Sometimes she even believed it.
The present. For a moment, Miria thought of running. But where could she flee to where the other enchantress could not find her there? Besides if she ran, who was to say that Rashell would not still pursue her? So, rather resist and still lose, she surrendered.
“What do you wish me to do?”
A citrine was placed in her bowl. Miria looked at it with trepidation. Imprinting harmaturgical messages onto crystals was a high craft that she had never learned. “All you need to know is encapsulated in this. You will be able to read it only when you reach your destination.”
“And where’s that?”
Miria did. “You’ve got to be jesting!”
“Think of it as a turn in the Wheel of Fate.”
Rashell gathered her cloak around her.
“We may not meet again so I will bid you adieu,” she said. “When I know the task has been completed, I will see that your name is put back on the rolls of the Sisterhood. You might even consider returning home, if you dare.” Then she faded into the people passing by.
Miria stared awhile at the citrine perched on her earnings. She wished that she could throw it away, that Rashell had never found her, that she had ever come here in the first place….
However as the other enchantress had said, it was fate. So she stood up and made her way to her lodging to collect her meagre possessions. No need to tell her landlord, or for that matter anyone else that she was leaving. People came and went in Drywater all the time. If a person disappeared, you yawned and went on with your own miserable existence.
Still, strange though it seemed, she was sorry to be leaving and returning to the outside world.
When she saw the stone circle again Miria was shocked to say the least. The stones still stood in their ring, but no longer stood tall and stalwart. Instead they now looked like used candles, half melted with unburned wax solidified on the stem and around the base. As for the altar, well, it was no more. Where it had stood, there was now a slab of bauxite, the grass that clothed the ground lapping at the edge of it.
That was the least of it. Around the ring were circles of bare earth that had not been there before. When she had inspected one, there was a scattering of ash, and the sward seemed to dare not reclaim the soil.
She wondered what power had wrought such physical changes. As her thought danced about she sensed that there was there more than just what she could see, a feeling of emptiness as though something were not present but ought to
To try and answer the questions in her mind, she drew the citrine from her pouch, hoping that it would do so. Several times on her journey and not withstanding Rashell's words, she had tried to activate it but with no success. Hopefully now she was at her destination, it would end her ignorance.
She would not have been surprised if it had glowed when it imparted its message. It did not. Nor did the voice boom out or a spectre of the other Sister appear in front of her. Instead, her instructions were delivered by a small, terse voice inside her head. And when it was done, she was stunned at the enormity of the task. Not a prince to seduce, denizen to slay or esoteric mystery to unravel. No, nothing simple at all. Just a fraying in the fabric of the world to repair.
She needed time to think so she slipped from the ring into the woods. There she perched herself on a log and started to ponder on what she being asked to do. But before she started, as if from nowhere a flame appeared in front of her. For a moment, it hovered a yard from her eyes. Then it flew across the clearing to a tree, one that was tall, strong and furnished with well-leaved boughs. A true grandfather of the forest that one might believe would stand for ever and a day.
Yet the moment the flame touched it, it was immediately engulfed in fire. Green leaves shrivelled as though cast into a furnace. A roar sounded as timber burned as though on an open fire. Miria was close enough that she ought to have felt the heat from the sight before her eyes. However, there was a power that contained the inferno. It left her and the rest of the forest unscathed whilst the tree was consumed. Eventually, the blaze slowly died leaving a charcoal pillar standing testament to who had just happened.
It was now plain as a flagstaff to her what had destroyed the stones. From what she had seen, this was the first tree to be destroyed. It meant though, the contagion was spreading. Eventually the whole forest would be consumed.
Seeing no reason to wait any longer she stood up and picked a couple of blown leaves from her skirts. Then she walked back to the ring of stones. She did not quite know what she would do when she got there. Maybe the knowledge would come from the power that still lingered in the ring of stones or maybe it would come from the Earth Mother. Ultimately though, it did not matter where from or why. Merely that she would.
As she passed the threshold, a stray thought crossed her mind. Had the Spirit Stone acted as a bulwark against a weak spot in the fabric and thus ultimately her action leading to it’s destruction had created the breach? If so, then her return here and what she was about to do was another turn of the Wheel.
At the middle of the circle, she stopped and stretched out her arms in supplication to the power of the shrine. Then she went into a trance.For a moment, there was the sensation of intense burning. The pain was so great that Miria also most screamed out in pain.
However before she could, it was swiftly followed by a feeling of a cool balm flowing over the pain, first soothing it then driving it away. Only when the feeling had been replaced but the soft warmth of sunshine on her skin did she open her eyes.
Whatever the magic she had worked, it had been successful. All the stones had returned to their earlier form, looking as they had been when she had first seen them. The altar too had returned to its original appearance and sitting in the middle of it was the Spirit Stone. She bowed to it then and looked at her hands.
Her skin, once like smooth alabaster, was now covered in scar tissue, a deep red in stark contrast to the white that it had replaced. Her fingers were stiff with the damage done to them and when she ran them over her face, they could just about feel the ruin there as well.
There was no mirror in her pouch, but she did not need it to visualise when she looked like. The incomparable beauty of the city had been reduced to an appearance more hideous than the ugliest peasant.
Still, she did not weep at the devastation. When she had returned to the circle she knew that what the payment to make the repair may be. Rashell too had known it; that was why the other enchantress had sort out someone else to perform the task. She could not return home like that. She could imagine the words of compassion spoken in front of her, the satirical remarks muttered behind her back. False pity or amused contempt, she did not wish to face either.
But then she would not have to. There was one place where she could go and avoid both. It was not really home, but it could provide a refuge for her from the outside world. It had done so in different circumstances before. It could do so again.
She dug into her pouch and placed the citrine on the altar. Maybe its owner would come for it, maybe not. Either way Miria doubted that she would ever see her fellow enchantress again.
She hobbled out of the ring, closed her eyes, stretched out her arms and imagined herself floating through the air like a cloud. She prayed that she would be successful; she no longer had the power that she once had. Still, just long as she had enough for one final journey.
As she began to soar through the air she realised for the first time in years, her soul was now as free as her body.