They were queued up anxiously outside—rippled beasts, tiny nymphs with gossamer wings, leggy giants, cloaked wise men—each awaiting the opportunity for consideration. They each desired to pass through the gate from this life to the next and to trade the cold damp gray of today’s reality for the warm mystical vibrancy of the next. Yet the futility of it nearly stifled them. One and only one would be chosen.
They shuffled in the line, remarkably calm in the face of such excitement. The larger beings offered their shoulders to the fairies and their backs to the stooped wizards. The storytellers wove their tales of distraction while the crowd inched forward. Those with instruments played quietly. Each and every being would be interviewed on this holy day.
At the front of the line, the white-haired priestess gathered her white robes tighter as she smiled at the elderly wise man in front of her. “What do you want?” she asked kindly, the same question that she would ask of each and every one of the offerlings.
“I want to know myself, that is all,” the wise man answered thoughtfully.
“Yes,” the white priestess answered, offering him her gloved hand.
She watched from afar, new to this world. Alone, as she had arrived, she lingered in the grove of bare red-barked trees on the hill overlooking the others, watching and gathering her strength. Her death hours earlier had left her weak. She still wore the simple white gown and her hair was loose around her shoulders. She would need to find a way to tie it back. As for weapons, she was armed only with her craft.
She’d have to watch carefully for she sensed that the gathering of odd creatures today was a special one. The clusters seemed peaceful – she could hear soft music playing from tiny flutes and curvy horns. Perhaps weapons would be unnecessary, even useless here. She could feel their anticipation and their secret exhaustion.
To succeed here she’d need sustenance. She needed to learn the ways of the citizens, quickly. Sometimes friendship grew instantly, but more often she had to fight for it. She sensed, pleasantly, that in this world friendship would be easy. The beauty of the unusual creatures struck her, a passing glimpse of sun glinting off of the vibrant fur of a golden bearlike beast and catching the iridescent blue and purple wings of a fairy girl. She noticed that no two creatures were exactly alike. They seemed almost oblivious to their differences, just murmuring to one another and nodding to the passing musicians.
Curious, she crept to the edge of the trees, hoping to overhear their conversations, to learn their lilting tongue. She called on her gift for language, knowing that she would need to speak with them, and soon, to succeed in this world. She would need to make them believe in her if she would ever succeed at leading them, and she knew that she must lead them. Leading them was surely the quickest path to her next death.
The storyteller wore his hair and beard in braids, thin and long, some dark some light. Some had bells tied to the end, so he jingled nearly constantly. His deep green eyes glowed brightly, the sign of his gift. His tall figure moved gracefully in and out of the lines, his shimmering black robe billowing slightly in the cool air. Those waiting moved aside in anticipation of his passing, almost imperceptibly creating a living maze through which he passed freely. As he walked, he spoke, telling his stories.
“It all began with a girl,” he said. “The girl was born before her time, so that her very birth was nearly her death. Her early brush with the other side strengthened the girl, and foretold of many more deaths to come. This girl was greatly half-loved.”
“How can a child be only half-loved?” asked a gorgeous centaur woman of the passing storyteller, her silver hair falling to her shining flanks, a woven shawl wrapped over her shoulders barely concealing her breasts.
The storyteller paused for a moment, turned, and smiled when he saw his intruder. “One of her makers refused her. The other worshipped her. Alas, she was only ever half-loved,” he nodded, his eyes on her nearly visible breasts.
“The girl learned to read early, he continued, moving on through the maze with a swish of his robe. She read books and memorized her favorite characters, until they became part of her. Her family realized her gift for language and began to encourage her. She studied with tutors until it became clear that she could learn any foreign tongue within hours of exposure. Her tutors recommended that she travel. Her family refused, preferring to keep her safe within the walls of her home. She continued to read and to study, and to work with her teachers as best she could. She learned many skills; she dabbled in art and healing, in martial arts and meditation. She learned to combine flavors unusual and delicious ways. Most valuably, she learned to make people like her. As she grew, she became very well known.”
The storyteller brushed up against a tall, thin creature with a long neck and a dark, handsome face. The creature wore nothing but its glossy black fur and carried a large sack of roasted nuts, which filled the air with cinnamon. At the creature’s touch, the storyteller turned and placed a hand on his silken back. He snatched a bag of nuts from the sack, paying with a smirk and a bat of his eyelashes. He fluidly slipped around the creature and moved on through the maze. He was gathering attention.
“When the girl found herself a woman, she left home for good and traveled. She continued to pick up languages on her journeys, and she came to know many people in many ways. In some places she found friends and was well-loved, and in others, she was mistrusted, turned away. Her life had always been both, and she carried on,” the storyteller came upon a group of creatures that did not break for him. He reached for a delicate winged woman, lifted her easily, and set her aside. He offered a quick bow and a mischievous glance as thanks and moved on.
“The girl, now a woman, continued her travels until she learned to understand why we do as we do, feel as we feel. She used her gifts wisely and became powerful. Then her deaths began to court her,” the storyteller stopped to listen to a flutist’s tune, his maze momentarily closing in on him.
Zanna noticed him weaving in and out through the lines of creatures. His gleaming black cloak seemed to shift and come alive around him as he moved. He drew her attention as he drew theirs. From her hiding place at the edge of the trees, she glimpsed him. She could not make out the color of his eyes from this distance, yet she could sense their brightness. She couldn’t hear his voice but she could tell that he was speaking. She immediately knew that he was different than the others.
The creatures waiting so patiently to answer the priestesses’ questions were waiting for an opportunity, yes. They were kind and loving to one another, yes. But they were following the rules, doing as was expected. The black-cloaked man moved purposefully, unexpectedly. He seemed powerful yet calm, even playful.
From where she was, Zanna could see how he energized the crowd. She could see him seducing them. She wanted to be among the group, listening, being seduced. She needed to hear him. With him as her guide, she would find the quickest path through this new world. The thought made her almost sad, as she wished she could know each of the fantastical creatures. Yet she felt that she must stay focused on her journey and pass as quickly as possible through each new world. The cloaked man would help her find her next death, she was sure of it.
She gathered up the fabric of her white gown around her and set off running from the bank of trees, the deep yellow leaves crunching under her feet and her long dark hair streaming behind her.
Zanna slowed as she neared the crowd. She could hear the flutist playing nearby, and farther off, a group of drummers. The storyteller was elsewhere. An immense woman with grayish, leathery skin and curling locks of white hair draped over her body stood inches from her, and she inched closer until she brushed the woman’s arm. Tilting her head toward her, Zanna caught her attention.
“Oh, my girl, you must be chilled in your thin dress,” the woman wrapped her arm around Zanna. “Let me give you a shawl,” the woman said as she pulled a bright blue knitted blanket from under her tresses. She smiled as she wrapped it around Zanna. “I don’t know you, girl,” she said kindly.
“I am new here,” Zanna answered. “My name is Zanna.”
“Lovely name, girl,” the woman answered. Her eyes glowed with golden light. “Are you joining us here, then?”
“I think so,” Zanna answered. “It’s so beautiful here,” she said, noticing the leggy boys ahead of her with their bony, iridescent wings. Might she get to see them take flight, she wondered.
“It is,” the old woman agreed, nodding toward the twin snowcapped mountains towering in the distance. “I will miss this place if today is my day,” she said. “This is a good place.”
Zanna noticed how warm she felt wrapped in the bright blue blanket, the woman’s wide arms still holding her. She could feel her resolve slipping away. Still a novice,she thought. Still susceptible to experience. She felt the early twinges of disappointment rising in her chest.
The old woman sensed her feelings. “It’s okay, girl. Let’s make a promise. If today is our day, they will remember us in their prayers every Question Day, forever. If it is not, we will remain right here,” she smiled and patted Zanna’s arm.
Zanna nodded at the old woman as she caught a glimpse of the storyteller’s black cloak ahead of them. Her heart lurched.
“I have to go,” Zanna said as she squeezed the old woman’s hand. “Thank you,” she said. Then she ran alongside the line, dodging the listless creatures queued for their judgments. She ran, her arms wrapped around her, holding her blue shawl close. The wind pushed her hair into her eyes making it hard for her to see. She quickly lost sight of the man’s black cape, and she slowed her pace to look for him amongst the lines. Instead she found herself face to face with a lovely girl with green skin and glowing silver eyes.
“Why are you running?” she asked Zanna in a surprisingly deep voice. “What are you after?”
“The caped man. I thought I saw him come this way,” Zanna answered, moving closer to the girl and joining her line. “Did you see him just now?” she whispered, not wanting anyone to overhear her.
“No, but I heard him nearby,” the green-faced girl answered. She was very young, Zanna noticed, much younger than she was. Her hair was a few shades greener than her face, and was tied back in an elaborate braid.
“Who is he?” Zanna whispered.
The girl looked surprised. “Mikelo, you mean?”
“Is that his name? The caped man?” Zanna answered urgently. She could feel the girl closing off, getting nervous.
“Yes, that’s him,” she took a step back and looked anxiously ahead at the row of priestesses in the distance. Her turn was still a long way off.
“It’s okay,” Zanna said. “I’m new here,” she tried to smile, looking into the girl’s amazing silver eyes, but the girl was fixed on the priestesses. It wasn’t working, the silver-eyed girl was lost. “Thanks,” Zanna murmured, and darted off up the line.
She quickly found a gap in the lines and turned, wandering past a group of lanky boys with lizard eyes. She shot them a smile as she passed. Zanna kept going, hoping to catch sight of the black cloak, the tall man – Mikelo – who knew his way around this world. As the gap widened into a path, she picked up her pace, resuming her run. She knew she was attracting attention, but she didn’t care. The air was cold and fresh and it felt right to keep moving.
“She’s here,” Mikelo announced, sounding surprised. He made a three-quarter turn and swirled his cloak around himself. “I can feel her.” He held up his hand as if to demonstrate it. How often had he conjured up characters? Why shouldn’t one of them finally become real?
No one seemed to notice his excitement. They shuffled nearer and nearer to the priestesses, anxious to offer their responses to today’s question. They each could only imagine their own beginnings and endings. The poor limited beings, Mikelo thought. Nevertheless, he could feel her here, his girl-now-woman, new to this world, fresh from death. His story had given her new life, he knew it. Now he would find her, he alone could be her companion.
“Look for her,” he called, striding through the gradually shrinking mass of creatures. “A young woman alone and searching. She’s new here.” He got nods and murmurs in response but no shouts of recognition. “I need to help her,” he said.
Mikelo was much older than he looked; he was nearly 300 years old the last time he had consulted. Time had trained him to be patient. Yet here he found himself, his heart suddenly racing as he hunted for little more than a phantasm, dead certain that he and she had work to do together.
The smell of smoke lingered in the air. The cook fires were all lit, burning at intervals along the edges of the mass of creatures. Morsels of meat were up for grabs, roasting over suspended grates. That food would make some lucky one’s last meal. Spiced drinks warming in mugs added sweetness to the smoke.
The sky was just beginning to tinge with late afternoon pinks and blues, and Zanna’s heart sank. She had misjudged her new world. First impressions were tricky, she knew. She could still feel the calm anticipation within the queues, but it did not belong to her. She was still an outsider here, and she needed connections, alliances, to proceed.
Zanna jogged past a long-necked beast clothed only in creamy white fur. Llama, she thought. The name came to her from a past life. An owl perched on its shoulder. No, she thought. These creatures are not as they seem. However fantastic these beings would be elsewhere, here they are commonplace.
Suddenly her feet caught up on something and the ground came up to meet her. She hit hard and splayed out on the ground. Minutes passed and she felt something cool on her foot. A glance revealed the llama-like beast, pressing his snout to her skin. “Are you okay?” he seemed to ask as Zanna pushed herself up to sitting, but his eyes were wary.
She smiled to show that she was okay, although her ankle did hurt. Just then she noticed a book next to her, large, rippled, leather bound. It was well used. The book had tripped her up while she ran. Zanna tried to reach for it, gently tugging at the shawl that had become tangled around her. To her surprise, the scratchy wool had turned soft. In fact, the shawl was no longer a garment at all – somehow in her fall, the wool had changed to glossy feathers. She had been given a pair of wings.
Zanna sat on the chilled ground in the gathering dark, her strange companions clearly concerned about her. She could feel the steely resolve of her past, her human life, propping her up. Yet here she was weak, injured, and changed. She could smell the smoke in the air and she was hungry.
“Some food, please?” she asked the llama.
The full moon was rising, golden in the graying sky, casting its eerie light over the crowd. The chosen had been whisked away to their tent beyond the hill where the priestesses still asked their questions. Those who had not been chosen were eating their suppers around the cook fires that lit the gloom.
Alise could always see better in the dusk. She steered clear of the lines, in favor of wandering between them. To her left, up on the hill, she could make out the billowing white wool of the women’s gowns. In the cool moonlight, textures became more pronounced, and her eyes could feel as well as see.
She came to a parting in the crowd, suddenly finding herself out in the open. Her heart jumped as she saw Mikelo ahead of her. She stood still and fixed him in her glowing gaze. He noticed. Others usually did. He strode to her, a faint smile on his face – more of a smirk, Alise thought.
“You have beautiful eyes,” Mikelo spoke. She didn’t answer.
“Tell me, what are you called?”
He looked intently into her eyes. “And Alise, why do you follow me?” He seemed to already know the answer.
Mikelo’s face was dark and angular, and angry. He liked to have his way. Alise knew how the other woman eluded him. She could see the lines of frustration on his face.
“You’re not here for them,” Mikelo nodded toward the priestesses. “I can see that. You are following me,” he took a step closer, towering over her. “If you’re going to lurk after me, you should know that I’m looking for a woman.”
“I know,” she said.
“Then help me find her,” Mikelo demanded. The shadows of his face should have scared her; they did scare her, but she felt something new twisting inside her at the sound of his voice, at the way he spoke to her. He left her no choice.
He grabbed her shoulders and spun her around so that she was facing away from him. Alise saw that they had attracted quite an audience as the creatures turned in their lines to face the commotion. They looked vaguely concerned. “Go. Bring her to me,” Mikelo spoke into her ear. “We’ll meet at the treeline,” he commanded.
His voice sent a rush of electricity through her body and she tensed. “Yes,” she answered, and took off running.
Alise ran quickly towards the nearest cook fire and helped herself to several skewers of meat. Zanna needed to eat, she could feel it. The woman’s hunger made her stomach ache. Then she turned back towards the queue, and plowed ahead into the mass of creatures, carrying the dripping skewers and hurrying toward the place where Zanna had fallen.
She found Zanna sitting on the ground, wrapped in feathers and already eating a skewer of meat. A kindly old beast stood by her, keeping watch over her. A grayish owl looked on from the beast’s back. Zanna was attracting attention already, Alise realized. Everyone has eyes around here, she thought. It’s a good thing they don’t know what they’re seeing.
“Here you go,” Alise announced to Zanna, an edge to her voice. She thrust the skewers of meat at Zanna.
Zanna looked up, and immediately smiled. She looked deeply into Alise’s eyes, which now shown in the dark. “Oh, hello,” she said, smiling. “Thank you. How did you know how hungry I am?” she laughed, taking the skewers. “Eat with me?” she asked.
“No,” Alise answered, but she crouched down next to Zanna. A few other creatures circled around them with their dinners, creating an impromptu picnic. Alise looked around, uncomfortable. Feeling out of control made her suspicious. And she was as hungry as Zanna, but she wouldn’t eat yet.
“Mikelo is searching for you,” she told Zanna. Zanna looked at her and raised her eyebrows in surprise. Her expression changed from hopeful to confused. Alise moved behind Zanna, reaching for her long dark hair. She began to braid it. “Why does he want you?” she asked Zanna, tugging on her hair.
“I don’t know,” a bit of fear crept into Zanna’s voice.
“You want to find him too, don’t you?” Alise continued the braid.
“Yes,” Zanna answered, nearly whispering. She had abandoned her meal.
Alise finished the braid and reached for a leather cord in her pocket. She wrapped the cord tightly around the older woman’s hair and knotted it. “I’m Alise. Mikelo sent me to get you. If you’re finished eating, then come,” Alise pulled the braid. “Let’s go to him.”
Zanna stood shakily on her injured ankle, bending to lift the heavy book. It would be difficult to carry. “May I take it?” she asked the llama, who nodded. She smiled a goodbye to him.
“Here,” Alise lifted the feathers and set them on Zanna’s shoulders. She doubted they would work but they would help the strange woman draw less attention. “This way,” she took Zanna’s hand, leading her back toward the trees, both walking now.
As they moved farther away from the group, Zanna could feel the unfamiliar weight of the wings melt between her shoulder blades. They were not real; she would never fly. These were only a disguise, yet where they rested she could feel a new energy forming.
Alise pulled her by the hand, urging her toward the looming trees. “Come,” the girl told her, silver eyes flashing with impatience. “He may be waiting already.”
Zanna could feel the tension in the girl’s grip. She did her best to keep up, and surprisingly, her ankle began to feel better as she moved. The cold night air chilled her as they moved away from the fires, and she wished for warmer clothing. Her wings did cut the wind a bit, but she needed a heavier garment. A cloak.
The moon led them to the edge of the forest. In a pool of light, Zanna sank down to the ground and opened to the beginning of the book she had been carrying. She began to read as Alise paced the tree line. Zanna found the words written on the pages cryptic yet somehow familiar. As best she could tell in the dim light, the pages contained a description of an unusual girl. A girl half-loved, worshipped and rejected. A girl with talents and gifts. A girl who set out on her own in the world. It was the kind of beginning that begged for action. What would the girl do? Zanna caught herself wondering and she did what she always did, she flipped to the back of the book. Yet she found the pages at the back of the book empty. Turning toward the middle, she sighed to find the pages bare. Only the beginning of the story had been written. How unfortunate, she thought.
Just then, Alise let out a yelp in the distance. Then she felt his hand on her back just where her wings rested.
“You’ve found my book,” Mikelo said into her ear.
His voice sent shivers through Zanna’s body like nothing she had ever felt before. Alise darted toward them in the semi darkness, terror flashing in her silvery eyes. Zanna snapped the book shut and gripped its cold leather cover. Confusion reverberated through her body along with the electricity of Mikelo’s voice.
“Stop,” Mikelo commanded as Alise reached them. She complied instantly and stood frozen before them, her eyes glaring. Zanna could feel the younger girl’s anger.
In the distance, off on the hilltop, they all could hear the preparations for the ceremony. A string band played lilting music as assorted creatures strung lanterns on a wooden platform where the chosen one would die. Artists set up their easels at the foot of the stage, ready to capture the moment.
Sensing danger, Zanna thrust the book into the air. “Here, have your book,” she said to Mikelo, momentarily breaking the tension.
“No, you keep it,” Mikelo directed. “You’ll need it.” As he spoke, Zanna felt him move behind her, his hands finding the knotted lacing holding her braid in place. His deliberate movements paralyzed and energized her at once. “We’ll have our own ceremony,” he said as if to himself.
Alise, seeing Mikelo’s attention diverted, swiftly bent and reached into her boot. Transfixed, Zanna saw the flash of metal against the girl’s dark skin. Mikelo’s hands moved in her hair, unwinding the braid, and Zanna felt her hair fall loosely over her shoulders once more.
She turned toward Mikelo and saw him wrapping the lacing around his hands. The music was louder and faster now, the ceremony just moments away.
“You’ll want to cut my throat,” Mikelo said to Alise, who nodded. “Once the two of us are dead, slit your own wrists, too. We’ll need you to come.” Mikelo’s lulling voice gave them the feeling of time standing still. Zanna’s heart raced but she didn’t dare move. She stayed in her place, kneeling in front of Mikelo.
“See you on the other side,” he said to Zanna as he reached over her head and pulled the cord tight around her throat. The pain was sudden and dull. A few seconds later everything went dark.
When Zanna slumped to the ground on top of the giant book, Alise lunged at Mikelo, her knife flashing.
“It’s okay,” he murmured. “After all this time, it will feel good to die,” he met her eyes with a sly smile as the metal met his throat. He fell heavily and his cloak tangled around Alise’s feet. Alise didn’t bother to wipe his blood from her knife before she slashed her own wrists, just as he had wanted.
Days later, some wandering creatures found the trio tangled together in death at the edge of the trees and called it a mystery.