The soil had ceased to drink the last of the sun, and the heat of day was finally giving out. Imra watched as, from a cloudless sky of blue and gray, cold wind was beginning to catch the sand with small twisting spirals. Some rare few of those rose up towards the sky, like a storm just about to form, before dispersing from sight. They reminded her of the Great One’s gifts. His true gifts, before her tribe had betrayed them.
She knew night would fall soon. Difficult as it was for her to believe that the entire day had passed while she stood by, waiting, Imra had to accept it.
Such was the task entrusted to her.
While no one had yet dared to approach, that didn’t mean that no one would in the future. There was always the chance of danger. Like all commands, Imra had tried to take this task with seriousness. Still, it weighed down upon her: standing safely on the surface, while the Great One descended towards their destiny.
She fought the anxiety this brought as best she could.
By slowing her breathing, settled her pulse, setting aside concerns of heat or chill: she had made great effort to resolve her thoughts. Repeating what she had always done, in times of hardship. Visualized in her mind, there was a tree in spring.
Following the branches, down to the roots, there was growth. Growth, which spread in all directions, bringing life. Spreading down into the soil. Reaching up into the air, green leaves and vines, reaching ever higher. For the briefest of seconds, it was there.
But, the tree always wilted.
Imra’s lip curled in anger, as she opened her eyes to glare at the fading horizon. The casual dust storms growing more frequent in the changing winds. They flickered among the barren landscape of stones and sand. Nothing to fear. That was what she’d said to them. Told, and with such confidence.
Nothing to fear.
As if anything could be further from the truth.
Imra’s anger pitched like fire: no longer did that tree in her mind simply wilt- it crumbled to ashes, burned to cinders and dust.
Of any who served him, it should be her with him now. It should be Imra, herself, carrying the Great One forward towards whatever was to come. Instead, his defense- his vanguard, had been left to... humans.
The air in her lungs fell away, as she felt disgust. Was she envious, truly?
How low she had fallen.
With their stolen gifts, blissful ignorance, short and foolish lives. Just a summer ago, Imra would never have imagined such a feeling. They were bringers of ruin, thieves of untold magnitude. What was there to envy of such a wretched species?
Ever so cautiously, Imra turned to look behind her, eyes seeking to the patch of shadows. Several paces back, nestled among the earth and stone: the entrance to the depths sat in silence. Its location almost overlooked in the evening light, even Imra’s eyes had to focus to confirm the outlines.
There was nothing to make the entrance stand out, physically. From where she stood, a dozen paces away, it could almost seem ordinary. Enough to be overlooked, even, as the gap between sand and stone, dipped ever so slightly from the line of sight. Perhaps, she could understand how such a thing might remain hidden for as long as it had. In its own way, it seemed to wish itself invisible.
Still, Imra knew this was only a part of the story hidden here. Should she only take a few steps closer…
All at once, it reached her.
Wrathful, filled with malice: Imra could feel the world’s voice emanating from the darkness. Lunging and grasping out for anyone who might happen to be near. Raw and screaming, hateful beyond measure…
Yet, powerless, so long as Imra remained where she was. Here, at this distance, there was a balance. If she were to take another full step, though... half a step… plummet over the edge…
Imra swallowing fear as she moved farther away. Her feet dug into the sand, as she moved backwards, towards the wagon and sleeping creature tied to it. Even from where she stopped, she could feel it pulling at her, now: aware of her presence, in a way that had been ignorant only seconds ago.
The voice demanding a price that was no longer hers to give.
Death waited in the depths. Waited for anyone, truly, but for Imra: she knew there was something worse. Her place was to remain here, guarding the surface.
She could not enter.
Taking another step for good measure, Imra laid a hand across the shaggy wool of the Ro’ beside the wagon. The coarse hair was a comfort, as the creature murmured a sleepy rumble of appreciation. Simple and kind, for a beast of such strength. Ropes and leather bindings were hardly enough to keep it contained, yet it served its masters faithfully, by choice, despite being powerful enough to break free of its simple constraints.
Imra stepped up, scaling its back to find purchase on the wagon’s edge.
There, she felt the cold wind sweeping across the plains, embracing its empty song. From this height, she could almost escape the vengeful whisper, behind her. Standing with her eyes towards the horizon, Imra ignored its efforts.
Let the world scream, let it howl: she would never bend to those demands. Imra served the Great One, and the Great One, alone.
The wind blew harder, as more dust swept up to threaten her balance on the edge of the wagon. Turning to the source, Imra let herself skip along the edge, as she leapt across, finding better footing on the corner, spear shouldered for balance.
What a boon to have. More so, to not even know of it.
The humans she’d met so far didn’t even comprehend the privilege they possessed. Free to escort the Great One without concern: to be untouchable by that which most wishes them damned. Not even single one of them was worthy of the honor…
Imra grimaced, as she shook her head.
That wasn’t true.
She could deny it all she liked, but she knew that lies to one’s self were rarely wise. There was one among the humans who might be worthy, however barely.
Eveth would carry the Great One in Imra’s stead.
Stolen as the woman’s gifts were, Eveth knew her way about them. The others, too, would be fitting defenders. For all their flaws, there was power in their talents. Combined with the Great One’s blessings, it would have to be enough. Besides, what choice did Imra have? Who else was there?
None other but those of the mountains might risk such a thing, but Imra had no concept of how to find them. What’s more, is she’d long been taught to hold doubt of their trust, if she did. The wars had treated the people of the stone and soil with even less kindness than her own tribe. They had been silent for much too long, if they still lived at all.
Letting out a puff of air, Imra dropped down from the wagon.
Stuck as she might be, here upon the surface, she was still under the Great One’s command. Guarding something of tremendous importance was a suitable task, if there ever was one. To just stand here, and wait, though… it was not enough.
Kicking her spear to hand with a fluid motion, Imra spun the weapon. Tilting the balance overtop her wrist, again and again. There was no method by which she could quell the anxiety she felt. Meditation, breathing: these would not do, it didn’t matter how long she tried, her mind would not find peace while her body was still.
The spear carried on its arc.
If she were home, among the trees of the forest, Imra might take to the branches and lose herself to the sea of shifting green: running until her mind was cleared by the sounds of the world. Around her, though, there was nothing remotely close.
No green… Imra stopped, catching her weapon once more. There was one exception.
Letting the wood and fibers orbit about her skin, Imra lifted the spear. With effort, she swung it wide, just fast enough to hum. To speak, as the wind shifted around its body.
There was a story there, if she listened closely. The faster it moved, the louder it spoke.
Once, seasons ago, it was a younger sapling. Still yet to grow. It rose up from the soil, towards the sun, faster than any of its kin. Then, the rain ceased. Barely five summers in age, dying of thirst, it was given mercy from a slow and miserable death by the cut of twisted earth.
Imra spun it about, as she let her feet glide along the sand.
First forward, her shoulders shifting in towards the strike of an imaginary foe. Then, back to stop and parry, then up: as the form followed. Like a dance, but of true practicality, she had long been taught the way of the spear. Still, she had never held one quite like this.
At the core of what it was, Imra could feel hate. Swinging it faster, she let it shout.
Hate for the sun, that withered its branches, and gave no respite.
Imra leapt, and the sky was beneath them. For only an instant. Bright and relentless blue, with not a trace of cloud.
Hate for the twisted earth, which brought it death.
Imra struck and leapt with the kick of dust. Gleaming metal, polish showing in the sun, cut the very wind.
Hate for the man, who tipped its fiber with the very same.
Brave and violent, it did not invite pity or feel regrets in its tragic demise, or howl in despair. The weapon simply shouted. In a most pure and simple way, the spear longed to do exactly what it had been made for.
Perhaps, because of that, she felt a distant kinship. They were similar spirits, in a sense. As they danced together through the forms, she could feel it. The spear had a purpose, and so did she: but together, they could accomplish both.
Imra stopped, her feet skidding on the sand.
The depths waited, only a few steps away. Just a fissure, tunneling down into the depths, nothing more. Imra knew the deception waiting there.
This peace was temporary.
Even if it had forgotten her for the moment, the hatred which lurked would realize soon enough, and she would need to retreat once again. It would grasp at her, violent and hungry.
There was something else waiting there, as well.
Not of the world, for it did not rumble and shake her mind to hear of it. Not of hatred, reeling beckons, or greedy pulls at her spirit and mind. Instead, there was a quieter message.
Just like the staff in her hands might speak, if she listened carefully, Imra could hear this voice calling to her.
For a moment, Imra thought it a trick. An imitation of the Great One, meant to fool her. Yet, she soon thought differently. It was too direct, too thoughtful… hidden beneath the echoes. The soft tone of one who did not shout, or howl, but endured, patiently.
Ever so patiently.
Barely a whisper, hidden on the soft draft which lifted up from the tunnel’s entrance. Unlike the louder shout, grasping aimlessly in rage: this spoke to her, directly. Freely given, without a shred of malice, it delivered the simple message. Over and over, so that she might hear and understand completely.
The warning of a coming storm.
Turning back towards the setting sun, she squinted to the rising cloud of dust that had nestled itself. Far off, across the plains, it rose in a long trail. Approaching, or so it seemed. Not of natural form or wind, but another source.
The Great One would continue to follow the signs, as he had always done. In his own way, he would continue forward towards the destiny that waited for him. Of this, Imra was certain.
Watching as the dust and sand rose higher in the distance, Imra smiled.
She would take care of the rest.