Odaiba, At the Edge
Far away from the sword and the gate, another pair of eyes watched the summit, unknowing but still drawn to them. They were very dark brown, the color, one Imperial Merchant had acidly remarked, of a freshly-manured rice paddy. The warm darkness of potential.
The ancient Taajar, it was said, had no concept of Zataka. They divided darkness into different kinds, positive and negative. It was both death and life, creation and destruction.
There was a warm darkness at the beginning of time, and from it emerged The Sky and The Sea. They were the only beings in existence, and such they loved each other with a great and terrible love.
Though their love had borne many children, so fierce was their embrace that they were kept inside the womb of the sea.
Wait, the sea is female? Shouldn’t it be the other way arou--
Scattered hushes. Not until the end.
For long the children of The Sky and the Sea were kept in the depths ever growing in number, until one child was conceived, one stronger and larger than all the others. They were neither male nor female, but at the same time both, and They were called The Land. So big They were that Their siblings complained about Them taking up too much room in the womb of The Sea.
So The Land decided They would make room for everyone.
They rose up from the womb of The Sea and pushed apart The Sea and The Sky, with such force that the two could never embrace again. For many eons the space between raged with Her anger and His Loss. But then they looked upon their children spread out before them and their anger quieted, at least for a time.
Kuychar Hatchi’s gaze flicked away from the mountain, and back to the three dashi walking along the beach, their laughter fighting against the sounds of the brisk autumn waves. There was still enough summer warmth in the air that Hatchi felt comfortable on zir beach chair, nestled in light furs. Myzru wrestled with an oyster nearby, his irritated squawking providing a counterpoint the rising and falling of tides and laughter.
Hatchi looked at Sedskar, Semraed and Falki, called out to them, watched their faces bloom into smiles as they turned toward zir. Wondered how much of their smiles were for this meeting and not each other. Hatchi stopped zirself--when had this jealousy flared up, and why should it? Hatchi should be happy for them, and it was hard not to be. Falki took advantage of Sedskar’s momentary distraction to send him into the water with a yelp, and there was enough sunlight left warm in the water for him to sputter only momentarily from the shock before lunging up to pull her down with him. Semraed, ever the level headed one, resisted long enough before giving in with a woop and expertly dunking the two of them.
So tired was The Land after this that They fell into a deep sleep, and in that sleep They dreamed. They dreamed of deep green forests and waving grassy plains and the wingbeats of birds, and these dreams took form, and rested on Their body. And The Land smiled in Their sleep, for although these creatures had not the strength of Their siblings, they were beautiful.
The Sea, when She gazed upon these creations, felt her anger flare up again. What right had this child, who had caused Her so much pain, to delight in Their creations? The Sea found She still had enough of The Sky-- Muffled giggles, silenced by a hard glare.
--within her to create a last few children. They were not as great as the children She had borne before, but they were made with purpose--fierce and proud, with a will to rule. They were favored by both The Sky and The Sea, and so had complete mastery of these domains. The Sea declared that these children would rule over the world The Land had dreamed, and the The Land despaired, for nothing They had dreamed was as powerful.
No, it was not these three koshi zrupgar--content in their youth and love and strength--that made Hatchi feel so frayed, so stretched and anxious. It was the Astyzyar Jahagir talking to zir, it was Plangori Soraya and her curiosity--it was whispers of a land far away, where the people were the color of janu birds, like they had been in times long ago.
That traitorous hope against hope that beat around the inside of Hatchi’s skull like a crazed bird had shredded the contentment, the carefully built facade constructed of years of not allowing zirself to feel, to remember that zi was not a woman--nor really a zrupgar. That crazed hope that something of the stories told to zir by the old grandfather had been right.
Then, looking at the last children of The Sea, The Land caught sight of their brilliant, textured scales...and They dreamed of a people with faces like those scales, of as many colors that there were in existence. They were small, for The Land had not the power of Their parents, and so at first The Sea did not notice them. But although The Land had not the power to give Their children the strength of the air and waters, They dreamed them minds that could think and reason--and even dream, as Theirs did. And dream they did--and their hands brought their dreams to fruition. The Children of the Land began to the bounty of the earth around them into gleaming tools and sturdy houses that would stand against the rain and wind.
Suddenly, the sky above Hatchi lit up—lightening? A storm? Even the Kuychar, who kept a nervous truce with the unkind sea, had never seen something like this. The shouts of confusion from the fisherwoman returning from their watch confirmed zir hunch. The lightening, it arched back and toward the mountain, seeming coming forth from the roiling cloud of cloud of darkness at it’s peak. Hatchi had just enough time to consider the possibility of an eruption before the it struck.
The Sea saw this, and Her anger flared once again. She lashed out with waves so high that they reached The Land’s heart and filled it’s spaces with poisonous water, so no more dreams would escape into the world. The Sky whispered to His children and told them to guard the place where The Land’s heart lay waterlogged, so that His other child could never dream anything that could challenge the children that the Imperials call The Kanohi Dragons.
It is very hard to scare a well trained soko. From the day they are foaled, their trainers and their heard teach them to remain steadfast in the face of danger, whether that danger be the clash of crystal or the smell of smoke. And as Kuychar Ilykaed looked out on the smoking fields, she gave thanks the wisdom and good sense of generations of sokomasters for their guidance. Her contemplation was interrupted by the arrival of another zrupgar, concern written across the face of her mask. She didn’t mince words.
“Something’s moving on the top of the mountain. A great force, and fast.” The Taajar had used such techniques in the past—seasoned warriors on sure-footed horses, coursing down mountains to overwhelm a foe. To the Imperials, it might seem crude and barbaric—a show of brute force more than tactics—but Ilykaed has studied, knew that there was always a plan. Always. She met the other women’s eyes squarely.
“Tell them to bring out every last boat, even the canoes. The dashi and the artisans, anyone who can’t swing a sword or shoot a bow, they must take the dried food they can and go as far out into the sea as the boats will carry them. I will take care of the rest.”
As the trees on the mountaintop began to shake, she let Maki take her towards the other warriors.
But no matter what winds He sent, the sturdy homes of The Land’s Children did not falter. He sent his children to kill them, but The Land’s children had grown too numerous for the dragons--and though they killed many The Land’s children were many more, and together they pushed back against the dragons--finally slaying some with the weapons they had forged. The Sea and The Sky feared to see their children dying, so they called them back.
Hatchi was accustomed to the chaos of uprooting—the lowing of animals and the questions of children and scramble to put things away. Never like this, though, never into the sea, on a moment’s notice. Still, it was easy to pretend that this was just another camp change, especially with the familiar faces around zir. Another woman flagged zir down, and zi guided Myzru in that direction—there was no time to greet her, only to catch the message and turn back towards the beach, firmly guiding Myrzru to the collection of boats that was being loaded. It was almost as if someone else was inquiring which boats were the surest, asking the fisherwoman where zi should direct the assorted people on the beach. It was easy to float in this place between events, just before the wave crashed. But Hatchi was practiced enough at sensing a situation that would soon erupt into violence, as were a great number of the people here. Zi caught sight of Sedskar dodging similarly between the refugees, his gaze firm and focused, his earlier joy gone. Semraed and Falki would be with the other warriors, preparing for whatever strange foe came down the mountain for them. As the last of the sturdy fishing boats pushed off, leaving only the fastest canoes for the warriors if they had need of them.
When they had need of them.
Hatchi dismounted from Myzru, urging him to swim into the waiting waves, and stood leaning on zir cane, on the edge of the sand.
And that is why we do not worship The Sky or The Sea. We plead for their favor, and acknowledge their might, but never do we give ourselves to them, for we know they do not love us, for we are not their children. We are not born of Sea and Sky, of power and terror. We are born of The Land and Their dreams, our hands and our minds.
“Focus.” The flat, firm voice of the Sokomaster cut off the murmurs of dismay from the younger warriors. There were too many of them, Ilykaed thought. Too many Zrupgar who hadn’t seen a true battle, and too many of those things steadily becoming more clear on the horizon. They looked like some twisted take on a lizard, but they walked upright, and they gleamed impossibly.
Like metal. Ilykaed may have been a general, the rightful leader of the Kuychar clan, but when it came to archery, she was second to the steady hand of the Sokomaster, waiting for her signal as one of the creatures drew closer.
And then, suddenly it was not there.
The soko next to Maki screamed as the warrior next to Ilykaed frantically reached for her weapon, but Ilykaed had already let the bow fall to her side. She had really hoped not to tap into the power of her mask so early, but this was no time. Not enough save the soko.
The creature was made of metal, gleaming and resilient, but it splintered beneath the weight of Ilykaed’s great kris all the same. She saw something soft and wriggling split beneath the blade before Maki drew back and the creature’s shell teetered. Ilykaed spoke clearly, above the fears and whispers of her warriors. “They can die.” Then Maki dodged to the side as the ground next to her exploded.
As she seated herself, aware of every last position in her peripheral vision, Ilykaed turned to lock eyes with the Sokomaster, an understanding flashing between them. The creature before had used a mask power, but these things had power beyond that, power they did not understand.
“Retreat! Focus on the ones with range!”
One of the creatures, the brown one, ducked under the pepper of arrows that clanged off its carapace swinging around to cause another roaring explosion just in front of the retreating Soko. In the next volley, however, the Sokomaster’s keen eye send a bolt punching through it’s eye, skewering the writhing worm inside.
Luknan, the warrior who had been unhorsed, ran alongside them, but she was falling behind, and she knew it. Still, she kept in rhythm with them, facing the creatures that were now quickly advancing on them.
She had not been greener than any of the others, not less skilled, simply unlucky. But there would be time to mourn later.
They settled into it—this rhythm, this tedium of war. One creature tore up the battlefield with a raging wind, another seemed to direct a swarm of small, humming bees. Their powers were strange, but they still had body language—still could be read.
One fell, then two. The warriors knew where to aim now. But there were too many.
Luknan felled one of the creatures as it approached her with a well-aimed throwing knife, but another drew close and Ilykaed watched as the warrior seemed to move in slow motion, her blocks too late as the staff pierced through her chest.
And then they hit the village, and broke into a full run for the canoes. The creatures were almost as fast as Soko, and it was harder to hit them without the benefit of an open field.
Illykaed lost sight of some of the force, saw one of the creatures envelope a horse and riders in darkness, before staggering and falling as the koshi zrupgar punched a katar through its head. The training against sighteyes had payed off, Ilykaed thought even as she noted the two others that were missing. But there was no time.
Ilykaed dismounted from Maki, throwing herself into a canoe even as the other warriors slammed into them. She saw Hatchi take Maki’s reigns before the question in her mind fully registered. But there was no time. She had to row, with fast, calix powered strokes as she watched Hatchi pull herself clumsily onto Maki’s back.
The couldn’t take the Soko—they were good swimmers, but not in the depths of the ocean. And that looked like how far they were going to need to go.
Then even Ilykaed could not keep a gasp from her lips as one of the creatures began to float above the water, toward them. For a moment, they hung on the precipice of despair.
And then the Sokomaster put an arrow through the thing’s eye once again.
No more of them came then, instead turning their anger on the village, tearing it apart with haunting screams that seemed just on the edge of speech. Ilykaed watched Sednkuy burn, watched the village she worked to build vanish in the space of minutes.
But the people were still here, the hands that had built this place. They had lost three warriors, and a caravan leader. And that only maybe.
As Illykaed watched Maki lead the heard away, a streak of dappled brown with a dark blue splotch clinging onto it, she thanked whatever powers may have lived in the skies that these metal monsters were only almost as fast as Soko.
Then she picked up her rowing, back to the fickle sea.
For The Sea and The Sky still grow jealous sometimes, and they send nightmares deep into The Land’s dreams. These nightmares have no trouble passing through the poisonous water, for they are made of poison.
But that is a story for another time.