All the books in New Ashta were kept in the village’s schoolhouse, in one of the back rooms. It was a glorified closet, really, and Raian had read just about everything, from journals to volumes, packed on the pine shelves.
Being the schoolmaster’s apprentice during the winter months, Raian was responsible for keeping the schoolhouse and its ‘library’ clean and organized. Old tomes held accounts and diaries of Ashtian people from hundreds of years ago, when they were a powerful civilization with advanced machinery, unique ateryè, a mighty god, and a thirst for blood. Ashtians and the other four Valen civilizations warred relentlessly with each other. Then came the curse of the gods and their departure. Few texts exist from that time. Raian supposed his ancestors were too busy dying of starvation or disease to write about it.
From the section on the bottom shelf where he’d organized all seven books he’d never read, he grabbed a tall but thin journal. Its pages were yellowed, but for the most part, its leather cover had protected it for centuries.
From the top shelf, Raian grabbed what he was truly after, an unfinished pine box. Inside was a bundle of soft deer hide, which he folded open to reveal the book inside.
The oldest known text in New Ashta, most of it was illegible, the ghosts of stories smeared across the pages. What remained were the things of children’s nightmares. It was the only book that mentioned the rogue goddess, Dyata.
Raian slid the ancient book into the middle of the bigger leather journal, then closed the pine box and replaced it on the top shelf. He tucked the journal under his good arm and ditched the dark schoolhouse for summer’s warmth.
Once Kalani had finished stitching him up, Raian had changed into a sleeveless shirt, both to spare him the irritation and the heat. The sun kissed his head and the grass tickled the bottoms of his feet, while the breeze whispered rumors to him.
Raian worked his way across the quietest paths, avoiding people as best he could. He hopped a fence and settled into the big exposed roots of an oak tree, flipping the journal open.
Out of curiosity, he scanned over a couple pages. It was the diary of an Ashtian woman while she was traveling east some six hundred years before, and she’d fallen in with a Rodeni soldier.
“Rodeni?” Raian muttered with a smirk. That was one Valen race he knew next to nothing about. He read on for another half a page, to find out that the woman learned Rodeni curse words from the man, only to slit his throat after he’d served his purpose in achieving her own goal.
Raian grazed the spine of the smaller book with his fingertips and slowly eased the cover open. The pages were stiff, and his heart beat harder when they made cracking noises with each turn.
… shadows guide the souls of the dead to the afterlife… one page began, everything preceding it faded to nothing. Goddess Dyata… responsible for judgment of souls, keeper of the gray realm. The worst, the unworthy, were doomed to stay there while the shadows guided the worthy onward to the realm of the gods.
Raian struggled through the next couple lines, gathering that she’d turned on her duties at some point. “She corrupted the shadows, who were neither good nor bad,” he read to himself, “and stole the souls that shouldn’t have been hers to take, making slaves of both, twisting them together.”
As punishment for such abominations, the gods imprisoned Dyata in the gray realm, the same place she hoarded all those wrecked souls, so none could return to the mortal world.
“But they slip through the cracks between our worlds like shadows,” he finished. The last word was partially blotted out with three heavy dots of ink, as if to illustrate its point.
Raian looked up with a start, dragging his gaze across the still world before him. The closet person he saw was a teenage boy with arms full of garlands for festival decorating, and he disappeared between two lodges toward the busy side of the village, leaving behind a trail of pine sprigs.
Raian snapped the journal shut over the old book and inched away from the oak trunk to look around it.
A crow flapped from the top of the tree, giving his heart a jump. It glided to the rail of a wooden fence not far from Raian’s spot, where it fluffed up its feathers and cawed once.
Raian waited for his nerves to calm before he stalked toward it, the journal tight under his arm. No one used the word ateryè anymore.
The bird inspected the fencepost, giving it an experimental peck. It paused. Raian hesitated. It went back to picking at the fencepost, so Raian crawled closer. He reached the next post over and folded his hands over it. “Are you Dyata’s shadow, too?” he whispered.
The crow cawed at him.
A streak of dark wood and gray fletching flew across Raian’s vision, an arrow that impaled the crow to the fencepost.
Raian fell backward, dropping the journal as he scrambled to his feet.
His elder brother Taro strolled toward him, head thrown back as he laughed. Taro held a short bow in his left hand, for trick shots, but strong enough to kill a bird.
Raian swallowed his anger, magic tingling under his skin. He stared at the crow, waited.
“What were you going to do, catch and keep it as a pet?” Taro asked, coming up beside him.
“Wait,” Raian said. “Watch.”
Taro cocked an eyebrow and crossed his arms. They stared at the corpse. Anticipation climbed up Raian’s throat as the feathers ruffled, but it was only the wind.
The bird was dead. Dead as can be.
Raian startled when Taro dug two fingers into his ribs.
“What are you reading now?”
“What?” He looked at the Ashtian journal in the grass, still hiding the book of Dyata. He picked it up and flicked dirt off the back. “Oh, I was, uh, learning some Rodeni cuss words.”
“So… if you ever meet one, you’ll be able to insult him?”
“Something like that.” Raian gave the dead crow one last look and followed his chuckling brother up the path. “Hey, Taro, what do you imagine your shadow guide will be?”
Taro turned his gaze skyward, where the sun’s light revealed specks of jade hiding in the earth tones of his eyes. He pulled his mouth up as he thought, and said, “When I die, my guide will be… an eagle. Something majestic. You?”
“Not sure.” Raian shrugged, running his thumb back and forth over a corner of the journal cover. He liked to imagine a fox, something clever. Crows were smart.
“A bear,” Taro said, a smirk at one corner of his mouth.
Raian’s inner fire began to rage at the idea. He fought the heat to a simmer and he didn’t realize for a moment he was glaring at Taro.
“You have to admit, it would be fitting.”
“Funny,” Raian growled, reigning in his glare a little. “Speaking of bears, where’s Father?”
“You’re the bear hunter of the family. Track him down yourself.”
The little fire in Raian wanted to incinerate his brother right there. “I meant I needed to tell him something about the bear from last night.”
Taro waved his arm and headed south, on a trail that would lead them to the lake where most of the night’s festivities would take place. The trail twisted and turned between lodges and trees. They found Kentan by a makeshift arena, shoulder to shoulder with New Ashta’s weapons master, Emiri. The muscular woman looked up first with [hard] amber eyes. Behind them, the lake glittered with diamonds of sunlight, the far side lined with sheer rock. Raian would rather jump from the falls than tell Kentan the truth about the bear, but it had to be done.
Emiri’s gaze was on him like a spiked rake of disdain.
“Taro, Raian,” Kentan said, “perfect. We could use your help here.”
“Sure, Father,” Taro said, tossing down his bow in the sand and removing the small quiver of light arrows from his hip.
Raian pulled his mouth to one side and lifted his bandaged arm. “I’m not supposed to be lifting anything heavier than—”
“That book?” Emiri asked.
Raian ignored her, attention on his father. “Can we speak alone?”
Scratching his beard, Kentan exchanged a look with Emiri, and she sauntered away. Raian tossed her a smirk when she glanced at him over her shoulder.
“I wouldn’t test her like that,” Kentan said as he approached his sons, shaking sand out of his sandals. “What do you need? I’ve got a lot to do before evening.”
Raian steadied his nerves. “The bear I hunted last night. It wasn’t normal, not of this world.”
Kentan frowned and Taro drew back a step, his face screwed sideways.
“My placement wasn’t bad,” Raian explained. “I pierced both lungs, but the beast wouldn’t die. It said it was Dyata’s servant, that it was going to send my soul to her, that others would hunt….” His face warmed under Kentan’s disapproving stare and the rest of that sentence went unspoken. He flipped open the journal, and then the small ancient book. “Look here.” He pressed his finger into the pages, making a tear across the word ‘abomination.’
“Is my village in danger?” Kentan’s chest swelled, fists balled tight at his sides.
“No. It’s dead, truly. Tail put another arrow in it, and its strength gave out. That thing was a shadow of Dyata, the rogue god.”
“This is ridiculous,” Kentan hissed through his teeth. “Dyata is long gone, and the rest followed.”
“I have ateryè. My mother had ateryè. You can’t deny it… proof that pieces of those days are still here. I almost burned the forest down—” Raian snapped his mouth shut. He hadn’t meant to go that far with the truth.
Kentan crossed his arms and the crease in his brow deepened. At the very mention of magic, his jaw tensed. “You used it?”
“I had to,” Raian said.
“Ateryè is a curse. Every time you use it…”
Raian gulped. Every time he used it, something terrible followed. A forest fire leaving blackened scars across the hunting lands. A violent death that left three boys without a mother. “Father, that creature would have killed me, and Tail.”
Kentan’s eyes flared. “You put my village, my people, in danger, every time you touch that accursed magic.”
“I should have let the bear rip me apart, I suppose,” Raian snapped, tossing good hand up.
Taro jumped back from him, eyes wide and chest heaving.
Raian dropped his hand, watching a blush spread across Taro’s cheeks. Taro blinked a few times and embarrassingly looked at the ground. Raian’s own brother feared him.
“You never earned Emiri’s respect,” Kentan said, seething anger shaping his words, “and you are constantly testing mine. You’ll go the rest of the year without your hunting privilege. Now, take that fucking book back to the schoolhouse before you get caught and betray your master’s respect as well.”
Raian stared at his father’s back as the man walked away. “Futeo Es,” he said under his breath. Kentan wouldn’t have to speak Rodeni to know it was an insult.
Still standing a couple steps away, Taro pursed his lips, and he walked after their father, then went in another direction entirely while shaking his head.
Kentan rejoined Emiri, who looked down her nose at Raian. The victorious look on her face made the scar that ran from the inner corner of one eye to her jaw look more grotesque than usual.
With a heavy sigh, Raian walked back up to the village, taking the same path he had from the oak tree.
“You okay, firefly?”
He stopped in his tracks, a smile weaseling its way through his frustration. “Tail, didn’t anyone tell you it’s rude to eavesdrop?”
She stepped out from between two lodges wearing a simple vest and shorts. Over the years she’d excelled at making her own clothes, even giving them a red dye and burning subtle designs along the collar. Her hair looked freshly washed and braided, and she twisted the end around her finger as she met him on the path. “It’s not eavesdropping if I’m too far away to actually hear anything. He looked pissed though.”
“I told him everything.” He started walking, head down.
“What? Why?” Tail kept to his stride, trying to make eye contact.
Raian waved the book in his hand. “Because of the…” He stared ahead, at the fence near the oak tree, at the arrow stuck into the fencepost, at the shadow of a stain in the wood and nothing else. “The crow,” he finished, the words slow as honey.
Ateryè warrior, it had said.
Others will hunt you, the bear had promised.
They knew what he was. They knew where he was, and more would come, tracking the scent of cursed magic.
Ashtians have a duty to protect each other. Raian might be mixed blood, might not always get along with everyone, but he had to share that duty as well. Maybe he’d be gone a week, or a year. Maybe he’d never come back again. Either way, to protect his people, he would leave New Ashta.
CONTINUE TO CHAPTER 4