The well water ran brown and grimy between my fingers. My eyes traveled to the well itself in time to catch the glowing jewels studding the well’s bricks winking out in a solid wave from the bottom up. Without the jewels, bricks toppled down the shaft and splashed in the thick water while others rolled lifelessly onto the street. Soon the water source was filled to the top with red sandstone and cracked brick, lifeless amethyst and topaz glinting in the morning sun.
I stumbled backward, my hand still coated with soiled water. People–Sorcerers–gathered around at the noise. Their shouts and talk reached my ears as a confused mess, but I caught one question: “Who was the last to use it?”
I dropped the pails and yoke, and I ran.
My mind buzzed with fines I couldn’t pay or days alone in a dark room until the Sorcerers thought I wouldn’t do it again. I would get back to the Village now, wait a little, then fetch water at another well. Nobody would know. I was too old for it, but as I ran, I pulled my shawl up over my head so that it was low over my eyebrows. Then nobody would see the Mark on my forehead, the circle shot through with two overlapping crosses. It was the glyph denoting the immortality spell, the spell only Sorcerers should have. My mother put it on me, got herself executed, and made me alone.
A strong hand grabbed my arm and pulled me to a stop. My breath turned solid in my throat. It was a royal soldier, clad in a rich violet robe sewn heavy with turquoise and tiger’s eye. The cloak shimmered with unnatural light from each precious stone carved with protection and strength spells. I blinked hard. The cloak was unsettling.
“I don’t think we need any other evidence regarding who is responsible?” he said. “You were running away so fast.”
I shook my head, but I’ve never had the talent to lie. The panic rose, turned my face hot, and the words fell out. “My foster mother sent me to get water–that’s all I was doing, I swear, sir. I pulled out the pail and the water was bad and then it all fell down–”
“Why don’t you come with me? Chief Fullak has been wanting to discuss your talents.”
“Talents? But I didn’t–”
Something white and big as a horse swooped down from a nearby rooftop and knocked both of us off our feet.
Lights swam in my vision–I landed hard on my side–and silence engulfed the little square where we stood. As I blinked my streaming eyes, the Sorcerer servants who had been chatting nearby shook their heads and left. The few other Villagers, identifiable by their plain woven shawls and robes like mine, cleared out a little more anxiously.
I was alone in the square with a furious plum-faced soldier and one white, rose-eyed Embrizid.
“You’re getting too big for that, Tulkot,” I muttered to the creature as I clutched my side and lurched myself into a sitting position. “You’re no hatchling.”
The soldier struggled to his feet. His black hair escaped from the braids crowning his head, and the jeweled cloak slipped off one brown shoulder. He stuttered angrily, shooting looks alternately at Tulkot and me, as if deciding where to direct his rage.
Tulkot snarled at him. It wasn’t terribly intimidating coming from a half-grown Embrizid, but the soldier flinched anyway.
“You–you’re not supposed to associate with Embrizid. If that’s how you collapsed the well, then–”
“Keep yourself under control,” the soldier said with a shaking voice as he backed away. “If you fiddle with another spell, there’ll be punishment for you. You’ll have a long sit in a cold room.”
He gave a curt nod, turned on his heel, and left.
“There,” said Tulkot. “With me here, they’ll fear you and your talents.”
I snorted. “It’s just awful luck, nothing more. You didn’t help.”
I brushed off my knees and started back toward the Village. Tulkot pranced beside me, chattering about Sorcerer gossip in his gravelly Embrizid voice. His white coloring was rare and handsome, and he would be grand when he grew out of his gawkiness. Like all Embrizid, he was a four-legged, winged creature, coated thick with feathers. His face was elongated and framed with a fanned, grandiose mane. Large erect ears poked from his crown of feathers, and a long tail trailed behind him. His five-fingered feet were reminiscent of human hands, save for the long, sharp claws extending from each digit.
“–hunters killing us off in the desert–”
I frowned. “Wait–what did you say?”
Tulkot shook his mane in irritation. “Sar said hunters are killing some of the Embrizid. That’s why things collapse. The spells break. A couple other bits of wall and statues came down a week ago.”
Sar was king of the Embrizid. He consulted with our own Chief Fullak and organized the Embrizid’s work with human Sorcerers in the Upper district. Embrizid provided the Sorcerers with the magic to perform spells.
“What hunters?” I asked. “Only Gearda can survive in the desert, and that’s with the heaps of spells over Minunaga to keep the desert out.”
“No one’s seen them, but Embrizid go out to hunt, and they don’t come back. Embrizid don’t die all too often, so we notice. And anyways, people are smart… maybe some from the west brought enough water and food. They could live in the desert.”
“Sure,” I said.
“I think Sar’s right.”
“Then why doesn’t anyone tell Fullak? Fullak would know what to do about hunters. I don’t want to keep getting blamed.”
“He doesn’t believe Sar,” said Tulkot, and he tossed his head.
He looked to the sun which was high over the horizon by now.
“I have to go–I have to study with the Sorcerer students today.”
“Go on,” I said. “I’ll find you later.”
Tulkot displayed his sharp teeth in a silent Embrizid laugh. “I always find you first.”
He pranced off in the opposite direction and took to the sky. As I watched, I felt a pang of jealousy for the student who got to work with him.
Villagers had to be careful about being seen with an Embrizid too much. If an Embrizid wanted to talk to you, that was fine, but Villagers never sought them out on their own, at least not in the open.
I was near the Village now, but I slowed my gait to take in the beauty of Minunaga. The buildings, like the wells, had jewels pressed into every wall. Rubies, citrine, quartz, anything that the Geardan people could either find or trade from other cities like ours. Each had their own magical properties, and each was carved with glyphs to tell the stone which spell to hold. The Embrizid channeled a constant flow of magic to keep these complicated spells aglow.
The buildings had a wild look. They mirrored the stone formations from the mountains around us and grew in a plant-like tangle from the cliff side. They reached high overhead, leaned dangerously, or had balconies jutting out wherever the architect wanted them. Perfectly domed roofs capped towers carved straight from living rock. Even smaller houses might have seven or so twisting turrets accenting corners, roofs, and walls. Intricately chiseled stone arches cupped the roadways at random intervals, none matching any other in style or size.
None of this was achieved through any feat of human architecture or handicraft. The soft glow of the magicked stones told it all–the buildings were built and remained standing through magic alone.
The glory of Minunaga was the highest tower the Sorcerers constructed: the library. It reached higher than the mountain to which Minunaga clung, so tall that the top was just a point in the sky above. The stone was streaked and rippled as if a Sorcerer kneaded and pulled the earth up into its current form. Each floor was lined with pillars and narrow, ornately framed windows. In front of the library tower was a massive elliptical garden. A lemon tree border surrounded hundreds of perpetually blossoming shrubs and flowers, the likes of which should never have been seen in a desert like ours.
But surroundings like this were not meant for me. I reached the last archway and passed into the Village, home to farmers and craftspeople. Small brick and thatch huts replaced the striking architecture in the Upper district. When night fell, the Village huts darkened with the rest of the world while the Upper stayed lit with spells. Here, magic was used only to support the wheat fields and the vegetable gardens that hugged the houses and the dusty road.
I stepped into my one-room hut and blinked as my eyes adjusted to the gloom. I wrinkled my nose at the acrid smell of new leather. Halu, my foster father, was a tanner. Halu and his son, Leril, were seated at the kitchen table, and Moran, my foster mother, served them from a wide-mouthed pot balanced on her hip. She looked up at me with raised eyebrows. I was uncomfortably aware of my empty hands and unburdened back.
“The well caved in, and a soldier thought I did it,” I said quickly. “I dropped the pails. Can someone else go get the water?”
“We need those, Nula,” said Moran.
“I was scared. I didn’t do it.”
Moran’s eyes caught my forehead for a second, then shifted back to her work spooning out a watery chickpea mixture. I touched my head. My shawl had slipped back to reveal my own flyaway black hair and the black Mark scrawled on my forehead by an unpracticed hand. Moran liked me to keep it covered. I pulled the shawl back down over my forehead and wrapped the rest around my neck to secure it.
“You’re going to need to take care of yourself,” said Moran. “Your mother didn’t leave an easy life for you. We’ve raised you best as we could, but there’s only so much we can do considering your circumstances.”
Moran sat down at the table while I hovered in the doorway a moment longer.
Moran rolled her eyes. “Nula, Leril already fetched the water, you were so late. But you need to get those pails, or someone will steal them. If you can’t, you’ll need to buy us new ones.”
I stared at her. She knew no one would hire me. How would I get money for that?
“Moran,” said Halu. He had a quiet, whispering voice. “The girl’s been frightened.”
Moran shot him an icy look, then her eyes came back to me. “Now, Nula.”
“Make an offering at the temple,” suggested Halu. “That might turn your luck around. Ask for your mother’s forgiveness.”
I left the room, but not before catching Leril’s stifled laugh and the pity on Halu’s face. Both equally made my stomach ache.
I did as Halu said and wandered to the temple a few doors down. I’d prayed there nearly every day since I was eleven years old. It hadn’t produced results yet, but I kept going out of habit. It was a hut slightly bigger than my own, the interior hot and laden with incense. Alone in the center stood a hand-chiseled statue of Gattamak, guardian of the desert and the Gearda. He was three feet tall and muscular, with a long yellow painted braid down his back. His face was worn smooth from long years of repeated touching. At his feet were small token offerings: dolls, jewelry, a packet of seeds, a dried rose blossom.
I unwrapped my shawl, untied my hair, and placed the threadbare string next to a poorly sewn rag doll. It was a sorry offering, but it was all I had. I knelt down and bowed.
Small mirrors lined Gattamak’s feet and my own wide blue eyes staring back at me from beneath the Mark. I rubbed at the glyph, but it wouldn’t smear or fade. As always, I prayed the Mark would disappear.
I despised it. I didn’t know why my mother would want to give her little babe such a life. Immortality was worthless to me. Villagers wouldn’t accept a Sorcerer in their midst, and Sorcerers wouldn’t accept a Marked Villager. I occupied a class of my own.
I was beginning to think that Halu and Moran were right, that the Mark was a curse of sorts. This was the second time I’d been around something that had lost its magic. The first time was five years before, when I was eleven. I was playing in the tall stalks of wheat in our neighbor’s field when a couple of the jeweled border stones went dark. The loam in one corner turned to sand and hard-packed dry earth. Green wheat changed to yellow-brown within the span of a breath and crumbled away to dust as I watched. The farmer who owned the field chased me out with a knife in his hand.
If the Villagers had needed any sort of validation for their theory that Marked Villagers were cursed, they received it that day. I wasn’t allowed to forget it either.
Hunters are killing some of the Embrizid…
Tulkot’s words seemed tangible in the stuffy, thick air of the temple. If he was right… if there was a reason for the broken spells, maybe I had a chance to change all this, even if I was doomed keep the Mark.
The sun was just sinking behind the mountains the next evening when I stole out of the hut and ran to the Upper. I ran right up all the way to the narrow stairway chipped into the side of the mountain. The stairs were steep and tiring, and I began to climb on all fours for speed’s sake. I’d never been up this way before, but it was the only way I might find Tulkot.
As I neared a ledge on the red-gold mountain, I spotted caves bored into the rock up above. Further up on the face of the mountain, it looked pockmarked and dimpled with countless caverns. Some Embrizid above me leaped from their roosts and took flight, gliding over Minunaga, off to hunt. Sorcerer sentries perched on balconied towers performed the spell to open the transparent dome that covered the city, and the Embrizid sped off until they were nothing more than dark dots in a darkening sky. I didn’t think it was possible for anyone to slay one of those powerful creatures.
I reached a landing and slid down against the wall next to a wide mouthed cave. I panted and my forehead dripped onto the fine grit that coated the stone ledge. I was more afraid than fatigued. There was no wall to the ledge–I sat two steps away from a very long drop. I drew my knees up to my chin, as if my legs could betray me and fling me over the ledge against my will.
As my breath quieted, I heard voices coming from the cave next to me, and not all of them were the growling guttural tones of Embrizids. Some were people.
“We can talk more, of course,” said a clear human tenor. “We would love to accommodate your concerns in any way we can–you know how much we value your kind.”
Then came a deep, bone vibrating GRRMPH. “I would say utterly dependent on our kind. You Gearda would be no more than dried corpses without our help.”
This was the deep voice of an ancient and mammoth Embrizid.
“Of course,” said the man. “We are indeed dependent. And grateful. But–”
“And what do we receive, hm? We receive a roost, yes, the opportunity to make magic, yes. But you receive the food and your city and our long life.”
“We offer you protection!” The man’s voice cracked.
The Embrizid rumbled a laugh that shook the ledge–small flakes of stone danced in the dust before my eyes. “Protection, Chief Fullak says! Can we not hunt on our own?”
“I know that,” said Fullak. ”You are powerful, no one denies that. We provide you with cattle and goats, as much as we can spare. We don’t eat the meat–we leave it all to you. We give you our territories for safe hunting when you need more, and our people never hurt you. They would be punished for such a crime. They do not dare.”
“Your people do not, but there are others. You are too content under your dome.”
Out of curiosity, I peered inside the cave. It was so vast I couldn’t fathom where the ceiling ended, and it was lit with torches that burned with a steady, pale silver light. Chief Fullak was cloaked in a teal robe, the train of which crumpled and dragged behind him. He had two young manservants with him who stood by the wall, yawning.
The Embrizid was seated on a broad stone dais at the far end of the room, and five other adult Embrizid either lay or sat silently nearby. He was male, marked by his expansive feathered mane, and he was bigger than any Embrizid I’d ever laid eyes on. Fullak, who stood taller than most, reached only to the crook of the Embrizid’s front legs. The Embrizid’s coloring was mostly cream and flecked with brown and black. The end of his long tail twitched with pent-up exasperation. This had to be Sar, the Embrizid’s king and Fullak’s equal.
Fullak cleared his throat. “I refuse to send hunting parties into the desert until you are certain how these Embrizid were killed. It could very well be clans of your kind from the Southern cities, or even from the west. Or… or there is that Marked Villager girl. Yes, some of my most ranked Sorcerers think that the Mark has given her dark power, and that she doesn’t have the wherewithal to control it. She was near the well when it collapsed.”
My stomach tightened, and my sweat ran cold. I didn’t know the Sorcerers thought much the same as Halu and Moran.
“She’s possessed, that’s what,” Fullak continued more confidently. “There have been other instances as well–the Villagers have been reporting them for years. I’ve always had my eye on her, of course, after her mother’s crimes. We must think these things through without being rash and galloping off to scour the desert when the problem could be right here.”
Sar belched out a roar. I jerked away from the cave entrance and hugged my legs close again, certain that the ledge was going to snap off the mountain with the power of Sar’s bellow.
“Rash!” snarled Sar. “He says we are rash! Our feuds with the clans are our own concern and none of yours. There are no feuds at the moment. If anything can be said for Embrizid, it is that we fight with true reason. They would not attack us without announcing why. These attacks are random and cruel, like people.”
“Perhaps you underestimate your kind,” said Fullak. “The missing Embrizid are just that. Missing. We do not know what became of them.”
“We will not hunt after people. We will only defend. I do not want to be a part of your feuds,” said Sar as if he hadn’t heard Fullak’s last remark. “And this girl of yours–I have never heard of such a thing. I do not believe it.”
“It is likely that the Mark on a Villager could have ill-effects…”
“The Mark is just a spell. Investigate her if you like. If you are correct, apprehend her and be done with it. But I also want a party out to look for hunters in the desert. We have given and given, and you only take. I ask that you investigate the hunters.”
“There are no hunters,” yelled Fullak. “No one survives in the desert except for Gearda, and that is only because of our magic.”
“It is our magic! I suggest you do so at once, if you enjoy your Minunaga. I can call my Embrizid. They will follow, and we can fly far from here.”
“I will think it over, Sar,” Fullak said at last. “Thank you for your time.”
I heard the sound of fabric rustling against stone before the servants lifted Fullak’s train off the ground. I squirmed away from the cave entrance and held my breath as Fullak and his manservants exited the cave mere inches from me. Fullak’s handsome face was flushed with strawberry-red patches on his cheeks, and he pulled at his short beard as he scowled. A silvery grey Embrizid followed close behind–a female, smaller than Sar but still formidable. All three men clambered onto her back, and she took off, her talons screeching against the stone.
“What are you doing here?”
I let out a half-gasp, half-whimper, and my heart sped back up to where it had been while I climbed the stairs.
It was Tulkot. He had been in the cave with Fullak and Sar.
“Looking for you,” I breathed.
Tulkot looked pleased. “Really? Do you want to see my roost? I think I could fly you up.”
I looked at his sapling-thin legs and bony figure.
“Maybe some other time,” I said. “I was looking for you because I want to go see–” I lowered my voice. “–I want to see Elud.”
Tulkot did a prance of excitement and tossed his head. “I’ll go! When? Now?”
“Yeah. Didn’t you hear Fullak? They think I’m doing all this.”
“The Embrizid don’t really think–”
“And you know Halu and Moran think my curse is causing the collapses. They’ve all got pretty much the same idea. If there’re hunters…maybe there’s something we can do. We could help Fullak or something, or tell Sar. Elud lives out there, maybe he’s seen something.”
“Villagers are dunces,” Tulkot said. “There’s no such thing as cursed. At least the Sorcerers think you’ve got some strange dark magic.”
He displayed his teeth in amusement.
“It’s not funny,” I said. “This makes me feel sick.”
Tulkot sighed. “It’s not true, and you know it. Fullak will do anything to avoid chasing down hunters in the desert.”
“True or not, I don’t want to be locked up.”
“We’ll figure something out. It’ll all be okay.” He nuzzled my elbow with his powerful head until I giggled and flung my arms up for protection.
When we finally reached level ground well after sundown, Tulkot shape-shifted to a tiny white songbird that could fit in my hand. It’s the only magic Embrizid can do on their own. It helps them travel unnoticed. Birds don’t catch the eye quite like an Embrizid’s normal form.
With Tulkot nibbling at the food I’d brought in my pocket, I reached the edge of the Upper, where the buildings sat right up against the dome. The dome was the spell that hid Minunaga from outsiders and kept the moist, cool air inside. It hugged the section of the mountains where the Gearda had grown the city, and touched down in a circle, part of it on the other side of the mountain somewhere, part of it past the fields, and, in some places, it touched down just at the edge of the city. Here, the dome was just two feet from the back of the closest building, a clump of towers and turrets that housed Sorcerers’ workrooms that were empty for the night. This was the easiest place to slip out unnoticed.
I squeezed myself between the stone wall of the building and the foot-high wall that marked the dome. The dome itself was solid to my touch, like a cool piece of glass. I chose a brick in the little wall and, with another rock, scratched the simple glyph for “door,” an arch with an upward pointing arrow inside. The gems in the building and the dome wall gave off adequate light for me to see what I was doing. I touched the glyph with the index finger of my left hand, while my right hand drew Tulkot out of my pocket.
But before I could channel the heat of Tulkot’s magic, darkness flooded in.
I didn’t realize what had happened until Tulkot flew out from my pocket and fluttered away, transforming into his Embrizid form in mid-flight to gain more distance.
The stone behind me cracked and groaned, and a few hard chunks rained on my back and shoulders. I scrambled out and desperately bolted in the direction of the Village. Sorcerers ran beside me and yelled for family members. Time seemed to slow. I heard their harsh breath scraping too fast through raw throats. A scarlet-clad soldier grabbed at me, and someone shouted something. I was caught. I struggled, clawed, and kicked all the soft flesh I could find. The jewels on my captor’s robe scratched into my own skin. My knee connected with a soft belly. A groan, a sharp intake of breath, and I was free.
Tulkot returned in a flurry of sharp claws and loose white feathers. We ran together to a different part of the dome, not bothering with stealth this time. I drew the glyph again on the stone wall, but my hand shook so violently I didn’t know if the magic would take. I felt the flare of his magic, I pulled some of it out of him, and I drew it down to the glyph through my finger. The glyph lit up and we stumbled through the opening, where the night was clearer and darker without the veil of the dome.
We were safe–the rock wouldn’t hold the spell for long, and no one in the city but me had the courage to venture into the naked desert.
We hung close to the mountain in the shadows. I limped on the rough stone, but in the dry air, my mind calmed. Once, I looked back. Minunaga was hidden to my eyes, but I could identify the shape of the mountain on which Minunaga was built. It was like the city had never existed.
An hour later, I found the landmark I’d been scanning for: a tall stone pillar streaked with red and beige. Just a few yards beyond, a few feet higher, was a lone cave with the same smooth look as an Embrizid’s roost. While I looked around for any unwanted followers, I glimpsed a bright star on the horizon far away. I squinted at it. It flickered orange in the distance, like the light of a fire.
Tulkot nudged me and flew up to the cave. He waited next to the opening, clinging to the rock with his talons. Just as I reached the lip of the opening in the stone, someone yanked me up onto the ledge, and a knife pressed into my throat.
I faced the opening and the desert, held my breath, and kept silent.
Tulkot flew in and gave a puppy-like growl.
“Oh, it’s you,” said a voice hoarsened and deepened by a lifetime of pipe smoking. “Don’t sneak up like that. You never come at night.”
Elud let me go and I fell face first onto the floor of the cave, coughing and rubbing my neck.
“You hurt her,” snarled Tulkot.
“Nula’s fine. How about a warning next time before you climb up?”
I sat up and faced Elud. “What happened to you?” I said, but I could figure it out on my own.
The last time I’d seen Elud, he looked to be in his early thirties. Like all Sorcerers, he’d reached that age and then stopped while time moved on without him. He’d had dark coiling hair braided down his back, and his jewel-less cloak had been worn to rags. He had looked the part of a Sorcerer who had tired of Minunaga and had left with his Embrizid companion, Relt. The gray and black female dominated the back of the cave, and looked lazily up at the commotion at the entrance.
Now, in the light of the fire, he was an aged phantom of my friend. His hair and beard were silvery white, and the hair frizzed all about his head, much like an Embrizid’s mane. His cloak hung on thin shoulders, his back bent painfully, and his chest caved inwards.
My eyes flicked to his forehead. It was heavily freckled and wrinkled, but…
“How long are you going to gape like that?” he said. “You’ve seen old ones before. You live in the Village of all places.” Elud filled a cup in the magicked spring at the back of the cave and handed it to me.
“I haven’t seen an old one who aged sixty years in just a month. Your Mark…”
He nodded and sipped his own water.
“I didn’t know the spell could be undone,” said Tulkot. “No one ever does it.”
“Hmph,” said Elud. “All spells can be undone, even that dome over the city. The Mark is a simple spell. All you need is the glyphs to counter it.”
Excitement and hope scaled my spine like hot water. I could undo it. I could be a Villager. No one could blame me for dark magic or curses, even if there were hunters.
“Can you teach me? How to do that?”
Gingerly, Elud sat down on a flat boulder next to a wall. “Why did you come here?”
“Really, I don’t want the Mark anymore. You know I don’t care about getting old. I’m like you–I think the Mark is a horrible mistake. It’s not good for people. No one should have it.”
Elud chuckled. “Let me think a moment. I’ve schooled you well, there’s that much to be said. Now tell me why you’re out here in the desert.”
I sighed but didn’t press him further. “Tulkot says there’re hunters that are killing Embrizid. A well collapsed and then a building. I was nearby for both.”
Elud frowned at his water cup, thinking.
I continued: “And…and some of the Villagers think that I did it, that I’m bad luck. I’m not surprised about them, but now Chief Fullak thinks I’ve got dark magic because of the Mark. It sounded like they’re going to arrest me.”
Still no answer.
“Do you think I’ve really got–?”
“No, you child,” Elud snapped. “If you would let me teach you more magic, you would know that. Ignorance around magic is dangerous.”
“Villagers aren’t allowed, though,” I said as the relief washed in. “I don’t want to know more glyphs than I need.”
Elud raised his eyebrows. “And for no good reason. The only thing separating Sorcerers and Villagers is that cursed Mark. Your Mark gave you long life and that’s all. No mysterious dark magic involved. Those idiots in the city should remember that the magic we use with the Embrizid is a tool, not some mystery worthy of worship. It’s all there in that library. Read a scroll or two.”
“But you always say that magic is unnatural,” I said hesitantly.
“Just the Mark. And the dome, I would say. Other than that, if you want to spell a brick to make it lighter, or spell yourself prettier, I don’t see why I should care. Magic should be used carefully.”
“So do you think someone’s killing the Embrizid? How can they bring one down?”
Elud nodded and hobbled over to Relt. She turned her head and stepped into the firelight. A dark, glistening cut sliced down from her forehead, through the fine grey feathers on her face, over her closed right eye, and down to her jaw. Elud patted her vast cheek while she purred.
“They can shoot spears,” said Relt. “But first they trick us with meat. We can’t tell which are their bait animals and which are desert animals. We come down and hunt, and when our bellies are too full to fly, they shoot spears at us.”
Fury was a hard weight in my stomach. “But don’t you fight?”
Relt rumbled indignantly. “Of course we fight. We come in close to attack with our teeth and claws, but then we are all the closer to their spears. I’ve seen them attack. They have skill.”
“Quit flying as Embrizid. Fly as birds,” I said.
“We can’t change with our bellies full of meat that weighs more than a tiny bird,” she said wearily.
“I heard Sar saying that he’ll leave with all the Embrizid with him.”
Relt lay her head back down between her front feet. “The city will fall.”
I frowned and turned to Elud. “People have magic too, though, can’t Sorcerers just keep it up?”
Elud’s mouth turned tight. “Magic is strange, it forces us together with the Embrizid,” he said. “Embrizid have the magic but can’t use it. People can use the magic, write our glyphs, shape our spells, but we need to find the magic elsewhere. If Sorcerers use the magic inside them, that leads to illness and death. Even with the Mark, we aren’t naturally immortal like the Embrizid. We have limited life magic to pour into our spells.”
Elud met my gaze with hard eyes.
“T-the city can’t fall,” I said.
Elud barked out a laugh. “Sure it can. You’ll learn to live in the desert as it should be. Villagers will die, and the Sorcerers will move on to eke out a life elsewhere with no magic and no trade. Just several lifetimes ahead of them. Simple enough to me.”
I looked around Elud’s cave home. It was sparse and dull compared to the lush fields surrounding the Village or the glittering buildings and gardens of the Upper. I didn’t want to live like he did.
“Why did you leave Minunaga?” I asked.
“Out here, magic isn’t the only thing keeping the world together,” he said. “It’s reassuring.”
The sun spilled over the horizon outside the opening of Elud’s cave. Tulkot sat in the back of the cave talking with Relt in words that were distinctly Embrizid: grunts and snarls and purrs. Elud was quiet. He leaned against the wall with a whetstone in hand, drawing it down the blade of his knife. I hugged my elbows and watched the light overwhelm the desert plain.
“You going back anytime soon?” said Elud at last.
“I don’t know.”
Relt and Tulkot stopped speaking. I was sure they both tilted their heads toward us to listen in.
“Get over here,” said Elud. “I’ll take that Mark off and maybe the idiots will treat you better.”
My hands and legs trembled with terror and anticipation, but I went and stood in front of Elud. He produced a tiny nub of charcoal from his pocket and with a firm hand, he drew several glyphs across my forehead, eyebrow to eyebrow. Charcoal dust fell to my nose and cheeks. Relt ambled over and I shut my eyes tight. I felt Elud’s warm dry hand against my head as if he were checking for fever. A hot flash of magic turned the inside of my eyelids orange-yellow. A slight pop.
“I’ll just wipe off the charcoal,” whispered Elud.
A wet cloth dripped stinging water into my eyes. Tears mixed in.
“Open your eyes now,” said Tulkot. “You look silly.”
Elud handed me a piece of an old mirror. In the morning light I gazed into my reflection. My face was dirty and exhausted, yes, but my forehead was clean and unMarked. I giggled hysterically and hugged Elud, then Tulkot, then Relt.
The city had to stand now, just long enough for me to have my life.
When I returned to the Village, Elud’s cure seemed to take care of everything. Halu exhaled shakily when I arrived home that afternoon with a clean forehead. He embraced me and kissed the spot where the Mark used to be. Moran even gave me a small relieved smile. Leril couldn’t stop staring. No one questioned how I got rid of it.
“We were afraid for you after that last collapse,” said Halu. “We thought you were locked up somewhere in the Upper. It has been suspicious, you must admit that.”
I laughed uneasily. I didn’t think anyone but Halu had been overly concerned.
Moran approached me and appraised my appearance from my filthy feet to my sweaty, matted braid. “You need a bath. Stay in the village awhile until the Sorcerers calm down. You got rid of that Mark, at least. That has to be the end of this.”
I did as I was told. I bathed. Leril had gotten work with a farmer down the street, so Halu had me help him with the tanning for a few coins. He never let me help before.
The next few days were a sweet paradise. Villagers greeted me shyly in the road and complimented me. I stayed clear of the Upper, and I didn’t see Tulkot. No soldiers came to the house. For a few days, I was just a Villager.
One week after I returned from Elud’s, I stepped into the hut to find Moran and Halu deep in hushed conversation. I coughed to announce myself.
Moran looked up sharply, her dark eyebrows nearly meeting each other over the bridge of her nose. “Can we trust you to stay here alone today? You won’t touch anything?”
“Of course,” I said. “Why?”
“Chief Fullak is holding a festival day in honor of the Embrizid,” said Halu. “We don’t think it would be wise for you to go to the Upper just yet.”
I agreed with him. He was right. After a week free of collapses, Fullak probably wanted to please the Embrizid and calm Minunaga’s residents in one carefree celebration. Everyone needed a chance to forget.
After they left late that morning, I wandered to the back of the house while eating a crumbling piece of bread. I paced the cracked earth and drew my hand over the green tips of the ever-growing wheat. Contentment welled within me. I would have been happy to live the rest of my days doing no more than quiet work interspersed with quiet meals and quiet walks. I would have been happy never setting foot in the Upper again. I would look at it from the Village and admire it’s beauty. That would be enough.
Then I paused. Out over the wheat, far beyond the dome wall, was a cluster of white tents, wiry horses, and cloaked people. I squinted at it. A large, dark shape squirmed on the sand by one of the tents, and the people looked to be arguing.
The bread dried and stuck in my throat. I knew what I was seeing, but I forced my mind not to connect the image to anything deeper. I swallowed and went inside where I sat by a window looking out toward the city, away from the desert. I could just see the highest towers of the Upper. I watched them and waited for the collapse.
Neither came. My heart slowed and my thoughts smoothed.
Then the smooth surface rippled with a traitorous thought.
What if the Embrizid is still alive.
I jumped to my feet and flew out the door.
I met Tulkot halfway up the sloping road to the Upper. The road was deserted but cheering and faint music sifted down all the way from the Upper to the Village.
“Tulkot!” I said breathlessly. “How did you know? What are you doing?”
Tulkot cocked his head. “What? I was going to visit you since the entire city is in the Upper. I thought it’d be safe.”
“Look, I spotted the hunters and I think they caught an Embrizid. A huge black one. Nothing’s collapsed, so it’s still alive–we have to do something.”
I didn’t have a clue what exactly I wanted to do, but Tulkot’s rose eyes widened, and he started walking back up toward the Upper.
“That must be Worl,” he growled. “She’s one of Sar’s mates.”
I convinced Tulkot to reach the dome through the wheat field by my hut. It was closest and easiest. We crossed the field, careful not to bruise more plants than necessary. The camp looked just as it had earlier, except the Embrizid was on her feet now, swatting at spindly people who came only to her chest.
I scratched the glyph with a shard of rock like the last time and opened a doorway in the dome.
We rushed frantically toward the camp. Tulkot restrained himself from flying most of the way to keep with me, but when we were near enough to watch one human figure expertly dodge Worl’s swinging talons and snapping jaws to jam a long spear into her underbelly, Tulkot roared and flew toward them. One of the hunters swung some kind of angular contraption in Tulkot’s direction and loosed a short, thick spear. Tulkot shot higher into the air, but the spear grazed his hind leg and left a bloody line amid the dingy white feathers. I unsheathed my own belt knife and charged at the hunters, if only to distract them from Tulkot.
“Stop!” I shrieked. “Stop shooting!”
For a second, the strange bow was pointed right my chest. The woman lowered it as I got closer.
“Who are you?” a man said in a harsh accent. “We’ve never seen anyone here.”
“There’s a–a city back there. You can’t see it. When the Embrizid–”
“These creatures. When they’re killed, our buildings fall. They hold up the spells.”
At that, the hunters smiled, like I was a child telling a ridiculous lie.
“Little one, they are magical,” said the woman with the spear. “But that’s why we hunt. Their bones and hide are very valuable, good for medicines and luck. We sell them out west.”
“I can teach you the spells,” I said, but I couldn’t believe I had suggested it. “If you want–me and Tulkot–that’ll get you money. Just stop–”
“Spells?” the woman laughed.
“Yes. Please, I’m not making things up.”
One of the men stepped forward and studied my face. He was tall, with dark skin, highlighted by his creamy white cloak.
“I think the girl is truthful,” he said finally. “I’ll listen. We need a way to make our living. What do you think?”
He was looking at me again while Tulkot landed heavily at my side.
“We’ll teach you a little magic,” said Tulkot. “And then you can leave us.”
“They talk?” said the woman with the spear, but her shooting mechanism hung limp at her side.
“It needs to be worth it,” said the man.
“We have a library full of scrolls,” I pleaded. “That’s where all our spells are. We’ll get you some and then you can go west and use them for money. I don’t care.”
“If you leave and don’t come back, we’ll keep hunting,” said the woman with the spear. “For all we know, this witch city is fake.” She squinted vaguely in the direction of Minunaga.
Under the hunters’ gaze, I knelt by Worl’s face. It was moist and flecked with her own blood, but I didn’t let myself look at the damage further down. A green eye as large as my head fixed blearily on me.
“We’ll be back soon,” I said.
The eye closed. With Tulkot, I headed for the Upper of Minunaga. Embrizid were strong. Worl would live.
We opened a doorway in the dome up near the ruined building from the last collapse. We climbed through, navigated over the broken stones, and trotted through the empty streets to the library. The festival was held in the square in front of the library, deafening with joyous, drunken cheers, and quick music. Embrizid swarmed the sky and perched on rooftops in numbers I’d never seen. Sorcerers and Villagers sang and danced and ate right up to the steps of the library tower and along the stone roads that curved around the expansive garden in the center. The flowers–vermilion lilies, blue asters, scarlet chrysanthemums–stood tall in the midday sunlight filtered through the dome that arched high above their heads. Thick smells of baking sweets and simmering spiced sauces draped the air.
Tulkot and I hid in a nearby quiet alleyway. I searched my pockets for charcoal and came up with nothing. So, I spat into the dirt and mixed it until it was a thin reddish paste. With my “ink,” I drew a glyph on my forehead, a circle with a small “X” inside. Tulkot pressed his nose to my head, and the glyph took the magic. I was Hidden, invisible to anyone who wasn’t carrying an amulet with the counter spell. Tulkot changed into a songbird and nestled himself beneath my braid.
I wove between throngs of happy jostling people as stealthily as possible. I bumped a few of them, and collided directly with two, but those involved were too happily occupied with drinking and dancing to notice.
Inside the library, there was only one worker, a young Sorcerer asleep at his desk, scrolls strewn over his lap and on the floor. Tulkot emerged from my hair and fluttered toward a steep stairwell. I followed him up four exhausting floors.
“All these are spells,” he chirped in my ear when we reached the sprawling fourth floor room.
The walls were lined with books up to the ceiling, and hundreds of shelves in neat rows dominated the floor. The countless jewels studding every surface provided just enough light to see.
I’d never imagined the number of books and scrolls the library might contain.
“Where are the useful ones?” I said.
Tulkot twittered and leaped off my shoulder. In midair he took his Embrizid form and landed on his feet. Limping slightly from his injury, Tulkot wove in-between the shelves glancing here and there. He pulled scrolls seemingly at random and let them lay on the floor. I trailed behind and picked them up. I scanned each as I collected it. Fire spells, festival performance spells, healing spells, building spells, agriculture spells. All of them were either useful or showy. Anything to get the hunters their money.
“You don’t want to give them the Mark do you?” I said.
“No,” said Tulkot. “I don’t think so. That’s just for Gearda, and it hasn’t turned out too well, has it?”
The glow in the walls blinked to nothing.
I ran for the door with Tulkot just ahead of me. The stairwell was pitch dark, and the stone steps crumbled beneath our feet. I fell hard on my tailbone and slid down almost half the flight of stairs. The stairs behind me turned to sand. I tumbled into Tulkot and knocked him down a few more steps, just before a stone as tall as Tulkot worked its way out of the ceiling and crashed through the dissolving stairs behind us.
At the next landing, Tulkot yowled in pain. Afterwards he favored his front left paw, and ran a little bit slower. We turned, ready to flee down the next flight of stairs, but they dissolved like a child’s sand castle overcome with a pail of water.
“I have an idea,“ I said, and I pulled him by the ear toward the room on this landing.
Gaping holes expanded in the floor, and stones and plaster dropped from the ceiling. Shelves toppled and scrolls were strewn all over the disintegrating flagstone.
“You’ll have to carry me for a moment or two,” I said.
Tulkot nodded and leapt toward a narrow window. Some of the rock around it had fallen away, and the window was just wide enough for Tulkot’s body as long as he didn’t expand his wings. For a moment, Tulkot looked even skinnier and half-grown than he usually did, but I clambered onto his back anyway. His knees buckled with my weight. He clumsily hopped to the windowsill and jumped.
My stomach twisted and traveled to my mouth until Tulkot unfurled his wings and floated safely to the ground. The library continued to shake and moan behind us, but now the sounds of stones scraping and cracking mixed with the sharp addition of human screams.
Tulkot tried to gain more altitude and failed. We sank closer and closer to the ground without gaining much distance from the site. We plowed right into a small group of shrieking Sorcerers.
For a few seconds, everything was a thick mix of pain and tangled limbs–some human, some Embrizid. By the time I scrambled to my feet, Tulkot had already flown off. I ignored the angry shouts and ran alongside the library garden without looking back, even when I heard the building make a final groan and then the deafening roar of rocks falling against the stone street. I shielded my head with my hands and arms and kept going. I ran until my breath was fire in my chest and the dust from the collapse caught up with me.
I whirled around to look. Moran was storming toward me–my Hiding spell had worn off. I glanced down at my arms full of scrolls.
“It was you!” she said. “We thought it was the Mark, but it was you.”
“You don’t understand–”
“You’ve killed people now, you know that?” She grabbed my arms and shook me. I did everything to keep the scrolls from falling to the ground. “Is it never enough for you? Why do you want to do this to us? I can’t find Halu and Leril. What if they don’t make it? What then?”
I whimpered and tore away from Moran.
“DO NOT COME BACK TO MY HOME!” she shrieked after me.
Exhausted, I looped back through an alleyway to look for Tulkot now that the worst had happened. The library garden was a mess of crushed plants and crying, rocking people. Still figures lay among bruised flowers and boulders. Thick dust caught the late afternoon sun and swirled over it all. It looked like the desert had finally made its way through the dome. Tulkot found me, scooped me up, and carried me half-running, half-gliding to the Village. We left through the same doorway I’d made earlier. Only couple hours had passed.
At the camp, I glanced at Worl’s still form at a distance. I didn’t need see her up close to know what had happened. The dark man and the woman with the spear escorted Tulkot and me into one of their tents. It was spacious and cool inside, with one small oil lamp and brightly patterned rugs over the sand. I dumped the scrolls on the floor. The man picked one up frowned as he opened it. I worried that the script might be foreign to him, but he soon nodded and scanned the rest. Niggling at the back of my mind was the ruined library and the gnawing sense of betrayal. These were our secrets. The Gearda, even the Villagers, were proud of their sorcery and their oasis.
Still, if all else failed, if I was never allowed back in Minunaga again, the city would stand forever and that was enough…
I showed them how to touch Tulkot and feel his magic. I showed them how to use it, how to draw the glyphs so the magic would do what they wanted. I told them how jewels would hold spells for a long time.
“We need these creatures to perform the spells,” said the tall man. “How can we do magic without one?”
I was silent. I hadn’t thought of that at all.
“I’ll go with them,” said Tulkot. “Just for a bit.”
I choked on my protest. Minunaga would stand. He was brave, braver than me. He loved Minunaga, too.
The hunters grinned at Tulkot and patted him like a dog. I pushed the yellowed scrolls toward the hunters, folded my arms, looked away.
The hunters chattered amongst themselves of the promise that awaited them out west. I looked out the open flap, in the direction of Minunaga, wondering how long I would have to wait before going back. Maybe a month or two. I would live with Elud for awhile. Maybe Relt would help me get back through the dome.
The city flickered into existence outside, tangled buildings, towers, and all.
The air turned frigid. A thick cloud of dust rose from the ground and engulfed the tall tangle of buildings as they slowly leaned and toppled over.
Hundreds of Embrizid flew in our direction, right overhead.
The hunters around me shouted and left the tent to watch the spectacle. The city they didn’t believe in had appeared, and now it fell before their eyes.
My ears mercifully dulled the sound. I watched my world end through the open flap of the hunters’ cool tent.
I hung around the ruins after Minunaga fell and counted about fifty or so survivors, the majority of whom were Villagers who didn’t go the festival. From my foster family, only Moran survived. I didn’t speak to her.
There were no more Embrizid. All of the grand spells that needed their constant input had failed. Only simple spells stayed intact. The handful of surviving Sorcerers kept their protection amulets, their perpetually sharpened knives, their scrying crystals. Their Marks were still bold on their foreheads.
The Sorcerers lacked the Villagers’ urgency to leave and head west. They sat in silence, stunned and sad as they surveyed their demolished city.
The hunters had gone. They moved quickly, with only their tents and Embrizid hides to concern them. Tulkot left with them. We didn’t say anything to each other before he left.
I pilfered food and water where I could and listened in on conversations. I lived in an underground room in the abandoned Upper. Hunger and thirst were near constant, and I grew nervous. There was no more magical paradise. The crop fields were reduced to straw and cracked earth. I wasn’t Marked. Death sent a gentle reminder of her presence whenever I drank cloudy brown water or felt stabs of true hunger.
Six days after the collapse, the Villagers departed for the western hills. They had little food, and bad water had already caused a few more deaths among infants and old ones. I watched them go with fear and grief hollowing me.
So the night after the Villagers left Minunaga, I slipped away to the streaky stone pillar, to Elud’s cave.
“I thought I’d see you,” he said.
His hair was thin and white now, and he was bowed so much that he was a hand shorter than I was. I burst into tears at the sight of him. Startled, he patted me on the cheek.
“My girl…Minunaga couldn’t last forever, not like that.”
“I’m as I should be. As are you.” He pressed a finger on my forehead.
“Elud, please…can I talk to Relt? Do you have something to write with?”
Elud sighed, handed me a long, fresh stick of charcoal, and waved me to the back of the cave where the Embrizid slept.
I approached Relt, who opened a lazy hazel eye. With the charcoal I drew the circle I despised, a circle shot through with two overlapping crosses on my forehead. Relt glanced at Elud and touched her head to mine.
I felt the flare of magic and drank it in. I touched my forehead, but no charcoal came off on my fingers. It was smooth and Marked. Relt went back to sleep.
“I’m going north,” I said to Elud. “I don’t want to live here anymore.”
“Alone? You can’t go alone. Relt will go with you.”
“No,” I said. “She stays with you.”
Relt made no motion and kept dozing. She was loyal to Elud, and I knew that.
“I’ll be careful,” I said.
Elud smiled. “I know you will.” He grasped my arm tight. “I hope you have another chance to undo the spell before too long.”
I embraced Elud’s frail form and left the cave, my shawl wrapped low around my forehead. I started north, toward the sea with my glittering city bright and perfect in my mind.
I didn’t meet another Embrizid for a long time.
R. E. Awan is currently finishing up law school in Pennsylvania. The process of writing and editing legal briefs and memos got her interested in the process of fiction writing, which is proving to be just as fun.