Sh'ra wound her way carefully through the buildings, marveling as she went at the structures these people had built. To her right a tower rose hundreds of feet without a visible entry or a single window. She walked around it once to be sure. How did they get in? Behind her was the wall, buildings cut into its surface as far as she could crane her neck. Her own somewhere up there, too small for her to make out. At least it would not be difficult to keep her sense of direction. Far out to the west, she saw where the city stopped, replaced with barren rock, a narrow road winding its way outward. Somewhere out there is where she needed to be.
The street Le’un had directed her to follow ended in a platform overlooking the expanse of the city below. After a few minutes of gaping, she searched for a way down and found steps cut into the north side of the platform. The stair led down into an alley that twisted and turned until she was no longer sure of her direction. She considered turning back, but convinced herself it would only be a little further. Finally, she was spit out onto what appeared to be the central road through the city.
The street bustled with early morning activity. Its occupants were cordial to her, most smiling and waving as she passed, but her guard was up after her conversation with Le’un. How many of these felt the same way he did? Outwardly, it appeared that most did not share his view.
From what she could remember of the histories, the Air clan was the first to retreat after the Scattering. They left for the north. No one heard from them for over a hundred years, perhaps two hundred. Stories of them slipped into legend and myth. Many went in search of them, but none returned. She realized now that those who actually found them were likely welcomed into their tribe. But what of those who did not want to join? And who could have found this place anyway? From the floor of the valley, you could walk past without ever realizing what lay above. Had they moved here immediately? It must have taken hundreds of years to construct a city of this grandeur. Maybe they did not build it. Maybe it was already here. The thought chilled her.
A group of young girls stopped their play to stare as she walked past them. She gave them a small wave that set them giggling and whispering to themselves.
"You really should not encourage them,” said a man leaning against the wall of a nearby building.
She surveyed him. No, this was not a man. This was a boy no older than her. He raised his head to meet her eyes and she leapt back reaching for the dagger she no longer possessed. Lorn pushed himself from the wall and approached her, keeping his arms away from his sides, his hands visible, palms up.
"Would you attack me here? In the middle of my own city? I do not think even you could be so foolish."
"You might be surprised." Sh'ra replied, crouching, readying herself for his attack.
He walked to the center of the road, his eyes never leaving hers. Then he turned away to face the west, his back to her. Now was her chance. She had the stone. She could kill him easily — a shaft through the chest, just as he had done to Shin. She hesitated. What held her back?
He killed Shin. He stole victory from her. He handed her over to be killed. He set her on the path to exile, to the loss of everything. She recited the facts, but she found no hatred for him.
"Come or we will be late," he said and jogged away.
The last bastion of her anger left with him. He was just a boy, a boy following orders. The thought settled over her like a heavy blanket. He had not done this to her. She had chosen her own path. He had loosed the arrow of her enemy, but another had directed the bow.
She watched him as he ran, considering. He was not fully to blame, but neither was he innocent. Lorn stopped at a distance ahead of her, waving her to follow as he rounded a corner on the right and disappeared. Sh'ra ran to catch up.
The sun had fallen beneath the horizon by the time she trudged herself back to the lift. O’lum was there waiting for her with a smile and a hug, not bothered in the least by Sh’ras sweat drenched clothes. Sh'ra smiled tiredly back, her limbs exhausted from the hours of training, her mind muddled and her chest tight at spending the day feet away from Shin’s killer.
"Come child," said O'lum, extending a hand. Sh'ra took it and let herself be led away from the lift. She looked back at it, longing for her soft bed.
She stumbled after O'lum, trying to keep her feet. They proceeded mostly in parallel with the wall at first. Then O’lum turned to their left to follow a side street. A few more turns was all it took for her to give up tracking of where they were going. Just as Sh’ra was about to ask how much longer, O'lum stopped at a large wooden door. She knocked three times, then a fourth. The door swung smoothly open on silent hinges.
Inside, they took steps upward, Sh'ra’s legs burning with each stair.
At the top, O'lum stopped and pointed to a bench. The room was walled in stone, but open to the night sky above. Sh'ra sat on the bench and rested against the cool stone behind, closing her eyes. A breeze surged through the space pulling heat from her. She wrapped her arms around her chest to hold what warmth was left.
Her next sensation was a warm sponge on her ankle. She looked down. O'lum knelt before her, cleaning her feet, then moved to massaging her calves with strong fingers. She wanted to pull away, to tell the woman to stop, but O'lum was done and asking her to stand before Sh'ra found the energy to resist.
Beyond the woman, a bath had been cut into the stone floor. Steam drifted from the surface of the water filling it. O'lum removed her dress and waded into the water. She sat with her back to Sh’ra.
"Join me. Rest from the trials of heya't." She used the informal inflection when she said the word, signaling she was speaking of life in the general sense, not the man.
It was confusing though because sometimes the word simply meant "day".
With the woman's back turned, this was her chance. She slipped out of her shirt and pants, breaking into a cold sweat as she scanned the room for a place to hide the stone.
The walls were smooth, as if the room had been carved from a single block of granite. She could wrap it in her clothes, but what if someone else came in to take the items while she was in the bath? Glancing back at the woman, she found saw that O'lum was watching her with a curious expression.
"Come, girl. Bring me the stone. I wish to see it."
Sh'ra's eyes bulged. She thought to run, but had already removed everything except her underclothes. It was too late. She had waited too long. She produced the stone, crouched beside O'lum and gave it to her.
O'lum held it in her left hand and pointed with her right to the opposite side of the bath. Sh'ra peeled off her underclothes, and slouched into the bath, its warmth providing little comfort. Dread rose within her as the water covered her.
"Fascinating. It's not how I imagined it would be.“ O'lum said as she turned the stone, the wet of her fingers and the moonlight showing it as Sh'ra had never seen it. After a moment, she met Sh'ra's desparate gaze.
"Do not fear, child. I will keep your secret."
“You will?” Chocked out Sh’ra. ”Even from Heya't?"
“Of course girl. Death does not give up its secrets to life. But you will need a better hiding place.”
"There is a crevice in the underside of your bed frame. I wasn't sure of the exact size of the stone, but it should fit quite nicely there."
"How… I… I don’t understand. In my bed frame?”
"I put it there."
Sh’ra’s head swirled with questions. They battled each other for prominence, leaving her mind jumbled until one burst to the front.
"How… how did you know about the stone?"
"I am to be your guide Sh'ra. The same as those who came before me."
"But, how? And who came before you?“
“To be honest, it was a guess - a guess based on a prophecy given as we made our way north after the Breaking.”
“The Scattering?" Sh'ra interrupted.
"Is that what the Stone clan calls it now?" O’lum responded derisively.
"The goddess appeared to a woman heavy with child, telling her of a daughter who would come. She would not be born of our clan, but would be declared al bin Ka'tur, the one who leaps. And she would carry with her a stone of power. With that stone, we would gain access once more to the might of the goddess."
"Does anyone else know of this… this prophecy?"
"No, it was passed down, mother to daughter in my family following the instruction of the goddess that it must never be shared with another. I feared it would end with me, for I had no daughter."
O’lum grew silent, her thoughts somewhere else now, though she continued turning the stone between her fingers. Eventually, her gaze returned to it.
“Can this one truly grant us the freedom we seek?"
The woman never lifted her eyes from the stone, but the way she asked the question, almost like a prayer, made Sh’ra wonder if the woman was referring to her.
"Can anyone use it?"
Sh’ra’s throat closed.
"I... I'm not sure."
"How do you do it? Describe it to me.”
Could she tell her? Could she trust her? Or would O'lum cast her aside as soon as soon as she knew?
"I..." Sh'ra started but could not bring herself to continue. “I… I don't trust you."
O'lum stared back at her, eyes hard for a moment before they softened.
"Wise girl," she said, handing the stone back to Sh'ra.
Sh'ra prevented herself from snatching the stone out of the woman's hand. Her heart pounded, her throat tight. The tension refused to abate for several minutes after she had it back in her possession. O'lum sat with eyes closed, neck deep in the waters. Sh'ra lowered herself to a similar position, but could not bring herself to close her own.
They walked in silence, the ball of tension still tight in Sh'ra's stomach. O'lum left her at her door. Sh'ra watched her walking away. She gripped the stone, preparing to draw power through it. It would be easy. She could make it look like an accident, loosen the walkway under her foot and the woman would topple down and down to her death. Her secret would be safe once more. Sh'ra breathed in, seeing the lines, judging which would serve her purpose best.
There, just to O'lum's right, a line ran parallel to her, connecting with lines in front and behind her. A quick pull and the whole section would break off, plummeting a thousand feet. Sh'ra extended her awareness, reaching for the line. She held it, and the woman's life within her power. But she could not pull. O'lum stopped, standing exactly in the middle of the section. She turned back to Sh'ra, gave her a small sad smile, and shut her eyes.
Sh'ra released the lines and backed quickly into her room, resting her back against the door after shutting it. Her breath was quick, fear shooting through her at odd angles.
Had it been just a coincidence? It must have been. How could the woman have known where she was standing or what Sh'ra had been planning to do? No, she could not have known. She could not have known.
Sh'ra slept fitfully that night, dreaming of crumbling the rock beneath O'lum's feet, only to have it reform beneath her over and over again, O'lum's sad eyes shifting to icy rage as she pulled the mountain down on Sh'ra with the twitch of her hand.