Global Warning

The flustered ambassador adjusted his tie for the tenth time, his own neurotic nature mingling with the resonating effect of his father’s ceaseless diatribes on self-reliance and frugal living. Even on the most important day of his life, or perhaps even in all of human history, he refused to be dressed or made up by anyone but himself or his wife, and she was quite preoccupied with watching the news from half a country away. When the Secretary General of the United Nations specifically reached out to him to head this monumental task, he accepted without much emotion, always keeping an even keel as trained. On the other hand, when he informed his wife of his new position, she was left speechless for over a full day. She had to call in sick from work, although that was a separate issue entirely. And yet now that the moment was finally here, the gravity of this task finally seemed to rest on his shoulders. He took another sip of water, clearing his throat. Would these creatures even understand human speech? He would be flanked by four different highly-esteemed linguists and specialists in communication. But in speaking with visitors from another world… that seemed to him a woeful under-preparation.

“Are you ready, sir?” A young woman asked from the other side of his door. “We’re going to run behind schedule, and I don’t know if it’s wise to keep our guests waiting.”

“I am ready,” he declared sternly, the words more confident than the man.

The two began walking down the hallway as countless scenarios replayed in his mind. For the past few nights, he had imagined that these visitors might appear in all sorts of shapes and forms. Perhaps they would be more humanoid like the lazier science fiction films he had seen as a child. Perhaps they would be robotic, having long since shed their biology for the efficiency of machinery. He even imagined they might be forms of life heretofore unknown on Earth, ethereal beings made up of silicon crystals or a sentient gas. In the end, no one knew anything about these visitors. Many considered them a hoax until every government on Earth began to take them seriously almost overnight. He was not told why they all suddenly did. Just that they did.

The young woman had been trailing behind him, dressed in a well-fitting suit. When they came to a stop before a door, she started to speak, “Mr. Ambassador, there’s been a slight change of plans.”

“What do you mean?” Dread creeped down his spine. When anything was possible, changing plans meant new anxiety.

She took another look at the touch-screen pad in her arms, “Umm, it seems they specifically requested only one person meet with them, and um, that person is you, Mr. Ambassador.” It almost seemed like she couldn’t believe it either.

“Only one?” His mind raced, diving right into paranoia. Was this human sacrifice? Was he selected out of some sort of vendetta from someone on the UN Security Council? He flipped through countless faces and names thinking of anyone who might want him out of the way, but in his long and distinguished career, he had not made any enemies with enough influence to place him in this position. “Did they explain why? Does this mean that these visitors can communicate with us?”

“I don’t know, Mr. Ambassador,” she said, her expression too real to have been rehearsed. A lie would have been easier. “I was told to leave as soon as I told you, as well. It seems everyone else here has been evacuated on their orders.”

“I don’t understand,” he stuttered, a bead of sweat forming on his forehead.

“Me neither, sir.”

They paused and stared at the ground, until she pursed her lips and offered, “Good luck in there, sir,” before twirling around and leaving with swift, long strides, the clack of her high heels growing distant as he stared at her shrinking into the distance and rounding a corner.

His eyes returned to the door before him. On the other side could be anything. He swallowed his fear and twisted the door knob. He had negotiated far worse situations with some of the most authoritarian regimes on the planet as a diplomat in his younger years. He had been the victim of kidnapping, assassination attempts, and even bombing, but still he survived. He would survive this too. He convinced himself of it and pulled the door open.

He was alone. As far as he understood it, no human being on Earth would back him up. He was disconnected, stepping into the territory of a strange, unknowable civilization.

There in the otherwise unremarkable room was a table with two chairs. In one of them was a bald man, seemingly nude. Cheerfully, he stood up with a welcoming grin, “Come in! We’ve been waiting all day!”

“What’s the meaning of this?! Who are you?”

The man was far too pleased to see him. “You don’t really have words for what I am in your language yet, but think of me as a translator between your kind and our kind. Just like what you have on your mobile devices. It took us a few days before we could engineer me, but here I am!” he smiled, pulling back the other seat for the ambassador to take. “Please sit, we understand this is the most comfortable position for you to conduct diplomacy.”

He did as he was told. The nude man seemed satisfied and took a seat across from him, folding his hands in front of him. “Now, let us begin. We would firstly like to ask you how you all have been as a species since we left you.”

“I’m sorry?”

“Yes, that’s right. We uplifted the great apes and embedded an override gene within you all long ago. It’s taken a long time but we’re very pleased with your progress. So how have you been? Well?”

“We… have been well.” The ambassador shook his head, “I suppose, if you want a state of the union of collective mankind, then we could be better. Divisions between nations have started to crumble since the climate crises have forced us to re-evaluate our collective survival strategy.” He stopped and added, “When you said ’embedding a gene,’ are you suggesting that you created mankind?”

The nude man shook his head, “No, no, we let natural selection determine most of that. What we did was make the intelligence and selfishness mutation more likely. Altruism and lack of hunger would lead to a stabilization that we simply could not abide by. We could have picked any creature but the great apes were closest to developing simple tools and they lived in climates most conducive to selecting for intelligence. Anyway, we’re getting ahead of ourselves in explaining all of this.”

“How can we know what you are saying is true?”

“I suppose you cannot, but the results speak for themselves. When we first spied your planet, it was a perfect environment for our kind. Lots of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Growing reserves of methane. Amazing. Breathable. We set off to settle, but as soon as we got here, imagine our surprise to find that life had sprung up and began oxygenating everything! What a catastrophe! We had no hope of living on a planet filled with so much toxic, burning oxygen,” the nude man sighed and stood up, pacing about the room. It was only now that the ambassador noticed there were no nails or hair on the man. Even the face seemed to be oddly plastic and perfectly proportioned, “We tried asteroids. More than once even, but it wasn’t ever permanent enough. But now after our uplifting intervention, we’re slowly starting to see the planet return to that pre-oxygenized state.”

The ambassador started to think back on his science courses in college, but the nostalgia did not soothe his utter disbelief. “This is ridiculous. What manner of prank is this?”

“Hm? This is no prank. We are very happy with your progress so far. It won’t be long before you’ve liberated all of that wonderful carbon back into the atmosphere from the clutches of these wretched photosynthesizers. Seriously, fantastic work. This has all happened so much faster than we were expecting. In any case, the reason why we wanted to talk with you is to encourage you. Your incredible diligence in extracting as much as possible from your surroundings is commendable. It won’t be long before most life on Earth is exterminated and the atmosphere is back to what it used to be.”

“If that’s true, then why have you decided to contact us now? Shouldn’t you have just let us be?”

“Certainly, if we hadn’t noticed a few hiccups. There’s a powerful group of people out there trying to prevent recarbonization from happening, and it would be in our best interest if they stopped. We don’t necessarily mean for them to be killed or anything. That seems awfully crude. Just give enough incentive so that they stop trying so hard to prevent the recarbonization of the atmosphere. Yes, that is why we have need to speak with you.”

“I do not have any sort of power you seek…”

“But you do have insight into who does. Find the right world leaders and orchestrate something to keep this environmental destruction all on track. We didn’t know who to trust, so we decided to just work with one person at a time. It didn’t really matter who we picked. Anyone that we speak to will be elevated to a position of authority, but you made the most sense for first pick, Ambassador.”

“How do you know I will agree to this?”

“Yes! We’re glad you asked. The obvious answer is that you have to. Don’t worry! We’re not going to forcefully coerce you. We don’t need to do anything drastic. You will want to help us yourself.”

“I don’t think so.”

“Look, if you listen to us, we will give you and your direct descendants the means to live forever. Simple as that. Refuse, and we’ll find someone else. How do you know that they won’t take us up on the offer instead? You don’t, and so you have no choice but to take us up on ours. Will you truly trust your peers not to act in their own self interest? Are they all so high-minded and selfless?” The bald man seemed to grow manic, “Or could it be that you don’t believe it is possible for us to offer this to you? It’s not like you have a choice, right? In the end, human nature has been rigged against your own selves. You know it, too, right? The end of the world is inevitable because there’s no way to build enough trust and organization among all of you. We are your one and only salvation. Selfish or not, it’s the most logical choice you can make. What do you say?”

“So you want me to go and stop the climate strikes around the world? Stop all environmentalist efforts? This is utter madness. The cat is out of the bag, if you’ll excuse my turn of phrase, and so people will work to preserve the Earth.”

The man snapped his fingers, “Yep, you got it. Just for another thirty years or so and it’s basically irreversible. Don’t worry, you’ll have our help. Disinformation campaigns take almost no effort at all.”

Disinformation. There was so much of it already out there. For a while, climate change denial was all the vogue among conspiracy theorists, but it had been beaten into silence by most everyone else. When the first war was fought over water in the Middle East, it had become clear that this was a challenge that would soon affect the entire world. And even still, so many alternative theories had come forward ranging from natural warming due to the age of the Earth or there being no such change happening or blaming it on specific countries and their industries.

“Once cloud cover is gone, the planet will warm up considerably. At that point, the oceans will create a feedback loop and absorb more sunlight. This warmth will likely drive more plant growth, but that can be offset with the survival of humanity. We want to ensure that the planet warms enough to obliterate the possibility of organisms rebalancing the Earth. Just a thousand years without humanity can mean the Earth goes back to the way it was, and we don’t want that. So, to encourage cooperation, we’ll even throw in proof of our good will towards you. Your wife is currently in the hospital in order to receive a surgery tomorrow, yes? This is the third time trying to rid of her cancer? Pernicious little problem, isn’t it?”

Slamming the table, he stood up. He felt the hairs on his neck rise, and his throat clench, “If you so much as-”

“Please, there’s no need for such drama,” the nude man brushed the ambassador’s warning aside before he even finished, “Your wife will never have cancer again. In fact, you can call her as soon as we’re done and find that she won’t need the surgery either.”

Still standing, he asked, “What do you mean? You saved my wife? You cured her cancer?”

“We cured everyone’s cancer. You all were surprisingly close but you needed a few more tweaks and the appropriate delivery vehicle. The news should break in a few days. How do you think it is we made our presence known to your various leaders in the first place?”

“I don’t understand… if you’ve already secured cooperation with the leaders around the world… What do you need me for?”

“They’ve only agreed to keep quiet about our existence. Actually, can I say something funny? Some of them got mad that we found the cure for cancer. Something about making less money by making it public. Well, even if you don’t find it funny, we found it humorous. So amusing. Anyway, we’ll continue to ensure the survival of your species even past the point of no return until we’re ready to settle on Earth ourselves.”

“Then the world leaders must be aware of your intentions at least. How could they all have agreed?”

“Like I said, no one knows our plans but you. And listen, we like humanity. You all have been immensely helpful, and we don’t want to pay back your valuable efforts with extermination or terror, but there’s too much of you who have hyperactive self-preservation instincts. If people were to find out that they were making their own planet inhospitable to themselves… why, imagine the outrage! Imagine the disruption! It would be bedlam. That’s why we need your help to conduct these things from behind closed doors.”

“No one would believe this. I can scarcely believe this.” But he knew that someone else might. For all he knew, he would be killed for disagreeing because he could arrange something against these creatures with the “influence” that they had given him. One bad actor would spell the end for mankind — for all life on Earth. Just one.

The ambassador had been in the room for only thirty minutes before he eventually left more confidently than when he had entered. No cameras or recording devices were allowed anywhere near the facility, and so no one could truly know what they had discussed in there but the ambassador himself. Moments later, he exited the facility by helicopter and left for a different secure facility where he would give his debrief to the UN Security Council. Out of his window, he glanced up and saw a glint before a crescent moon, shining like a star, blinking out of existence, almost like the aliens winked at him.

As he departed, in a single simultaneous instant, every major leader around the world then received the same message from the alien visitors. “We’ll be back in thirty years to see how you all have done! Have a good time!”

 

 

 

The Man Shrouded in Stars

The boy tugged tighter the coat of boar pelt draped loosely across his narrow shoulders, shielding himself what little he could from the chill that seemed to shake his very bones. His gaze had begun to waver under the stress of the endless hike now interrupted by a snow storm, his drooping eyelids reflecting the pelt that seemed to slip from his increasingly numb fingers. With another breath and another step, he pulled at the garment once more, as if to protect a flickering fire from the wind — as if to remind his limbs that he was still in control. The sun had begun to set.

The fur coat was all he had left, a gift from the greatest hunter his village had ever known. He was the man that tracked and killed the very boar that maimed his father, who eventually passed from the injuries. The hunter gave the prize pelt to the boy as an offering of condolence, returning to his mountain home a four day journey away. This must have already been a year ago, never returning to the village since.

He was an enormous man. That was all the boy could remember. He had a beard with strands like pine needles, straight and thick, bristling with the same hardness that defined his trunk-like legs and log-like arms. It seemed to him that the hunter could wrestle a bear and win, and there were tales that he did just that. His skill with a club was honed to precision, but it was his spear throwing that seemed almost supernatural, able to strike a target from one edge of the village boundaries to the other. However, he didn’t make for much of a teacher, never able to explain to the other men how to hunt as he did. And so, without his presence, the people suffered.

And it was this task that lead the boy to venture out in search of him in the thick of winter. Even to the point of exhaustion. Even at the risk of dying.

However, finally, in the distance, his tired eyes could start to make out a sign of smoke. Reinvigorated by a glimmer of hope, he pushed forward, the last of his strength pouring into his legs. He gripped the fur coat around him tighter, exhaling sharply through his nostrils with each step, inhaling the sharp, cold air with each pause. Slowly, diligently, deliberately. This was a method to endure long tasks that his mother had taught him. Focus on the rhythm of your breath and clear your mind of every other sensation but the task before you. She could spend the entire night weaving in this meditative state, without even feeling the need for sleep. The hunter once said he would track animals in much the same way. The boy harnessed but a fraction of this meditation in order to numb himself to the agony of his hypothermic legs.

As he neared, the source of the smoke coming into clear focus, at last, his legs seemed to slip out from beneath him, his arms instinctively reaching out before he hit the ground. He couldn’t help but let out a sharp cry of pain, even if it didn’t hurt. He looked back up at the strange, leather-wrapped tent. circular and spacious. He had never seen a structure quite like it. The tents of his village were much smaller and used primarily as workshops. Most of them preferred to stay in caves along the mountain. However, from it, emerged a small, shadowy figure, wrapped heavily in furs, long strands of hair whipping in the wind like an unfinished curtain. The figure started to run towards him, casting off the fur coat in order to reach him faster. Two more small figures appeared at the entrance. His eyes closed.

The next thing he knew, he felt an incredible warmth. Something heavy and comforting pressed all around his body. His eyelids parted only for him to be staring at the head of a boar. With a slight startle, he jolted back, only then realizing that it was the hood of his own boar fur coat. He pulled off two more furs from his body, finding himself next to a fire as three children stared at him. One of them held a makeshift spear, yelling in a language he didn’t understand. A smaller child tugged at her ragged clothes, saying nothing. Finally, the tallest of the three, asked more quietly in a language he did understand.

“Can you hear us?” she asked. It became apparent it was a girl from her voice.

“Yes,” replied weakly, still grappling to understand the situation. His eyes couldn’t help but meet the point of the spear directed at him.

The elder girl touched the spear girl’s hand to lower her weapon, shaking her head. Turning back to her guest, she asked, “Where do you come from?”

“The village at the base of the mountain…” He sat up as the youngest girl handed him an earthenware bowl of hot water. She shuffled off afterwards. “I’m looking for a man,” the boy said.

The girl gulped, her expression darkening, “So far away? You must be looking for our father. There’s no one else that hunts on these mountains.”

“The hunter has children…?”

“These two are my younger sisters. We three were adopted by him. Taught to hunt like him.”

“Will he return here soon?”

“He returns when the goddess rests. He hunts with her.”

“Who is this goddess?” His village had no familiarity with the concept. Did the hunter have a wife?

The girl sat by the fire and started to recall as she stared into it, “She is the light in the heavens that illuminates the night. She has sovereignty over the wild beasts and first taught our father how to hunt when he was a child. She is queen of the forests, the night, and master of the spear.”

“Like a spirit…” In his village, there were shamans who could hear spirits of the world and spirits of the dead, but he had never before heard of any spirit who could boast such power and such personality. But if the hunter works together with this spirit, it would explain his uncanny abilities. Surely no normal man could be so skilled and powerful.

The boy asked, “Does that mean when there is no moon in the sky, he will return?”

“That is when it is most difficult to catch prey, so he rests on those days.” the girl smirked as if she was stating the obvious. “You braved this weather just to look for him. Stay as long as you like. We still have plenty of preserved meat.” She stopped, interrupting herself, “What are you called?”

“I am Boe,” he said shakily.

“My father named us Taka,” pointing to herself, “Nilam,” pointing to the spear girl who spoke a different language,  “And Nitah,” she finished by pointing to the shy, little one. “Once these cloudy days are over, it’ll become easier to see the moon. Although… with clouds like these I’m not sure how he can hunt in the night anyway.”

“He has not come to our village in over a year either. Lately, another monster has been killing men in the village who go off to hunt, so we need his help. I can’t wait much longer. Moon or no moon, I’ll go off looking for him tomorrow if that’s what it takes.”

“That’s stupid,” the spear girl named Nilam said confidently in a language the boy named Boe understood, “And don’t pretend. You got lucky finding us when you did. You clearly don’t know how to navigate the night like we do. Any further and you would have ended up food for a pack of wolves.”

“She’s right, that is very stupid. Did you hit your head when you fell?” Taka grinned ear-to-ear as if she couldn’t help herself. Both Nilam and Nitah giggled. Boe might have felt a twinge of offense, but seeing the three sisters interact with each other like that seemed a welcome relief from the stagnant quiet of his home. Caring for his ailing mother without knowing how. Praying to every spirit he knew the name of and finding no answers or hearing anything. He closed his eyes but for a moment as these thoughts overwhelmed him.

He woke up the next morning. The sound of howling winds had ceased. The tent was still warm with the remaining cinders of a nightly fire. A quick scan of the interior met nobody; he was entirely alone.

Equipping his boar fur coat around his shoulders, he poked his head out to find the landscape was painted in thick white. The tops of trees sagged beneath the weight of snow. The peerless blue of the sky had returned. His three day journey lead him to this point. All of his resources exhausted, he had actually found the mountain that the hunter lived on. Suddenly, the tree he had been looking at shook violently, the snow on its branches flying from their perches. He glanced down and saw the spear girl Nilam with a strange implement. She had hit the tree with a small spear.

He hurried over to her. “What is that tool?”

She did not bother looking at him, plucking another small spear with a blackened point from the ground and pulling it back onto a string attached to a curved cane. “It’s a bow and arrow. We were taught how to make it as the goddess taught the hunter.” She loosed her arrow as it went spiraling away into the forest, missing the trunk of the tree she had hit earlier. With a slight frown, she picked up the next arrow and nocked it back. “Use the yew, sacred tree of the moon, carved like a staff that can bend to become the crescent of the moon.”

The boy’s eyes seemed to light up. How come the hunter had never used this before? Or taught them to make it? Then he realized something… it’s possible that the hunter that was raising these sisters was not the same hunter he was searching for. Perhaps he had not found the correct mountain after all. If only he could remember the hunter’s name, but the only thing he could recall was his appearance, and that was barely anything to go by.

“What is your father like?” he probed incautiously.

She shushed him for silence, taking a deep breath. She exhaled. Her fingers released their tension as the string shuddered back into place, the arrow whistling through the air as it broke sideways against the trunk of the tree. The girl let out an audible groan and sat down against an exposed rock. Turning to the boy while unstringing her bow, she said, “He’s wise, strong, and persistent. And he loves to tell stories. He once told us a story of how his father pursued and caught the moon itself.”

“The moon?” He thought about the burly hunter in his head. That man caught a spirit of the heavens? “How did he do that?”

“He chased the moon for seven days as if chasing an animal, and the moon outran him for six. On the seventh day of the chase, without ceasing, he caught it and it even turned red out of embarrassment and anger. The goddess revealed herself and demanded that he marry her for touching her as he did, and he agreed. That’s just the kind of person he was apparently.”

“Who could chase something for so long without resting?”

“Our father is the offspring of the hunter and the goddess. The goddess taught him how to make bows by beholding the shape of the moon. Or something like that.”

“That’s amazing,” the boy said with bulging eyes. “The man I’m looking for must be… your father’s father.”

“Hm,” she grunted, completing her tidying up. “If you want to be of use, collect some dry branches on your way back to the tent. We need to stock more firewood. I need to go find Nitah.”

He did as he was told as Nilam slung her pack across her back and left. As he began his way back to the tent with an armful of twigs, he spotted the elder one, Taka, through the front entrance to the back entrance, working with her hands by an outdoor fire.

She looked up as he dropped the firewood with a clatter, wincing at the sound. Then she noticed what he brought in, quickly snatching two of the straightest branches and placing it in her pile. She seemed to be filing down some wooden sticks to a fine point by burning the stick at one end and rubbing it repeatedly against a now ashy and blackened stone.

“What is it that you’re doing?” he asked.

“Making more arrows. There’s no food unless we hunt, and we can’t hunt without arrows.” She twirled an unfinished one in her fingers deftly. “Do you want to help?”

“Um, Nilam told me to get more firewood.”

“We have plenty of that,” she dismissed, heaving a loosely woven basket of plucked feathers in front of him with one hand. “Cut these in half down the middle, and then cut them in half across. Each feather should give you four pieces. Attaching these with tree sap and bark string will help each arrow fly straighter.”

“I understand.”

The two worked in silence for a little bit. “Boe,” Taka said with some hesitation, her focus still fixed on her arrow filing, “Why did you leave your home? Why are you looking for a hunter?”

He also answered absent-mindedly, his focus consumed by the task of splitting feathers, “The men in our village are all too scared to hunt now, and the women and children can’t gather. The forest is stalked by a monster that kills and eats people. I am convinced that the hunter could save us, but no one else believed me.”

“That’s what you said last night. But why you? What made you want to risk your life alone? Won’t your mother and father think that you also have died in the forest like the others?”

His mind wandered to his sickly mother. The villagers have been kind enough to continue caring for him and his mother even after his father died, but how much longer would that continue? “My mother is waiting for me to return. As soon as I meet the hunter, I shall go back.”

“You may not survive the trip back, stupid boy. There’s nothing more important than your own survival. If you die, so does your mother. Do you understand? Similarly, if I die, then my sisters will eventually die without me.”

“But if a time came where you had to sacrifice yourself to save them, what would you do?” he muttered defiantly.

Taka sighed, “We will all die together. Or we will all live together. I can’t stomach the idea of living without my sisters,” she said, holding up a finished arrow. This one looked far deadlier than the ones Nilam was using to practice with. “Snapping this in half is easy. Snapping ten of these in half at once is not.” She picked up ten more arrow shafts and tried to bend it to no avail.

“I understand,” he said, “But how could I get all of the men in my village to work together? They are far too scared, and I am just a child.”

Taka shrugged. “I do not know. Usually I can make Nitah do the work you’re doing, and she’s off gathering today in the forest. She knows that she has a sense for good mushrooms, and so she is obedient. Nilam is also a gentle child, and so she listens to me. I told her to practice her archery since she’s not very good at much else. I do not know how to make any others listen to me, but at least you seem to be doing so.”

Boe glumly split another feather apart. “How good are these arrows? I’ve never seen anything quite like this before. Can they really kill an animal?”

“They can kill a person, too. Nilam almost killed you yesterday. She thought you were a dying boar approaching the tent. Lucky for you she didn’t want to waste any arrows, and so she picked up her spear. Lucky for us, too. Our father warned us that if we use an arrow to kill a person, we’ll forever be cursed by the goddess who taught us how to make them.” Taka continued to work, “Allow me to tell you a story. This is one my father loves to tell. There was a man that the goddess favored in a distant land. He too was taught archery and given her blessings, but he was prideful. With his power, he killed many who opposed him and eventually became the ruler of a large mountain. Every village on that mountain bowed to him. The people begged the goddess for help, and she turned and saw what had happened in the short time that she had been away. She was very displeased. The next day, when the prideful man was hunting, the bow transformed into a giant scorpion in his very hand, stinging him repeatedly to death, one sting for each person that he killed with that bow. The moon goddess then placed his body up in the sky so that he may learn to bless people instead of terrorize people as he watched over them from above. I’ll spell it out. The lesson is never to abuse your talents for selfish gain, and never ever kill people with a gift from the moon goddess.”

“Wow… this goddess sounds powerful… are there others like her?”

“Of course, the goddess’s brother is the sun, the one who provides light for us right now. Our father does not speak much of him, though, just not to let him catch you staring at him or he’ll shoot your eyes out with his arrows,” Taka laughed, “So now you know.”

“The shaman told us something very similar…” Boe whispered excitedly, “She said the spirit of the sun demands respect. She must have been talking about the same thing.”

“Must be,” Taka smiled, picking up ten finished arrows and placing them in a long, leather satchel. “You’re surprisingly diligent, Boe. You seem to have finished. Leave those cut feathers in the basket. I’ll attach them tonight. Deliver these to Nilam,” she thrust out the satchel, “And bring back some more firewood if she tells you to.”

Boe did as he was told. As he left the tent carrying the leather satchel, he saw Nilam speaking with the smaller Nitah at a distance. He plodded over, carefully navigating what remained of the snow on the ground.

Nilam swiveled her head to the source of the footstep sounds with an animal instinct. She sighed,  “Good, I was just about to head back in to the forest… Stay here, Nitah. And bring back more firewood to Taka.” Nitah nodded, her own basket overflowing with all manners of green and brown vegetation. “Hand me those arrows, and help Nitah carry these things back.”

Boe did as he was told yet again. Nitah chirped shyly, “Thank you,” handing him the basket as he handed the satchel to Nilam. She swung it around onto her hip and dashed into the woods with one motion, disappearing from sight almost instantly. She somehow reminded him of a galloping deer.

As his mind wandered back to the basket he held in his hand, he turned to Nitah, with whom he had not yet spoken. “Let’s collect some wood.” She nodded, replying with a practiced twirl, crouching to the ground to brush away the snow. He placed the basket down and began picking up what branches he could. What Taka had said flitted to and fro in his mind like a buzzing, meandering firefly. Impossible to ignore. He decided to try asking the little Nitah something, “Nitah, if one day you had to leave to find food for your sisters because they were both ill, would you?”

Nitah stopped to ponder the question, swiftly replying with a startling firmness, “Yes.”

“What if Taka demanded that you not risk your life for their sake. Would you stay behind and starve with them?”

“My sister would never say that.”

“So you would risk your life to save theirs, right?”

“Yes. I would do anything for my sisters. Unless they told me not to.

“When I spoke with your sister, she said that it’s better to live together or die together, and I don’t know about that. Isn’t it better for even some to live rather than everyone die?”

Nitah paused for a while, “That reminds me of a song my father sings.”

“A song?”

She took a deep breath of the crisp winter air and began to sing with a shaky voice.

“The moon did cry \\ As life did fade \\ From eyes that once \\ Saw all the land”

Boe listened transfixed as she continued.

“The hunter’s bow \\ That she had gave \\ Returned to her \\ With barren hands.

For once the two \\ Became as one \\ And swore an oath \\ With every breath.

And so she hides \\ Her saddened gaze \\ To mourn each month \\ Her lover’s death.”

When she finished, Boe did not speak. He thought only of the meaning behind the words, understanding fully now. Somehow. Everything that Taka had said seemed to make sense. The melody haunted his ears and Nitah’s voice resonated inside his head.

The air seemed to freeze with the icy tension that hung low between them. Finally, Boe broke the silence, “I think I understand.” Nitah didn’t respond, choosing to return to the tent ahead of him alone. He picked up what he could, including the basket, and started to head back as well, when at once he heard the sound of a high pitched cry. From the corner of his vision he saw Nitah return, sprinting towards the direction of the scream. Moments later, Taka appeared from over the hill, bow and arrow in hand.

“Come on!” she yelled at the boy, whose arms and legs began moving before his mind could catch on.

The three leaped into the forest guided by Nitah’s agile motions. Taka crushed every branch in the way with either stomps or strikes from her bow to make it easier for Boe to keep up, as if she had done this many times before with her sisters.

Just then, a terrible squeal. Loud and guttural. Boe could never forget the war cry of an angry boar. He began to tremble even as he ran, unsure if it was wise to keep charging forward. When they came to a clearing, Nilam was on the ground, writhing, clutching her chest, her bow a distance away. The beast was readying another charge, its tusks long and sharp, its jet black fur bristled, adorning the frame of a creature larger than any of them. An arrow pierced the flank of the boar, the feathers like a flag planted on a hill. Taka drew back her bow and aimed at the boar’s skull.

Her fingers let loose. Her arrow struck its target, but the arrow could not piece the bone. With another horrible roar, it turned its attention to the three of them and began to charge forward. Nitah grabbed Boe’s wrist and jerked the stunned boy towards her while Taka dodged in the other direction, narrowly missing death itself. It slammed into a tree with a mighty crack of splintering bark.

“Nilam! Get up!” Taka growled, out of breath, “Quickly!”

“I can’t! It hurts!” she replied in bitter anguish.

Boe ran over to the bow and arrow that once had been Nilam’s, separating himself from the others. He nocked it back awkwardly as he saw the two of them had done, aiming it at the boar who had begun to turn around. He breathed in.

Every doubt in his mind flitted through in an instant. Every impulse to abandon everything and run. Every nerve in his body filled with the fear of death. The image of his ailing mother. His father’s corpse.

“Boe, don’t!” Taka bellowed.

He breathed out. At the final instance when his entire body seemed to stop every movement, he let go. The arrow whistled through the air and landed with no power against the hide of the boar. Somehow, he had hit the boar, but failed to do anything to dissuade it from its next charge.

The boar charged only him.

As it did, Boe knew he had no place to go. This might have been it. His journey was over.

He reflexively closed his eyes when the sound of the boar’s squeal filled his ears. Then the tremendous thud of a mass hitting the ground. He opened his eyes once more to find the boar’s eye pierced by an arrow. He looked to Taka who was not holding her bow; she was holding Nitah instead. He traced the arrow shaft back to someone else.

“Father, wait!”

“Oho! This is no boar!” came a different, gleeful, enormous, booming voice. Boe did not recognize it, nor did he recognize him. The hunter had returned, but it was not the man he knew. This one appeared to be much younger than that hunter, and not nearly as physically large. “Why do you wear such a confusing pelt, child?”

“He is a boy,” Taka said through tired pants, “We almost made the same mistake when we first met him too.”

“Nilam, my child!” he called out, seemingly unworried, “Can you walk?”

“No…” she groaned.

“That is no good… Taka, Nitah, carry her back. I and the boy shall retrieve our kill. No more hunting until you improve your archery, Nilam! I have warned you many times before!” He unstrung his bow with the skill of a master, still speaking, “The Sun God retreats to his home early. We should do the same.”

The sisters left ahead of the man and the boy as he began carving choice parts of the meat on the spot.

“Mr. Hunter! I have a request of you,” Boe interrupted breathlessly, still panting, heart still racing in his ears, “Please, come with me back to my village and help us slay a monster that has been terrorizing us!”

“A monster?” the hunter grimaced, “I am no monster slayer. I hunt in the domain of the goddess as she wills. You ask the wrong thing of me.”

“I heard from Taka that you’re the son of the moon goddess… There’s no one else that can do it but you.”

“It is as you say. My mother is the moon itself. She taught me how to create the arc in her image. But that does not make me a hero. Then, as I finish, allow me to tell you a story.”

“A story?”

“There once was a lonely god who lived on this very mountain and ruled over its land. He was lonely because he could not trust others. But this is natural, of course. To trust anyone foolishly is opening up yourself to hurt and exploitation. To doubt and remain at distance is to protect yourself. And so this god, who could not trust anyone, lived a very solitary life. The god of the mountain and the people who lived at the base of the mountain began to come into conflict over territory. Individually, these people were far weaker than he was. He could best any of them in single combat, and so this alone kept them from ever taking this mountain from him. Still, he began to attack their new settlements and the people grew resentful of him. However, over time, they began to grow more and more numerous despite these attacks, while he remained as one. This should have scared him, but he had a realization. The god of the mountain thought to himself, ‘Ah, but surely they are like me. I have seen it. They also cannot trust one another for they cannot see what is in each other’s heart.'”

Boe listened with rapt attention, “Then what happened?”

The hunter seemed pleased to have a new listener. He continued, “The god decided to wait, for he knew that it would not be long before the growing number of people would come into conflict among themselves. There was nothing he needed to do. And so time passed and as he predicted, the people at the base of the mountain began to struggle with one another. But then, a miracle. They stopped fighting. They had discovered a way to trust one another. It was something that frightened the god of the mountain so badly that he fled on his own to another mountain altogether. Do you know what it is?”

“What is it?” Boe asked.

The hunter obliged, “A goddess. You see, organizing any amount of people requires the presence of something that they all believe in. This gives them a reason to work together. Without it, you’ll be limited to families fighting families, and even then among family members, there can be distrust. My father has told me of more than enough such incidences he has witnessed himself. Villages that are not united in the blessings of a god or goddess will not survive long and will never grow past the size of a few family groups. But once they do, they will attain power to frighten even the spirits of the sun and moon.”

Boe seemed to understand, “You’re saying that it’s not about finding a hero, it’s about us? Just people?”

“Heroes are great. They are role models to follow. Teachers to learn from. But relying on individuals is to deny the power that we can all participate in. What I’m saying is that you need to return to your village and find a way for the men to work together to defend your village. Don’t come seeking my help.” He handed Boe the pelt of the jet black boar. “Come, I shall continue this story back at our home.”

As they returned in the light of the setting sun, Boe asked countless more questions, but the hunter told him to save his breath for carrying the weighty amount of meat back to the tent. As they arrived, drenched in sweat, they found Nilam resting by the fire under mounds of furs with Nitah tending to her and Taka tending the fire. She took some meat from Boe and began roasting it over the fire.

As the hunter settled himself, he continued his story, “Now then… let’s wrap this up. The lonely god of the mountain tried to ask help from the god of another mountain, to no avail. The other mountain gods pushed him out until he returned to his mountain, battered and bruised. The people of the villages banded together and with the power of the goddess of the moon who took their side, slew the god of that mountain. They dedicated the mountain to her as tribute, and lived in peace ever since.”

“They banded together…” Boe slumped his shoulders, exhausted, “But I don’t know how to make our village band together like that.”

The hunter thought for a moment, “How about I give you something to help then?” He handed his bow to the boy. “Call it a gift from the goddess. I shall show you how to maintain this bow, how to craft arrows, and how to shoot tomorrow morning. It will not be enough to slay a beast by yourself, but teach the men of your village this very same thing and you will have power to slay even a god of the mountain.”

Taka’s eyes widened, “Your bow? The ram horn bow you spent weeks carving?” She clearly had eyes on the weapon for herself.

The hunter motioned for the two of them to stand, “Come, one more thing.” He lead them outside where the stars had already begun to appear in the dimming night sky. “Do you see that line of stars? Those three bright ones there all in a row? I’m going to trace a figure with my finger. That is the sign of the hunter, and those three stars make up his belt. Further up is his bow. Remember the names Taka, Nilam, and Nitah. That is what I have named those stars. Point to it as a sign that the celestial hunter watches over you and the men of your village. Pray to that hunter and let him give you the courage to go. The hunter shall always stay in the southwest. Pray to that hunter and he will guide your way even on the moonless nights.”

The boy thought for a while, gazing up at the sparkling night sky when a strange realization dawned on him. “Are you telling me to make up a story?” Boe asked hesitantly, “So I can trick people into fighting together?”

The hunter placed a heavy hand on his head, “These stories are not lies meant to deceive. They inspire. They explain. They teach. They give life to an otherwise miserable, difficult existence. Most importantly, they give hope. Perhaps one day we’ll discover the truth of everything, but until then, these stories are all we have. Without them, we’ll all just be lonely gods of our own mountain. The goddess comes alive this way.”

Boe stayed with the hunter an additional seven days. Upon returning to his village with gifts of meat, the men began to question where he had gone. He seemed a different person altogether from the little Boe that they knew. He answered them with a story.

“I journeyed to the mountains and met three spirits of the sky, Taka, Nilam, and Nitah. They were daughters of the celestial hunter, who is the son of the moon spirit. The moon taught me the nature of this holy tool,” he held up the bow and arrows, “Which is far stronger than any man’s thrown spear. When the sign of the hunter and the full moon is out, we will be given the strength of the celestial hunter himself. With this, we can all come together to slay that monster.”

The men murmured among themselves, doubtful. Skeptical. Untrusting. And yet still, they had listened enraptured by the story he had just told. Boe did not waver.

“Will you slay it then?” one man asked, his eyes betraying an utter inability to grasp what the child was saying.

“No, I cannot do it alone. We all need to work together and build more bows in order to win. We will all survive together, or we will all die together. That is what the spirits have taught me.”

The shaman of the village now was even listening. “You? Channeling the spirits? A boy who knows nothing?” she scoffed, dripping with derision.

Boe took a deep breath of the crisp, winter air. He breathed out. His thoughts clear, he spoke, “Allow me to tell you a story of how I communicated with the moon goddess.”

The Woman Shrouded in Moonlight

In the subtle gleam of moonlight against the creek was a dark gash of water dyed red. It was the twilight hour of someone’s life against the shadow of a creekside willow tree. The red traced itself backwards towards a limp wrist, tender and smooth, as pale as the moon itself. The arm connected to that wrist twitched. The shoulder shifted. The neck tensed as a weak smile met by a shallow breath parted to form words. “I’m finally free.”

Something throbbed within her. It wasn’t her heartbeat, but something like a drum, as if ordering her to get back up and run. Her upper arm was shattered, her shoulder dislocated, and every breath had to be shallow or her broken rib would puncture her lung. And still, something in her pushed her — no, demanded her — to live. Run and live. Dying is not an option.

The pursuit party on horseback did not know how far she had fallen from the mountainside, but the hounds would be on her soon. They knew her scent well and they were trained to navigate forests even at night. There came an abundance of noise from above, the clatter of hooves coming to a stop as barks rung like a series of death knells through the night.

“I see signs of a fall here, captain.”

“Dismount. We continue on foot down this way. You and the beholder sorceror remain here.”

“Understood.”

Their conversation was faint, but her hearing started to improve as she came closer to death. As her blood continued to drain from her body, she was ready to die and become unshackled from this world forever.

“Don’t die,” a voice shivered in her head, “You must live.” All she had to do was ignore that voice for a few moments longer. “If you die, how am I to live? How are we to exact our vengeance against these men?”

She responded to herself, “How am I to do any of that in the state that I am in?”

The voice grew in intensity, “They have trapped me within you because you are weak. You have always been weak. You are unfit to be a vessel of my power, and yet I live because you are weak and can speak to you because you are weak. But now is the time to be strong. Turn your weakness into strength by obeying me and fleeing.”

“To where shall I go? They shall be upon me soon.”

“You must not die! You may do anything but that! I do not care!”

She scoffed as a stabbing pain pierced her side. She would have to be careful not to do that again.

A man barked orders at his comrades, “Be cautious! The girl’s soul is bound with the harvest goddess! Do not allow her to die, or we shall share her fate!”

The harvest goddess spoke again like a drum beat in her mind, “Do not die! Do not be captured! Flee!”

But all she wanted to do was to finally rest and be done with all of this.

All that she had ever known in her life was to serve the goddess of the earth — the one known by many names, daughter of the goddess of life, wife of the god of the underworld, favored among the gods as the pearl of heaven. She had been told from her childhood that so long as she maintained dutiful reverence and service to the goddess, the people would know peace and prosperity. So why now did she have to suffer at the hands of the people?

“Because that is the nature of mankind. That is why my power belongs to ones such as I. That is why control over the harvest was never meant to belong to men.”

“I am sorry. I am sorry, goddess. I am unworthy to ask for forgiveness or mercy, I know, but if you would allow me to just sleep now and live this life no more…”

A searing pain seemed to burn within her head, “No! You judge correctly in your unworthiness. You too are responsible for the sin of allowing yourself to be used as a shackle to bind a goddess. I shall punish you all the same as the rest unless you listen to me now and get up! My lord husband is the ruler of the underworld! Do you not think it within my ability to find your soul upon your death and torture you for an eternity?”

“Then why is it that you fear him?”

After a pause, the goddess seethed, “Insolent, arrogant child! I do not fear anybody! I am disgusted with him! Enraged by him! His wife had been abducted for ten years and still these men live! Ruler of the underworld with no sense of responsibility! He deserves only my wrath and my scorn, but if you were to die and I return to the underworld with you, we shall fall under his full authority. Then surely he shall never let me leave again! That is the kind of coward that he is!”

The men grew closer as they descended the mountain side in the moonlit dark, cloud cover beginning to slow their movements. There was no safe way to carry torches down with them, and so they had found themselves barely able to move during times of pitch blackness.

“Listen, child, do you know what happens to the harvest without me? Nothing. Neighboring lands outside of your little slice of civilization have been languishing since my capture. I am certain they are praying to me even now, but I can hear nothing. The first year, I was merely horrified as you blessed the fields of your city and yours alone. As you overheard reports of other cities coming to yours for help and being denied. As you all hoarded your wealth and abused your influence to acquire more power, crushing underfoot any who would defy you. Did you know that a war has been fought over you already? In the tenth year, I am now furious!”

“I have heard of these wars… I did not know they were fought over me…”

“And yet still!” she cried out in grief, “And yet still do I love humans! I do not wish to see your kind come to ruin! If I return to the underworld, all of you will die! You would be eradicated for your sins against the gods, and I am trying to prevent that!”

“But I do not care… let them be eradicated.”

“What?” the goddess expressed a genuine bewilderment.

“We deserve to be punished for the evils we have committed. Humanity has failed to respect the gods, nature, or our position in world. We are a disease meant to be purged, a curse that is meant to be exorcised.”

“Again, arrogant child, you are so very wrong. As a single human being with the limited perspective of a set of eyes looking up from the base, you do not know the full scale of the mountain itself. You have no reason to be confident in what you see or believe. I truly hate nothing more than adults who refuse to mature and accept responsibility for their actions. If you wish to believe that humanity must be punished, so be it. I judge you and all of mankind guilty for your sins against me and against nature. You are sentenced to work and restore that which you have destroyed. Is that what you would like to hear? Have you run out of excuses, lazy child?!”

She did not respond, instead lifting her still unbroken arm towards the moon, now fully visible. The sound of men’s shouts drew near.

“You borne also from the mother goddess,” came a woman’s voice from thin air, “How unexpected to find you here. You seem to be a rather noisy center of attention.”

She looked towards the direction of the voice, spotting a lone bear, staring hungrily, perhaps drawn by the scent of blood. Was it the bear who spoke just now?

“Oh, holy maiden of the hunt,” the harvest goddess addressed the bear in relief, “Conditions have aligned for us to meet, I see. I’m not sure if either of our legends have us ever crossing paths. It matters not. Although their beholder sorcerors have used my legend against me, there is a beholder here as well. She can observe a new legend between you and I. Whisk her away to safety, I beg of you. She is someone who must not die.”

“Pathetic,” the bear scoffed, “To be reduced to asking for my assistance implies you are not worthy of my assistance to begin with. I am the goddess of the untamed. I operate according to one thing alone, and that is my whim. Nothing controls me.” It turned to leave, adding with one final statement, “Have you not also noticed that this woman wishes to die? Perhaps before requesting others heed your wishes, you heed the wishes of others.”

Her demeanor warped quickly, what little patience she had disintegrating into dust, “All I have ever done was heed the wishes of humanity! Those same humans that worship you are fed by me and only me! You have long since turned your back on providing them a means of sustenance so they have no choice but to seek my help! Irresponsible goddess with no sense of duty! Your dereliction could very well be the reason why they have captured me in the first place!”

“Girl,” the wild goddess addressed her serenely, a pointing visage of a woman wrapped in multi-colored furs appearing above the bear, “What do you wish for? I am in a generous mood tonight. Ask and you shall receive it. Is it a gentle death?”

She stared back up at the bear that began to approach her. It felt calming in an unexpected way.

“Have you forgotten your sister priests?” the harvest goddess asked the woman in desperation, “Those who have raised you and loved you since your birth?”

Her heart rate began to rise. No, I don’t actually want to die, she thought, every cell in her body protesting against her. Still, she quenched that desire and laid still, silent.

The harvest goddess continued, “Abandon them then! When they die and come to the underworld you can tell them yourself why you decided to give up!”

“Hmph,” the hunter goddess grunted in amusement, “Are you resorting to emotional threats to get your way? You truly know nothing of people. Typical of a goddess who treats people as subordinates or children instead of equals. Listen to me, wheat-brained goddess, they do not need our help. They can figure things out on their own given time. If anything, there will come a point when we must shortly go to war with them ourselves. That is what makes them so terrifying. Do you not see already how they have humbled you? Tricking you into this shackle? I had thought it impossible unless… Ah, unless…”

The harvest goddess said nothing, but the silence felt like she was glaring.

The hunter continued, “It seems to me that you do not wish to have this woman die precisely because it would expose you for what you really are. It has been bothering me for a while now. You see, there is no true means by which to imprison a goddess, for we exist solely in mystery. To see and understand who we are is the same as killing us. Girl, the people believed they summoned a goddess, and so you fabricated one in your own mind, did you not? One that is a mixture of your idea of the goddess of the earth and your own psyche.”

The harvest goddess growled, “What?! This is outrageous… To suggest that I am a figment of a crazed woman’s madness is utterly blasphemous!”

The woman was indeed confused. Is that truly what she had done all of these years? The voice in her head was merely a delusion?

The hunter continued, “I am a true goddess, unbound and unchainable. The one in your head is not. Indeed, the only reason why we can converse now is because you are dying. I remain shrouded in the bubble of plausible deniability. But the one ‘shackled’ to you? A deceitful mind playing tricks on itself.”

“Prove it! Prove that I am not a real goddess!” the harvest goddess was enraged to the point that the woman on the ground had started to feel heat rising from her chest.

But the hunter remained as cool and unconvinced as ever, “Nonsense. Proof is our poison. No deity would ever suggest such a thing.” The hunter waved her hand in dismissal, turning to the dying woman, “Girl, I do not know your story, but I can see that there is guilt in you. The goddess in your head manifests as vengeful because you are vengeful, and you do not know how to handle this for you are a gentle soul. Vexingly tragic. Tell me now, and I shall do it for this has fascinated me.”

“Do this? What do you mean?” the woman croaked.

“I shall slay your pursuers, and then lay you to rest. That is the cost of vengeance. What say you?”

“Get up!” the harvest goddess yelled, “Please!”

“Well?”

The woman summoned the strength to lift herself off the forest floor using the arm that had not been broken, staring up at the bear gazing peacefully back. “My entire childhood had been spent in the company of my sister priests. I never knew my mother and father. I studied day and night in the temple, worshiping and praying, learning the stories of the gods and goddesses that governed all of nature. When I had been chosen to become the vessel of the harvest goddess upon my coming of age… at the time, I had thought it to be a high honor, but since then, I lost my rights as a human being. I was no longer allowed to speak with anyone. No longer allowed out into the light of day without a squad of guards. I was fed and taken care of, sequestered comfortably in a dungeon beneath the earth as if I were buried in a furnished coffin.”

The goddesses listened intently, awaiting her decision.

And so she continued, “In my loneliest hour, I began conversing with the harvest goddess, who, to my surprise, spoke back to me. I don’t know if she ever taught me anything I myself did not already know, so I started to have my doubts. I don’t truly wish to die, but I don’t see any other way out of this miserable life. I don’t want a goddess in my head as my only companion. I don’t want to be the cause of conflict. All I ever wanted was a peaceful life where I could laugh and enjoy time with my fellow sister priests. If I could have that, I would give everything else up, but I know that will never happen again. So all I ask is to be free of this, and if death is the only way, I’ll take it. As far as I’m concerned, I can’t muster the will to care anymore about anything.”

“Oh, child,” came a third voice, distinct in its tone and emotion from the other two. The harvest goddess was angry. The hunter goddess was serene. This voice was soothing. “You determine correctly that we three are no more than voices in your mind. Our sovereignty over the world ended the moment your kind became aware of story-craft. We retreated to the space of mystery because that is all we have left.”

“Mother…!” the harvest goddess gasped.

The hunter narrowed her eyes. “To manifest now? What makes this girl so special?”

The mother goddess continued as if ignoring the other two, “For you see, we exist as absolutely real in stories and legends, but stories do not exist in objective truth. They are themselves subjective structures that are generated in the minds of men in order to simplify a complex world. Beginning, middle, and end are no different from landmarks designated for convenience in a vast forest.”

“I don’t understand…” the woman muttered, “What are you saying?”

She was not visible, but the mother goddess seemed to give off the feeling of a smile, “Just that you are like us. Flee not from these men and command them with the authority of a goddess. We reside in you, my child, and our story is yours, but only if you choose to make it so. We goddesses might only exist in story, but you are a human with the ability to write one. There is no hopelessness so long as there is a narrative.”

With that, the three goddesses disappeared. The bear eyed the darkness behind her warily at the sound of approaching shouts and clamor. Men with bindings appeared at last from the cliffside wall, exhausted from their climb down.

“There she is! Capture her!”

“Hold!” she shouted with a force so powerful it hurt her chest. The men froze in their tracks. “You are in the presence of the goddess of the harvest! Kneel and beg for forgiveness!”

The bear roared in response at the men, causing some of the less experienced ones to crumble to the ground. Moonlight from behind the clouds seemed to make her glow radiantly against the water. The captain stood his ground, “My goddess, we must have you return to the city at once.” In his own mind, he was no longer certain what he was seeing. A woman — no, a deity commanding a wild animal. Moonlight and a willow — both, sacred images of the goddess of the hunt. Her very visage appeared transformed from the scared girl that escaped from the temple grounds. Has the goddess within her somehow awakened fully?

“I have finished what I have needed to. Do not harm my vessel further and do not dare disobey my commands. Consider well that the lives of you and your families depend on my providence. It is merely my whim that you all have the blessings of the earth as you do now.” The words truly seemed no longer her own. Something like hope seemed to drive her forward, “Let us return then at once. Grant me audience with the king of the city for we have much to discuss.”

“You heard her!” the captain barked, wanting nothing more than to return home without any more trouble tonight. Surely, he would be receiving a commendation for this. “Our mission is complete. Let us draw this out no further!”

Reckless Abandon

The weight of his father’s hand against his shoulder supporting his tiny frame seemed to be small encouragement. Across the doorway to his home was a hostile kind of face he never had much exposure to — a scowling, fox-like face, thoughtful yet aggressively sharp in every detail, belonging to a girl who looked to be no older than himself.

“Hey, relax,” his father tried to say in his most reassuring tenor, the petrified child gripped like moss against his leg, “This is going to be your new little sister, Aoife. There’s nothing to be scared of. Try saying hi.”

The frightened, bespectacled boy waved his hand awkwardly as the girl glared daggers back, offering a loud hiss in return. As if confronted by a wild animal, he stole his hand back with a jolt, tucking himself further behind his father’s leg.

“Well, that’s not the worst we’ve seen,” he joked to the haggard woman behind the girl, “Are those all of her belongings?”

“Yes,” she said cheerily her tone in distinct contrast to her looks, “She hasn’t got much in the way of clothes, so as we’ve discussed earlier, you may wish to visit a store sooner rather than later.”

The boy peered back out and noticed her dress for the first time. Plain, ill-fitting, they were obviously hand-me-downs. He felt very self-conscious in the nicely ironed shirt and overalls his mother had made him wear that morning. If only she were here right now.

“That’s not a problem,” the father replied, “Thank you so much for dropping her off. I understand that it was quite inconvenient to arrange something like this. My wife takes the car to work, and with that new law…” he trailed off.

The woman laughed, “Yes, yes. It’s not a problem. She’s certainly a special one. I was willing to pull a few strings and call in a few favors for her. No one else was willing to take her until now. Was Solomon the same way?” The woman smiled down at the half-hidden boy named Solomon.

His father rubbed his head delicately, “Same way… you know, maybe so. He was utterly terrified of people, but he’s gotten so much better. Aoife might not be so different. She just expresses it in a different way. Oh, but those are the papers I need to sign, right? Please, come in. There’s no need to do that at the door.”

Aoife entered first, practically sniffing the air, brushing past both Solomon and his father as if in disdain.

“Hey, buddy,” his father whispered as he bent down to Solomon’s ear, “Can you go show Aoife to her room? It’s the one we painted together, remember?”

Solomon nodded with an unsure expression. Aoife glanced at his direction with a bored one. The woman added reassuringly, “It’s okay, hon, go check out your new room.”

As the children made their way up the staircase, the adults left to continue their discussion in the kitchen. “So she’s just like him then?” the father asked once he was sure they were out of earshot.

“Engineered and abandoned,” the woman noted with an alarming resignation, “At first it was a tweak here or there, and now we have these super human children being discarded because they aren’t quite perfect. Have you heard of the news just today?”

The father sighed, “I heard another gene lab got busted in Portland.”

“Actually the same lab that Aoife came from.”

“You’re kidding,” the father leaned in, “Were they able to track down her parents?”

“They only track the parents if there’s a benefit. In the end, rescuing children just make for good headlines. Then, they’re left forgotten. Just look at Solomon. I’m guessing his biological parents are just like the rest and want nothing more to do with him.”

Solomon tried to pretend not to hear as Aoife inspected her new room. It was decorated in a way that seemed to befit a normal seven-year-old girl, but she found it condescending. “Hmph,” she grunted as she tossed a stuffed sheep back onto the neatly made bed it had been resting on, “Show me your room,” she barked at the boy.

“O-okay,” Solomon said as she brushed past him again into the hall way. He followed closely by as she barged into his room heedlessly. It was decorated in a similar layout with the same little sheep doll resting against his bed frame. The furniture itself were a little more utilitarian, but not by much. However, one thing did seem to catch her eye.

She walked over to a picture frame, picking it up with both hands. Inside was a photograph of Solomon playing at the park with his adoptive father. The two seemed comfortable with each other. Next to it was a picture book.

Solomon walked over to her, suddenly reminded of what his father had told him before today. There would be a girl coming who needed lots of love because she didn’t receive a lot from the people around her. He should be nice to her until she learns how to be nice, too. “That’s me and my dad on my birthday,” Solomon explained pointing to the picture.

“Do you love your dad?” she asked in a quiet tone, gripping the picture frame.

“Yeah, he’s really nice.”

“Do you listen to everything he says?” she asked again. “Because that’s why he pretends to love you.”

“Um,” Solomon began to say when she suddenly dropped the picture frame, cracking the glass. “Oh no!” He rushed over to pick it up to inspect the damage. “Why did you do that?”

“Oops,” she shrugged with a smirk, “Sorry.”

Solomon had no idea what to do. His brain seemed to race to find the proper answer, but he looked down at his father’s beaming face in his hands. “It’s… fine. You didn’t mean to do it…” The words could barely come out.

His father sighed as he sipped a cup of hot tea at the kitchen counter, “When Solomon first came home, he had an awful temper. Meek and mild as a lamb most of the time, but he would have these fits of inconsolable rage. My wife and I had no idea how to handle him at first. It’s been five years since, and he’s gotten so much better. You know he’s only in third grade but already reading at a middle school level?”

“That’s what these children are like. When given the proper environment and care, they’ll naturally excel. The institutionalized ones like Aoife… they end up struggling, so finding them homes where they can express their talent and find happiness? That’s what I live for.”

“Yeah, I saw it for myself. Solomon is smarter, faster, stronger than all of his other classmates. He never gets sick. He doesn’t even get tired. If his parents wanted a superhuman kid, they had one, but instead they just… threw him away because of his eyesight? If I ever got a chance to meet them, I would love to give them a piece of my mind.”

Solomon placed the picture frame back onto the drawer, picking up the picture book next to it. He showed it to her, adding, “This was the first book I read with my dad. Do you want to see?”

She snatched it from his hands.

“See,” he said hesitantly, “It’s about a little duckling.”

She began tearing the first page. “Oops.”

“Hey!” he cried, his horror spiking every heart beat into his ears, “Stop that!”

She tore a little bit deeper.

“Or what?”

He reached for the book before she could do more damage, but she hopped away with unexpected agility, reaching for the inside corner of the page again. With a slow, loud rip, she continued. Solomon felt dizzy, but behind his thick glasses, his gaze was laser focused on her and the book in her hands.

The haggard woman finished her tea, “It’s always the children that suffer most the ambitions of the adults. It’s something my boss used to say, but every day it rings true. We mess around with their genes, and they become victims of our hubris.”

The father gave a sad smile, “I would do anything to change it, but what’s done is done. All we can do is try our best moving forward.”

“We could cure the world of every illness, but there will always be selfish people. Makes me wonder if we’re not meant to have this much control.”

“I think it’s inevitable. What parent wouldn’t want to prevent an illness for their child? Then if presented the option, what parent wouldn’t want their child to have every advantage available to them? It was never going to stop at curing cancer.”

“So what do you make of these parents then? They treat their own children like household appliances. Having so much control must make them believe that they’re interchangeable. Look at some of the other countries around the world. There’s rumors that China is going to look into warranty programs on their engineered children.” Her otherwise calm demeanor seemed to waver as she punctuated her sentence with cough. “Isn’t it maddening?”

The father nodded in agreement, “It is, but no matter how much things change, I truly believe in the deepest core of my being that the answer is love.”

A resonating thump from above startled both of them. The two adults silently made eye contact and began to walk towards the stairs.

Aoife cradled her nose in her hands, blood slowly pooling in them. The pain made her unable to focus on anything in front of her. Before they had even begun fighting, she had jerked backwards and slammed her own face into the open door, but she was more than ready to pin the blame on Solomon. Her mind started to concoct the perfect scenario to get him into the most trouble.

Suddenly, she heard a familiar rip. Solomon had ripped out the rest of the page and a few more and started to wipe her hands with them. She froze, unable to fully process what was happening. The paper wasn’t particularly absorbent.

Wasn’t this book so precious to him that he was ready to attack her?

He handed her another page, one where a sad, lonely duckling could be plainly visible. “Here, you can stop the bleeding with this, too.” She accepted the page, still in shock.

“Solomon! Aoife! Is everything alright?” His father appeared from the hallway. “Oh my goodness, what happened, you two?”

Aoife stared from the ground up at the man, blood still dripping from her nose, “I… He…”

The woman showed up right behind him, horrified.

The little girl continued absent-mindedly, “We were playing, and I hurt myself. He helped me.”

“Let’s get you cleaned up then,” the father said relaxing his shoulders. “Looks like you need to wash your hands, too, buddy,” he smiled at his son, “C’mon.”

Aoife stood up, still holding her bundle of bloody paper when the woman approached and gently took the scraps from her. She seemed like she knew there was more to this story than what she saw. “I’ll throw this away,” she whispered, “No more trouble-making, hon.”

She nodded as Solomon’s father took her hand.

 

 

Coil

“So it’s something like a soul?” the boy in uniform swung his legs in the air as he sat perched atop a staircase hand-railing. The breeze from the passing cars did nothing to sway his center of balance.

“Yeah, I guess. You can’t see it with your eyes. Other people can’t interact with it. But when it moves, it can do some crazy things. I’m holding it in my palm right now, but you probably just see nothing. ” The girl in uniform spoke with a calm that seemed unsuited for the topic of conversation. She swung her legs too, rocking back and forth on the opposite railing.

“It all sounds like you’re trying to prank me again, to be honest.”

“It does, doesn’t it? Even if I show you how it works, you wouldn’t believe me, huh?”

“Don’t know. You’ll have to show me first.”

“‘Kay!” She hopped off and landed with a stomp. The sun’s slanted rays colored her white shoes a tint of orange. “I’m still learning so don’t be rude.”

The girl in uniform closed her eyes and expanded her lungs with the city air, tasting the ambient smoke. As if whispering, her lips shifted slightly. The boy in uniform did his best to observe carefully, his vigilant eyes considered the best of his classmates, but could see nothing. Then he felt a tingle.

He started to sense shivers running up and down his spine and the hairs on his arms raising. Even his vision began to see strange spots. Shaking his head or rubbing his eyes did nothing to make them disappear. 

“What’s happening?” he found himself saying before he knew it.

She did not respond, breathing out in an exaggerated fashion, lowering her arms in the process. As she opened her eyes, the girl sighed, “Believe me now?”

“Kind of, but what were you doing?”

“So what I did…” she started as she hopped back onto the metal railing, “Ow! I just zapped my butt. Anyway, I visualized the soul thing to turn into a spring and just spun it really fast. The faster I spun it, the more it starts to do strange things.”

“It’s not strange things. It’s an electric field,” he said, a dawning realization widening his eyes. “Like a coil of wire in a magnetic field…”

“A what field?” she said quizzically, “You’re confusing me.”

“Can you imagine spinning it even faster? And add more loops of coil to it.”

“Sure, I can try.”

She jumped back off, taking in an enormous volume of air. The boy now realized that when she was visualizing all of this, she didn’t stop to breathe. Perhaps it impeded her concentration to do so. In any case, he focused all of his attention on her and his surroundings, glued to the railing.

As time passed, his hair began to rise again. The sensations were becoming more intense as his vision began to grow spotty. Suddenly, a sharp pain cascaded down his legs and up his arms. The boy fell from the railing. As his hands met the surface of the cement, his body weight fell to the side, and his legs slipped down a few steps of the stairs. He looked up at her, every hair on her body standing on end. Her head seemed to be wreathed in curly, writhing tendrils.

“Oh! Woah! That was weird!” she gasped, panting and sweating, “Are you okay?” Everything stopped at once. The kaleidoscopic colors ceased instantly.

He grunted, “Yeah, I’m fine. I think I scraped my knee, but it’s nothing compared to what I just saw.”

“What did you see?” she asked hesitantly. “You didn’t peek up my skirt, right?”

“Even better, I think you might a superpower or something. Like you can make electricity out of nothing. We need to test this out! See if you can electrocute things from a distance… or… or if you can power a fan!” His excitement made him scuttle back to his feet instantly. “If you get strong enough, you could become a superhero.”

“Nope! Not interested in all of that!” she smiled, “I knew you would say all that junk, too, but I showed you for a very specific reason.”

“What’s that?”

“I showed you because I think you can do it, too. You may not believe me, but I can actually see your soul with my eyes, too. It’s different from mine, and I can’t see anyone else’s, but I can see yours.”

“Now you’re pranking me.”

“I’m not. You don’t have to believe me. Go try and do what I did by yourself in your room if you don’t want to embarrass yourself or something, but I think you can do it, too. Or not! I don’t know! Just a hunch.”

“How come you can see it though?” he said, furrowing his brow, “And… what even is it?”

“I wish I could tell you,” she shrugged flippantly, jumping off the railing to leave. “But you said that I’m making electricity? That’s kinda funny. I’m like a little battery then. I wonder if you’ll be able to do the same thing.” 

“So I have to see it first, right? It starts with visualizing?”

“Something like that? I don’t know! Everyone’s is probably different, too,” she casually suggested as she turned around.

“Wait! You have to tell me more!”

The Woman Shrouded in Mist

The thin, delicate hands she held out to collect the rain had started to leak under the weight of the puddle she had amassed in them. She let out a happy sigh. The sensation of water against her skin was the only thing that made her feel as if she existed, and whenever the heavens opened and poured out its contents, there was no greater feeling. There was a time when she could enjoy herself bathing in the lakes of the woods, but those had long since vanished, paved over by settlements of cement and steel.

None could spy her form. None knew even her name. And in the mind, without a name, there can be no existence. Beings like her were permitted to exist only where no man can prove. Mystery was the only lake in which she lived now. She was like a dot of light in the eye, disappearing as soon as one focuses on it, a passing moment lost in a blink. The animals did not seek to comprehend, and they did not try to make sense of her, but the humans always did. They had invented stories of her, conflating legends into her, shaping her into something she was not until she herself could not recognize herself anymore.

In the earliest ages she was but a singular spirit of a lake, a manifestation of the lake itself, communicable and visible, elevated in time to deity. A manifestation not of one lake, but of all water. The storms and seas, too, were her domain, but her sisters of the lakes disappeared. The many spirits inhabiting the forests left without resistance. The animals once filled with vivacity and chatter became dulled and silent. She asked the birds of the air and the fish of the lake why they no longer responded to her, but as she feared, it was a futile question asked without merit.

But mankind continued to worship her, sacrificed to her, experimenting with the mechanisms and rituals by which to earn her favor, and she obliged in kind, becoming desperately lonely, but as man moved and interacted with the ages, others appeared. Unfamiliar spirits hailing from far away, garbed in armors or robes of foreign tribes. They, too, had been mere spirits confined in place to one location, but now they could travel with the people, and these interactions assuaged her loneliness.

A pantheon arose from the collisions of these tribes. It had become difficult to tell whether she was absorbing or being absorbed into these unknown goddesses, but it hardly began to matter. Her memory grew foggy at this point, lost in the countless legends and mythologies that arose as her influence spread and became disjointed. What was true and what was false did not matter. All that mattered was the mystery. The space between reality and fantasy was mystery, and these humans captured her within this gap like a fish clasped between two hands. It was the only place she could exist anymore as their observations covered every dark inch of the world. Even as cults of supremacy grew declaring themselves a tier of spirit above herself, she hardly cared. Promoted or demoted into deity or demon hardly mattered either. The slow death of mystery is what concerned her most.

Their eyes scoured her. Each mind that wondered for a moment whether she could be explained pricked her like a thorn. And yet they built statues to her… temples to her… her name changed again and again as her existence became a fractal… a kaleidoscope of countless reflections. Goddess of the seas… goddess of rain… goddess of love… mother goddess of monsters… Goddess only over the things they did not understand the movements of — the unpredictable. As soon as they did, it was “natural.”

Yet somehow… they had divorced her from nature. This cataclysm is what drove her into a horrifying despair, and her domain shrinked all the more as their understanding deepened. She could see the others like herself, once spirits of earth and heaven, now the personifications therein of all Earth and all Heaven, slowly losing ground as mystery faded. All save for one.

In time, those who worshiped her stopped for all manners of reasons, whether it was conversion or death. Her name disappeared from the minds and lips of men. She was the patchwork goddess, sewn together from so many different, almost contradictory concepts that she could scarcely remember her true origin, if she ever had one. Perhaps the continuation of her identity from the time of lakes was an illusion. Perhaps she was a Ship of Theseus, repaired and rebuilt from end to end until she was no longer who she was when this journey began. She did not know even her first name, if ever she had one.

What she knew was that she loved the sensation of rain. Standing atop the rooftop of skyscraping structures erected higher than the tallest trees of the forests, she felt a tingle along her skin. She sighed impatiently as a buzzing, automated surveillance drone peered around the corner, its strange wings moving so rapidly so as to be invisible. Dropping the water pooling in her hands, she vanished in a flash of nothing, wondering if she might reappear later when it rains again.