Bite Of The Amphis An E-Fiction Series:
I have decided to start writing an e-fiction series directly to my blog. Each new episode (approximately 5-600 words long) will be published to the blog every Monday and Thursday.
Time to grab a cup of coffee, sit back, and put your feet up to enjoy Amara’s story!
The morning of the summer solstice dawned bright and sunny. The air was warm, and the fresh scent of a thousand wildflowers drifted in on the gentle breeze. It was hard to imagine that in a few precious hours I might be dead.
I would have liked to say that I wasn’t afraid, after all, I had been training for this day for most of my adolescent life. It wasn’t like I would be facing the ordeal alone either. There were two other members of the tribe whose sixteenth birthday fell in the same year as mine. One was Solen, son of Kansan the tribe’s healer, and the other my best friend Shari.
Shari and I had grown up doing almost everything together. It seemed only logical that we would also face the biggest trial of our young lives side by side.
I cut through the lush vegetable garden as I made my way across the centre of the village to where Shari’s hut was located, on the Eastern edge. Her family were the tribes fish catchers and lived over near the shining waters of the Galden River.
I had always envied Shari her fishing heritage. Being the daughter of the chief, my days were mostly taken up with official meetings. Dry, boring affairs where my only role seemed to be to sit quietly in the back of the chilly Kivva, the below-ground chamber where all official tribal business was conducted, and listen to the men talk about crops, trade agreements and the various successes or failures of the hunt.
On the few occasions that I had complained to my father he had only repeated the same old mantra, which I had been hearing for what seemed like the whole of my life.
“You are the daughter of the village Chieftain, Amara. With your birthright, comes the responsibility to honour the sacred traditions of our people. These traditions have seen the Nakaguan flourish throughout countless generations, from the time when gods and demons freely walked the land, to the settled, peaceful era in which we now thrive.”
His words had, once again, settled like lead weights inside my stomach, but even so, I understood that my father truly believed in what he was saying. Those words likely formed the speech which his own father had repeated to him, and his father likewise before him.
Even so, I couldn’t help but envy my friend. Shari was free. She got to spend all her mornings paddling her small parisal out across the crystal-clear waters of the Galden, casting out her weighted drop nets, and then pulling in the shining silver catch, before returning to the village each afternoon to help prepare them for the tribe.
She often laughed at my open envy of her life, complaining that her hands were always rough from all the endless hours of casting her nets and that she never could seem to completely remove the smell of fish from her clothes and hair. I knew better though.
She may joke and laugh but, if given the choice to swap my life as Chieftains Daughter for her own far more simple existence, she wouldn’t be racing to change places with me anytime soon.
I turned down a narrow walkway between two family lodges and my heart gave its familiar skip as I glimpsed the flash of shining blue in the distance.
Shari wouldn’t be out fishing today. All supplicants were given the entire day free of their tribal responsibilities to spend how they wished and to give them time to prepare for the Amphis ceremony which was always held at sundown.
In the ceremony, each supplicant would have to present their hand to the Amphis, a magically imbued, two-headed serpent which had, as legend told them, been a gift from Ziuni, the patron Goddess of the Nakaguan people.
If the supplicant was found to be worthy, the gift-giving head of the serpent would choose to give them a single stinging bite, and in doing so pass to them some of its magical power in the form of a gift. Gifts from the Amphis could be anything ranging from the ability to draw mineral salts from out of the rocks to a special knack for knowing where the best spots to hunt or fish could be found.
If, however, the Amphis found you unworthy then, in order to maintain some sort of cosmic balance that no one in the tribe really seemed to fully understand, the second head would strike, injecting the unlucky soul with a poison that, in all but a few rare cases, resulted in a swift, painful death.
The possibility of possessing such a relatively small amount of power seems like a silly thing to risk your life over doesn’t it.
Ziuni, it seems, must have thought the same thing, because she then apparently tied the whole ritual up within layers of divine prophecy. This rather effectively made it certain that her followers wouldn’t get any smart ideas into their heads, like maybe passing on the whole gift-giving ceremony entirely in favour of a long, giftless, but far more guaranteed existence.
Long and short, Ziuni decreed that if any child turned sixteen, and did not submit to the Amphis judgement, the entire tribe would be cursed out of existence. If, however, we all played along to the Goddess’s tune, the tribe would live a blessed existence without a worry in the world.
It seemed all that was required in order to keep the peace was a small amount of pot-luck human sacrifice, and apparently that was preferable to the tribe as a whole, over the possibility of suffering the eternal curse of a wrathful Goddess.
For more generations than the tribe could remember, this had been the way of things. Tonight, whether I wanted it to or not, the tradition would be passed down to yet another generation of my family, Or, considering that I was my parent’s only living child, it would be so long as the Amphis found me worthy, and didn’t condemn me to a quick and horrible death.
The thought of running away flitted across my mind for probably the millionth time in the past year, but no matter how much I desperately wanted to cross the waters of the Galden and just keep right on running, a part of me just couldn’t risk the prophecy being true, or the dreadful possibility of my cowardice somehow becoming the downfall of my people.
I saw Shari sitting on the bank of the river next to a waiting pair of parisals, staring out across the water, and hurried across the tall waving grass to join her.
If I had one last day to live then I was going to spend it with my best friend, doing what we both loved best.
*Parisal – A small, often circular, watercraft constructed from a piece of animal hide, stretched tightly across a woven hazel or wicker frame.
We spent the entire morning racing our parisals down the stretch of light rapids just beyond the furthest edge of the village.
The water was still frigid as it came straight from the source of the river, high up in the Anatala Mountains to the north, but the warmth of the sun kept us from feeling the chill.
We splashed around and laughed together just like on any of the other days when I’d been lucky enough to escape my duties as Chieftain’s Daughter.
It wasn’t until we were walking back upstream, carrying the light parisals on our backs, that reality started to intrude once again.
“Are you worried about the ceremony tonight” I looked over at Shari but she didn’t notice my gaze. She was looking down at her feet. Her expression, blank to the point of being frozen on her features, a stark contrast to her normal carefree and light-hearted demeanour. That look spoke volumes.
She finally responded but her eyes remained firmly fixed on the floor, blank mask still firmly in place.
“How can any of us not be worried. It is literally a case of life or death.”
I supposed that was true but I was kind of hoping for a little more from her than just the obvious. Usually, no matter what, we told each other pretty much every thought that popped into our minds.
When my mother had died in childbirth and my baby sister had followed her to the afterlife a few short days later, Shari and I had been nearly inseparable. I had pretty much moved into her family’s home for a while because it was too hard being in my family’s lodge surrounded by all of my mother’s things.
Glancing at Shari, I pushed down my disappointment at not having my friend to open up to. It was a terrible thing that we were both facing, after all, I couldn’t really judge her for not wanting to think or talk about it.
“How about we go see if Tyria has any blueberry honey cake ready? I know father said that she was making some for the feast, maybe she’ll let us steal a small slice each?” I tried for an enthusiastic smile but I’m not sure that it reached my eyes. Shari didn’t seem to notice though, probably because she still had her eyes lowered, but she mumbled an agreement anyway so I let it drop. We dropped the parisals off at her parent’s lodge and then headed across the village to Tyria’s kitchen.
A few hours later I said goodbye to, a still unusually stoic, Shari. I told her that I’d meet her at the torches which marked the forest path which led to the ceremony circle. She threw her arms around my neck in a tight hug. I had asked her if she and her parents wanted to come and sit with me and my father at the head of the feasting table, but she’d mumbled something about not having much of an appetite and just wanting to spend the time with her family. I was a little hurt at her refusal, but again it sounded reasonable considering the circumstances, so I didn’t push her any further.
Returning to my lodge I spent an age just staring at my reflection in the mirror-stone above the mantle in my room. I thought about my mother, how I was starting to look a lot like her, and I thought of my father and how terribly alone he would be if the Amphis refused to gift me with its magic. I pictured him, standing over twin graves laying flowers for my mother, baby sister and I.
Feeling tears threaten behind my lashes, I pushed them back down and forced myself to go and get dressed in the scratchy ceremonial garb that the village tailor had delivered to our lodge just that morning. The wool dress felt terribly itchy against my skin and I was half tempted to put my usual leather tunic on underneath it. I decided to put up with the discomfort though just in case the Amphis somehow worked out what I’d done and took it as a mark of disrespect against the Goddess.
Steeling my nerves, I took one last look around the lodge, wondering if I would ever stand within its walls again, and then walked out the door into the waning evening sunlight.
The feast was plentiful in food and drink, if not in genuine merriment.
I was never quite sure why we insisted on holding this feast just before the ceremony? It wasn’t like the food and wine would make any of us forget the terrible ordeal that we, our family, and friends would all inevitably have to watch each other face or face ourselves once our time came due.
If anything, it seemed a waste of the countless hours of hunting, gathering and preparing which went into providing the overflowing bounty now spread out in front of me. Then again, I suppose that providing the feast afterwards wasn’t really a good idea either.
I ate mechanically, the food falling like lead into the pit of my stomach. Barely tasting a bite of what might prove my last meal on this side of the veil, I watched the other members of the tribe talking solemnly amongst themselves as the light began to dim.
Shari and her family were all absent, just as she had told me they would be, but my gaze finally fell on Solen and his father, who sat about halfway down the long trestle table which had been set up to make room for the whole tribe.
Solen’s mother, like my own, had died in childbirth several winters ago. Solen had been ten at the time but for reasons known only to himself, he had always kept himself separate from the rest of us. He spent most of his days off in the woods nearby the village, and it had been no surprise, to me at least, when my father had assigned him to the hunters rather than to study the healing arts under his father’s tutelage. Solen had one sister Damphe who was a couple of years older than him, and she had already filled the role of apprentice healer with a focus and enthusiasm far beyond her years, even more so since she had received the gift of being able to speed up healing.
I still remember Damphe’s ceremony day.
There had been only one other girl on the dais with her that day, Kelana, and the Amphis had seen fit to take her life. I remember being in total awe of Damphe because Kelana had been first in line to receive the bite of the Amphis. I couldn’t get my mind around how Damphe watched Kelana fall, and then still had the courage to walk up those final three steps to the shrine and hold her hand out to the serpent. I’m sure, had I been in her place I would have run from the clearing then, curse or no curse.
I watched as Solen leaned in to say something to his sad-eyed father. Kansan must be fearing the worst. He’d already had one child survive the ceremony, what were the chances that the Goddess would be so generous with her gifts a second time?
Solen had been born earlier in the month than I, and Shari towards its end. If he was to fall victim to the Amphis’ poison then I would be standing right up there on that dais to watch him fall.
Seeing another person die was not uncommon to my people, almost every year someone was lost to the bite of the Amphis. Like Damphe though, I would have to witness death up close, moments before having to offer my own hand to the serpent and pray that my life would be saved.
I truly hoped that Solen would survive the ordeal, just as his sister had done before him, but I had to admit, that as well as not wanting to see yet another meaningless death at the hands of a faceless Goddess and a curse that may or may not even be true, it was also partially due to wanting to spare myself Damphe’s choice.
The ceremonial drum began to sound from the direction of the clearing, and I felt my father tense beside me. I looked over at him but he didn’t look my way. I understood why he chose not to, after losing my mother even the thought that he might lose me too had been weighing on him, eating into his proud looks and vigour in recent months like some kind of plague. He seemed to have aged several summers right before my eyes. I hoped for his sake, as well as my own that somehow, I’d be spared.
He stood then, back straight and shoulders back, trying to look like the strong leader he had always been, rather than the terrified father he was today, for his people’s sake if not his own. He nodded to his guard and I watched as the painted men set off down the trail behind us, lighting the tallow torches as they went.
“The coming of the solstice moon is upon us once again.” My father’s voice rang out across the crowd, making me jump even though, by this point, I knew the ritual inside and out.
“The Goddess Ziuni has seen fit to bless our tribe and lands once again, join me now as we pay tribute to her benevolence”
My father walked across to the torch marked path, leaving me standing alone by the table, chest tight, fists clenched, and trying desperately to hide my growing fear from the people’s pitying eyes.
It was customary for the supplicants to walk the path alone of their own volition, as a sign of their unwavering devotion to the Goddess.
My father turned to lead the procession, and I found my eyes fixed on his strong back right up to the moment he passed out of sight into the growing darkness. Watching in silence as the rest of the tribe passed by me, I felt the urge to run rising within me far stronger than it had ever been before.
I stood frozen to the spot as the last member disappeared into the forest.
I could have probably stayed there for years, fixed in place by the sheer weight of my fear.
Then I felt a warm hand settle on my shoulder. I looked up into Solen’s soft grey eyes and saw a deep understanding there, as well as a mirror image of my own fears and doubts. There was something more in his gaze as well though, it took me a moment to recognise it as strength. He was afraid too, just as I was, but he knew that the safety of the clan, and of his own father and sister was on the line. He would do what was right, no matter the outcome.
I wished that I could reach up and take some of that inner strength as my own. Instead, I settled for his hand in mine as he led me into the forest.
I was halfway down the path when I finally remembered my promise to wait for Shari at the first set of torches. I thought about heading back but the drumbeat had increased in tempo signalling that the rites were about to commence, and I honestly couldn’t guarantee that, if I let go of Solen’s hand right now, I wouldn’t give in to my impulse to keep on running.
Shari would understand, I was sure of it, besides she was the strong one out of the two of us. Shari never let her heart rule her head like I often did. If anything, I was the one who had needed her hand to hold and not the other way around. She may even have forgotten my words and slipped past Solen and I without me noticing and already be in the clearing, steeling herself for the ordeal to come.
We were almost to the large standing stones that marked the entrance to the ceremonial circle now and the torchlight flickered eerily on their scarred surfaces. No one ever came to the circle, except for when the solstice ceremony was happening.
Every sixteen years a new priestess of Ziuni was chosen from one of the supplicants. They were gifted with the power to hear and understand the goddess, their skin marked with Ziuni’s twin golden serpents in the place where the Amphis’ fangs penetrated their skin. The one chosen was always a woman. From that day forward, she would leave the village and move into the old temple, behind the standing stones. There, she would communicate with the Goddess and use her ravens to send messages back to the tribe for whatever herbs and supplies couldn’t be readily found in the temple’s garden. These supplies were left outside of the standing stones for her to collect. Once chosen, the priestess would sever all ties with family and friends up until the point that the next priestess was chosen. Like the ceremony itself, this custom had been going on for as long as anyone could remember.
Just before we reached the pool of torchlight spilling from between the two giant stones, Solen gently pulled back on my hand. Pulling me to face him, he paused for a moment, carefully studying my face. I was about to ask him what he was doing but there was a new look in his eyes and it stilled my tongue.
I dropped my gaze, suddenly shy, heart beating like a drum against the suddenly tight confines of my chest.
Moving closer, he lifted his hand and gently ran his fingers down the side of my face, tilting my chin so that I was once again staring up into eyes as grey as the dying ashes of a fire.
How had I never noticed those eyes before? I didn’t have time to ponder as his warm lips lowered to mine and I forgot how to breathe.
It wasn’t like I hadn’t kissed a boy before, but this was nothing like the shy stolen kisses exchanged in amongst the tall corn stalks during the harvest festival.
This kiss was a world of conflicting feelings all wrapped up into one all-consuming moment. Intense but still gentle to the point of being almost reverent. It made my heart flutter and sent sparks of pleasure dancing throughout my entire body.
A moment later it was over. He ran his fingers down the side of my face again, this time to tuck a stray lock of dark hair back behind my ear.
Still dazed, I felt his large warm fingers lace themselves again with mine. With only a slight stumble, I forced my numb feet to follow in the wake of Solen’s newly determined stride.
It wasn’t like the kiss really meant anything, I was almost certain of that. Solen had barely exchanged more than a few glances and the odd greeting with me in the whole of the time I’d known him.
It was probably just something he had picked up from all his time spent amongst the hunters. They all kissed their heart-mates before leaving on a dangerous hunt. It was an old tradition intended to bring good luck to the tribe’s warriors, but in modern times there was no longer the need to wage war so the quaint custom had been passed down to the brave hunters instead.
I was sure that’s all it had been. Goddess knew we would both need all of the luck we could get to make it through this night with our souls still residing in our bodies.
Passing through the stone portal we walked out into the middle of the clearing. The tribe were stood in a ring around the outside of the circle, within the line of towering stones but none spoke as we crossed the distance to the large flat dais in the centre, where the ritual would take place.
As Solen led me up onto the flat, weathered stone pad, I was immensely grateful for the reassuring feel of his warm hand clasped around mine. Without his presence, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t even have made it past the outer stones.
The priestess stood at the side of the carved stone shrine, an ornate gold box clasped in her long pale fingers. She was wearing a headdress that covered the whole of her head and face from view, but I wouldn’t have recognised her features anyway. I’d been just a babe when she had become priestess.
I still couldn’t see Shari, she must have been running late for some reason. I felt my guilt rise. What if she had honoured our agreement and was still waiting by the stones for me. Then again, she would still have easily been able to see Solen and me from those outer stones.
Her absence didn’t seem to matter to the priestess. Lowering the golden box onto the shrine she carefully drew back its lid, revealing the shimmering turquoise coils of the serpent.
I stared in horrified fascination as first one, and then another, serpentine head appeared from within those coils. It’s shining black eyes seemed to fix on me. I felt my skin crawl beneath its unblinking gaze. It was as if the serpent could somehow see deep into the furthest reaches of my soul. Like it was coldly weighing up all my strengths and weaknesses.
Tearing my eyes away from the Amphis I glanced up at Solen. He’d released my hand once we reached the top of the dais, and my fingers felt cold and numb without his reassuring grip. His expression was blank as he too stared down at the snake. I wished that I’d been born with even a little of his skill at masking his emotions, it would have proved hugely useful in all of the endless, dull Kivva sessions, not to mention in hiding my growing terror from the gathered tribe now.
I had to keep reminding myself that I too had stood in that outer ring, and the combination of the distance to the dais and the flickering of the torchlight guaranteed that none of the gathered crowd would be able to see any of our faces clearly.
The pounding of the drums ceased. It was time. My heart jumped into my throat as I watched Solen take the final three steps up to the shrine. The priestess gestured with a hand towards the smooth stone plinth in front of the golden box.
Taking a single steadying breath, Solen placed his hand on the stone. I could see that he wanted to look away but as the coils of the serpent began to move, his eyes kept focusing back on its arrow-shaped heads. His neutral expression was still firmly in place but I could see the tension in his jaw that his teeth were clenched hard behind his tightly-pressed lips.
The moment seemed to go on for an eternity. I felt the knots in my stomach quickly forming into a tight painful ball.
The Amphis struck. It was all over in the blink of an eye. So fast in fact that it took my confused mind several long moments to process what had happened. Solen was shaking slightly now, but he was still standing. I think my mind had been focusing so hard on all the terrible possibilities, and all of the tribe members who I had seen fall to the serpent’s poison over the years, that as much as I had wished for it to be so, I couldn’t quite believe that Solen was ok. That the Amphis had spared him, even though his sister had already received the goddess’ blessing.
Solen removed his trembling hand from the stone and I watched as two crimson drops of blood fell from it to the stone platform at our feet. He saw my eyes fix on the wound and quickly covered it with his other hand. Descending the stairs, he gave me an almost imperceptible nod. Such a simple gesture, but it spoke volumes. I could do this. I would be fine, just as Solen had been and just as Shari would be. This year the bite of the Amphis would take no victims.
The priestess gestured for me to come forward and I climbed the stairs, with each step, I repeated one line in my head over and over “The Goddess will spare me. The Goddess will spare me. The Goddess will spare me!”
I was just about to place my hand down on the stone when a ruckus sounded from the crowd. Shielding my eyes from the bright torchlight on the dais, I tried to see what was happening. I could just about make out the familiar face of Kiamo, one of my father’s personal guards. He was leaning in close and whispering something into my father’s ear.
I noticed that Kiamo was holding something. It wasn’t until he held it out to my father that I realised I recognised the print on the fabric all too well. It was the same pattern I had seen on the green headscarf that Shari had been wearing out on the river this morning.
My heart froze in my chest.
Hope mingled with fear in my chest. There was no doubt in my mind about what the scarf clutched in Kiamo’s hand actually meant. Shari had, once again, done what I wasn’t brave enough to do.
I would have liked to believe that honour alone kept me standing frozen on the dais even now, in truth, it was mostly fear. Fear of my father’s disappointment. Fear of the very real threat of being exiled as punishment. Fear of there being some element of truth to the curse despite my own doubts.
I studied my father’s face across the distance. I didn’t need to see his eyes to know the struggle that must be present in them as he looked in my direction.
He now had all the excuse he needed in order to stop the ceremony and spare his daughter’s life. For me, I think that would have probably been enough, but this wasn’t the first time in my life that I was reminded that I wasn’t my father’s daughter. He had something that, as yet, I still struggled to uphold, the honour driven immovable loyalty to our people that had always led him to do the right thing, even if it meant sacrificing his own happiness in the process.
One night, many years ago, back when I had first started out on the long road to becoming ‘Chieftain’s Daughter,’ my father had sat me down beside the fire to tell me the story of his own journey. It began with the death of my grandfather. It was that event which catapulted my, then eighteen-year-old, father into the daunting role of Chieftain. He had been totally unprepared for the responsibility of leading the tribe. He had also been in love at the time, with a Nakaguan woman, six years his senior. I asked but no matter how I pushed him for a name, he wouldn’t tell me because the woman was still living within the tribe. He didn’t want to bring her any further pain.
A neighbouring tribe, The Tamaqua, had been causing problems for the Nakaguan.
Resources on the Tamaquan side of the river had been badly hit by a terrible wildfire, their crops and houses all but destroyed. Their people were starving and when they looked out across the turquoise waters of the Galden, they saw the Nakaguan people thriving under the many blessings of Ziuni and grew jealous.
My father wasn’t blind to their plight. Still young to the ways of diplomacy, he had wanted to help the Tamaqua, but all of his offerings of food and building materials only served to further hurt the deep-seated pride of the Tamaquan Chieftain. It caused him to lash out, sending his best warriors to steal and slaughter Nakaguan livestock. Amongst the tribal nations, this act would be considered an act of war. My father would have easily had the full backing of the tribal council had he chosen to mete out punishment on the Tamaquan people.
He chose to sacrifice his love instead, taking the only path available that would lead to a lasting peace between their peoples. He and his most trusted advisers brokered a treaty with the Tamaqua and in order to seal it, my father took the Tamaquan Chieftain’s eldest daughter as his heart-mate effectively combining the noble bloodlines of both tribes.
This ended the war and brought peace and prosperity to both sides of the Galden. This he had said, was the most important lesson he had ever learnt in his life. As a result of giving up his own happiness to safeguard the safety and future happiness of both tribes, the Goddess saw fit to reward him with his true heart-mate, my mother.
Remembering his words I looked over at my silent father again. For once in my life, I was going to be the daughter my father deserved.
Without waiting for the priestess to prompt me, I lowered my hand down onto the stone, gritting my teeth just as Solen had, my stare fixed on the, as yet, unblemished copper skin of my hand.
The gathered crowd were all still distracted, talking in loud worried voices amongst themselves. I don’t think a single one noticed what I was doing, but I felt my father’s anguished gaze on me, his continued silence telling me louder than any words that my judgement was right. The ceremony had to be completed, even in Shari’s absence because there was still the slight chance that the Goddess would overlook the rash actions of a single young girl. There was no way she would forgive a Chieftain’s daughter for the same indiscretion. For the sake of our people, I had to take any chance that I could to make this right again, even if it meant giving up my own life in order to do so.
My heart was beating loudly in my ears and I focused on its fast, rhythmic beat. The serpent uncoiled, twin heads raising up, emotionless, coal-black eyes, staring deep into my own. It struck, and I watched in fear and revulsion as both arrow-shaped heads sank their sharp fangs deep into my flesh, its turquoise scales turning a vivid violet colour under the flickering light of the torches. The priestess gasped, and I screamed in fear and pain as the Amphis’ poison lit my veins on fire. I felt myself falling as the world fell to blackness.
When consciousness finally found me again and I opened my eyes the world around me was still pitch-black. I lay still, trying to slow my ragged breathing. Where on earth was I? The surface beneath me was far too soft and warm to be the cold stone dais, which was where the last memory, which my foggy mind could drag up, placed me. My mind immediately flashed back to the horror of watching the Amphis’ twin heads striking, pumping their burning poison deep into my veins. I quickly pushed the image away again.
Doing a quick mental sweep of my body I realised that all of that overwhelming burning pain was gone now, in fact, I realised that all of the minor scrapes and bruises from my morning riding the rapids with Shari were also gone. Was I dead? The question came unbidden, and my confused mind scrambled frantically at the thought of it.
No. That didn’t seem right? I was still breathing in and out for one thing, and I could clearly feel the sun’s warmth on my skin. Wait! What? Why could I feel the sun’s warmth when it was clearly the middle of the night still?
I frantically blinked my eyes open and closed, rubbing them hard but the enveloping darkness refused to budge. Panicking in earnest now I tried to sit up but my head still felt funny and the sudden movement sent me tumbling off of whatever platform I’d been laid on. I landed face-down on hard wooden floorboards which were awash in blinding light. The impact didn’t hurt to my surprise, but the jolting stop and sudden return of my sight sent my poor mind spinning dizzily. I closed my eyes tightly against the spinning room and curled up in a ball on the floor, waiting desperately for it to pass.
When I finally felt well enough to stand I used the platform to help pull myself up. It took my eyes a moment more to adjust fully to the bright light coming in through the window on the far side of, what turned out to be, a raised timber trestle bed. I didn’t recognise the surroundings or the bed in front of me, but unfortunately, I couldn’t say the same for the all too familiar girl lying lifelessly in its centre.
I didn’t even hear heavy footsteps approaching until they reached the other side of the doorway. A moment later the tapestry, which served as a door covering, was pulled aside. The room outside was dark so I couldn’t clearly see who it was that had paused in the doorway, but it wasn’t like I could give in to my urge to run anyway, there was no place else to go except for out of the window, and I wasn’t quite ready to make that leap just yet, even if I was a spirit.
The person took a couple of almost hesitant steps forward and the light in the room illuminated the face of the one person who I needed most in the world. “Father” My voice broke on a sob.
He looked so sad and tired as his dark eyes finally settled on mine. Without waiting for another single moment to pass, I dashed across the room and threw myself into his arms.
Tears may have blinded me in that moment, turning my surroundings into a water obscured impression of reality, but they certainly didn’t mask the nauseating feeling as my body passed straight through his, before tumbling straight on through the sturdy log wall and landing with a thump face-down in the long grass one story below where I had previously been stood. Looking back on that first moment of true realisation, I still wonder to this day how it was that I didn’t make a single sound on the way down. No yelp or scream, not so much as a surprised gasp passed my lips…probably because my mind was far too busy trying to process what in the nine realms of darkness had just happened.
I lay there in the grass for a minute or two, too shocked to even pick myself up. So, this was it then, the spirit world in all its surprisingly ordinary glory. I had at the very least expected to be greeted by one of my ancestors, my Mother maybe carrying my little sister on her hip, perhaps some kind of spirit guide sent by Ziuni to ensure that the newly departed found their way to the afterlife and didn’t become trapped here on Gaia.
Was that what had happened to me? Was I trapped here now, destined to be denied the eternal peace that I had always assumed was a certainty? Maybe this was what the curse meant? Could it be that all Nakaguan people were now doomed to walk the earth and never again be reunited with their loved ones in the afterlife?
Ziuni was a distant Goddess that was true, but could she really be this cruel to the human children who had served her faithfully and without question throughout the centuries. No, I couldn’t believe that she would be so vengeful just because one wonderful, big-hearted girl let her fear get the better of her when her gifting time came due?
There must be some other explanation for what was happening to me, but I wasn’t going to find out what it was lying on my back in the cool, fragrant grass. Pulling myself to my feet, I skirted the lodge and headed for the front entrance. If I was going to be able to get through to anyone in the tribe, my Father would be that person. Clearly, all I needed was a little more time to work out exactly how.
I caught up with my father as he was leaving the lodge where my body was laid out and for the following twenty-four hours I dogged his every step, trying to communicate with him in every way I could possibly think of.
I tried whispering in his ear as the spirit walker in the parable of Anyak and the Seven Steps had, but he just turned and walked straight through me leaving me feeling nauseous and dizzy once again.
I tried for a couple of frustrating hours to lift a piece of charcoal from the cold remnants of the fire, but no matter how I tried my ghostly fingers just kept passing straight through.
I tried shouting and screaming, but although I discovered that my new spirit form vocal cords didn’t tire at all, it was crystal clear that volume didn’t matter one bit when trying to communicate with the living from the other side of the veil.
The daylight hours flew past far too quickly, and as the sky turned red overhead I still wasn’t any closer to a solution.
I had discovered something about my unusual new state in the process though while trying to knock a ceramic pot off of the mantle over the fire in order to get his attention. I tried to push the pot off of the shelf time and again, but with every single attempt, just as they had with the charcoal, my fingers passed straight on through without so much as making the stubborn pot wobble. When I finally gave up in frustration though, throwing my head down onto my folded arms where they rested on the mantle, something truly amazing happened. The movement caused my arm to shift a couple of centimetres across the shelf and by some miracle, my elbow caught the pot and sent it crashing into pieces on the hard floor. I jigged around the room, whooping and giggling like a crazy person for a moment or two, but my exhilaration lasted only as long as it took my father, clearly still totally unaware of my presence, to sombrely pick up all of the sharp pieces of broken pot and dispose of them.
The other downside to knowing I could affect things only if I wasn’t actively trying to do so, was that now, armed with that knowledge, I found it utterly impossible to do anything at all ‘accidentally.’
Seemingly out of other options I chose, instead, to spend some time with my father. He seemed so terribly sad. It was torturous that I couldn’t figure out a way to tell him I was ok, or at least as okay as a rather confused, disembodied spirit could be.
I may not have been able to tell him, but it appeared that my presence helped to calm him some and after a while, he finally fell asleep in front of the newly lit fire.
“I wonder?” My father had always insisted that, even though my mother was gone from this world, he still spoke to her in his dreams and told her all about me and how proud he was of the beautiful young lady I was becoming. What if, instead of just being a lovely tale to tell to your grieving daughter, there was some grain of truth in what he said? What if my mother had visited him while he was asleep and if so, could I somehow do the same?
Quickly kneeling by the side of his chair, worried that at any minute he would wake and my chance to find out would be gone, I lent in close to his ear and tried whispering to him again.
“Father. It’s me, Amara. Can you hear me?” He shifted and murmured in his sleep and a tentative spark of renewed excitement flared to life in my chest.
“I’m still here Father, I haven’t crossed over and I don’t know how to. I need your help” Another mumble and this time to my delight I could even make out my name. It was working!
Just as I was about to try for a third time, there was a loud knock on the door. I would have screamed right then, except it would have been pointless as no one could even hear me.
Blinking bleary eyes, my father pushed himself to his feet and walked over to the door, pulling it open to reveal Kiamo’s stern looking figure, bathed in the flickering light of the tallow torch which he held.
“We have the girl, my Chief. We have taken her to the healer’s lodge to await your judgement as requested.”Sighing deeply, exhaustion once again plain on his features, my father picked up his staff from beside the front door.
“You’ve done well Kiamo.” He gestured for the warrior to precede him and both men walked out into the night.
“Goddess be merciful, they’ve caught Shari!” I dived through the wooden door, ignoring the unsettling feeling of it passing through my non-corporeal body. I was almost used to the sensation now but, in truth, that kind of thing was the very last thing I ever wanted to have to get used to.
“She must be so scared” I knew my father better than anyone in the tribe, and even I didn’t know what punishment he was capable of meting out in that moment. His daughter, the last member of his blood-line was dead, and to his mind, Shari and her self-serving disappearance had brought us to this end. Usually, I would have expected banishment at the very worst, but in the face of all of that, I honestly didn’t know what was about to happen.
I raced past the men. I had visited Kansan’s home many times in my life so I knew exactly where to go, and I was determined to be at Shari’s side for this even if, like everyone else, she couldn’t see, hear or feel my presence.
While I was still certain that she wouldn’t be put to death for betraying our most sacred of traditions, there was still the very real possibility that he would take her to the Amphis and let the serpent decide her fate? I couldn’t imagine that the serpent would prove kind to one who had broken divine edict and insulted his Goddess so gravely
For a single, selfish second, my heart leapt with the realised possibility that, if that was the case, I might not be alone in this cursed half-life any longer. I crushed the thought as soon as it appeared. I wouldn’t wish this fate on anyone, especially not on my best friend, whose only crime, was to love life too much to give it up for blind, unquestioning obedience.
Reaching Kansan’s lodge I threw myself up the wooden stairs and all but dived through the front door in my haste to get to Shari’s side. There was still a chance that our close bond and her open-mindedness would allow her eyes to pierce the veil.
I skidded to a stop just inside the main room. Shari was bound at the wrists, eyes downcast as she silently awaited her fate. Determined not to let my joy as seeing her again cause me to make the same mistake as when I had first seen my father, I walked slowly towards her. “Please look up…please see me” My words, once again, seemed to have no effect at all on her, but to my surprise, the man holding the rope that secured her drew in a sudden sharp breath. I glanced up, and for the second time that evening found myself lost in a pair of fathomless grey eyes, eyes which were currently wide with shock, and definitely staring in my direction.
“You can see me!” My voice was shrill with disbelief. Disbelief that turned quickly to irritation as Solen’s expression returned to its usual stoic mask and raised to stare over the top of my head at the back wall of the lodge.
“I know you can see me Solen!” I walked forward until I was an inch from his chest but still he refused to acknowledge my presence. I jumped up and down trying to break his line of sight but his eyes remained fixed determinedly on their mark.
I seriously considered stamping down hard on his large moccasin clad foot, but I was worried that if I did so I might tumble straight through the floor and I really didn’t want a repeat of my earlier tumble if I could possibly avoid it.
My Father and Kiamo walked through the door then and my focus immediately shifted back to Shari. Like Solen, her expression was carefully blank, but I had known her for far too long to miss the shine of terror in her dark eyes and she looked up at the stern faces of the two men in front of her.
I looked at my father, but instead of the anger which I had expected, I only found a deep sadness in his eyes which made my heart tighten painfully in my chest. When he spoke at last, his voice held the kind of exhaustion that couldn’t be remedied with any amount of sleep.
“Shari, do you have any explanation for your thoughtless actions?”
A spark of the fiery defiance which I had always admired so much returned to her bearing then.
“Thoughtless?! Just because I was unwilling to blindly sacrifice myself to the whim of a Goddess no one has even seen in centuries?!”
She tossed her tangled hair back over her shoulder and glared up at the two men.
“Solen. Baelar. Please bring the accused to face up to the true consequence of her actions.” My father turned and walked over to the doorway at the end of the room.
I knew what lay beyond that door, and my heart went out to Shari.
I understood why she had run, and there wasn’t one drop of blame in my heart toward her for my death. The Amphis had chosen to take my life, not Shari. But I knew, as with my father, Shari wouldn’t see it that way when confronted by my pale, still body lying on that trestle.
As soon as the rest of the group entered the small chamber, Shari’s sobbing wail filled the lodge with its despair. She slumped on the floor sobbing bitterly into her bound hands.
“It’s okay Shar, I’m fine. Really.” I instinctively tried to put a comforting hand on her shoulder but my fingers just passed straight through. She shuddered and sobbed harder.
“If only I could tell you.”
My gaze shot to Solen. He was looking straight at me again an unreadable expression on his face. The second our eyes met his once more darted away and fury filled me.
“How could you!” I glared up at him feeling angry tears well in my eyes. “Isn’t it bad enough that I’ve died, that my spirit is cursed and unable to move on? I’m facing an eternity all alone here, having to watch those I love suffer terrible pain and grief because of me, and to top it off, the one person on this planet who can see me, seems determined to ignore my existence, why? Why by all the Gods did you kiss me if you hate me this much?!” Before my tears had a chance to fall I ran from the room and out into the darkness.
I spent the night on a high ledge overlooking the Rhani waterfall. Normally I would have been petrified of all of the night sounds as creatures, of all shapes and sizes, moved through the undergrowth hunting for food. As it was I found a new sense of freedom in the knowledge that nothing in the world could hurt me in my new spirit form. It was exhilarating and rather heady to feel the full breadth of my new quasi-immortal existence. So heady in fact that it even managed to free me from the grey, formless blanket of my own miserable self-pity.
As I watched the light of the moon shine through the spray from the falls like stardust as it drifted down to the frothing water below, I felt a new drive fill me.
Somehow, I had to get a message to my loved ones to tell them that I was alright. It could even be that it was this worry that was what was keeping my spirit tethered on this plain, and nothing at all to do with the curse. It might make no difference at all to my current situation, but I realised that I could live with that fact as long as I could ease their pain.
At the end of the day, even if I was stuck here for the next twenty years, I would be with the people that I loved, and it just knew that the minute my father discovered that Solen could see me, he would order Solen to act as my voice whether he wanted to or not!
So, there was only one problem left. Solen was the only person who could see me and he refused to so much as lift a finger to help. In that case, I would just have to trap him into admitting that he can see me and then pester him to the point of insanity until he did as I wished. Like the ghosts from my father’s stories, I would haunt Solen. I vowed to myself that I wouldn’t leave him alone for a single second until he did what I asked of him.
As I stared down into the inky water far below, I had to admit that Solen’s refusal to help me had hurt. We may not be close friends like Shari and I, but I had felt something more in that kiss and some naive part of me had secretly thought that he had felt it too.
It didn’t matter, I told myself as I felt the misery starting to rise again. This haunting could serve two purposes. It could also be just the revenge I needed, in order to put that hurt to bed once and for all. I smiled into the darkness. Solen wouldn’t know what hit him come first light.
I felt the cool breeze comb through my hair. It was strange how I could still feel things like the breeze and the sun, while at the same time not feeling a single drop of pain from any of my falls and tumbles? I had tried but no matter what scenario I came up with I couldn’t think of any possible explanation for the phenomenon. My smile broadened. Just because I couldn’t explain it didn’t mean that I couldn’t have some fun with it now, did it?!
Climbing to my feet I walked to the edge of the rock ledge and taking a deep breath, launched myself out into the sparkling mist.
The preparation for my first day’s haunting got off to a fantastic start. I had already discovered that spirits didn’t seem to need any sleep. No matter how many hours passed, my energy levels never seemed to dim at all.
I wasn’t hungry either. Odd considering that the feast had ended more than twenty-four hours ago and I’d only barely picked at my food.
At least not needing sleep left plenty of time for planning all of the different ways that I could torment Solen.
When I had made that exhilarating dive from the top of the waterfall a few hours ago, my only desire had been the yearning to experience what a fall like that would feel like. When alive I had often wondered what it would feel like to fly. I had even considered joining the older boys in their cliff diving demonstrations of bravery and strength. But I never found the nerve to go through with it because I was too scared of making a mistake and hurting myself or worse.
The reality of what I had dreamed didn’t quite go the way that I had envisioned though. The first few moments of my dive had been perfect, exactly what I had always dreamed they’d be with the wind rushing by me, and that feeling of adrenaline and freedom that made me almost feel like I was a bird in flight.
It turns out though, that there’s a lot of time left over after that initial rush for second thoughts to work their way back in, and plenty of time still to reach full-blown irrational panic as you watch the suddenly rock-solid looking surface of the water rush up towards you.
Apparently, panic wasn’t considered a deliberate act by whatever new set of laws I was working to though. Somehow in the midst of all that blind terror, my scream and silent pleas for my fall to stop, turned into a very real set of metaphysical breaks.
After a few more moments passed, I realised that the wind was no longer whistling in my ears and my body still hadn’t hit the water. I opened my eyes and found myself floating a couple of centimetres off of the dark surface of the water like some sort of weird human shaped pond-strider.
Of course, the second that I managed to drag in my first choked breath of relief, my concentration broke. I plunged into the icy cold, the water closing over my head as I sank down to the muddy bed of weed on its bottom.
It wasn’t until I waded out on the opposite bank of the river that I realised that, although I had automatically held my breath the moment before I went under, there hadn’t been that familiar burning pressure telling me that I needed air.
It was kind of obvious really once I thought about it, after all, what use did spirits have for oxygen? It wasn’t like I had a corporeal body to process it.
I made another startling discovery as I sat shaking on the bank. My hair and clothes should have been sopping wet, but I had somehow climbed out of the river just as dry as I had been before I went in. Clearly, spirits just didn’t get dirty? Or at least I hoped that was the case as clearly bathing would be a thing of the past for me now.
With each discovery, a little more hope flared to life in my chest, and I spent what was left of the night trying to discover exactly what else my new spirit-form could do.
By the time first light broke I was back at Kansan’s lodge with a whole bevvy of new ideas on how to get Solen to break.
Passing with ease through the front door I floated up the ladder to the loft rooms, not bothering to place my feet on the rungs and risk falling straight through them.
If it hadn’t been for the whole being dead, devastated family, potential curse thing, playing with these new powers would have been a whole lot of fun. As it was though I couldn’t lose track of the goal. Time may have little to no meaning to me now but my father and Shari still felt the burden of each and every minute ticking by. I owed it to both of them to try and relieve what suffering I could as soon as possible.
Because I had run from the lodge the previous evening, I had missed what, if any, verdict my father had passed down on Shari’s head. Before returning to Kansans, I had managed to locate her cold and shivering in one of the small vacant animal pens. I felt terrible that she was being treated in this way, her actions had been selfish, it was true, but anyone could see they were born of fear and not malice. I had to fix this before things got any worse, if indeed that was even possible at this point.
The first room I entered turned out to be Kansan’s who was sleeping soundly by the light of a single flickering candle. The second room was much smaller and turned out to be a storeroom of sorts, packed full of all of Kansan’s medicinal ingredients, potions and pastes.
There was only one room left in the upstairs part of the house but when I stepped through the door one glance at the feminine touches and I didn’t need to look over to the bed to see Damphe sound asleep within her blankets.
Where in all of Gaia was he?! I knew that he was strange but did that aloneness reach even his sleeping habits? Was he curled up in a clearing in the woods somewhere like an animal?
At a loss, I drifted back downstairs again and was about to leave but the pull towards the back room was too great. On the two occasion’s that I had been in the vicinity of my body it had only been for a few emotion-filled moments. I hadn’t really had chance to properly process the loss of my physical form.
I realised that when I had looked at my body before I had almost seen it as a different person.
Steeling myself I passed through the door covering and into the dimly lit room. The sun had not yet risen above the tree line and so the only light in there was a single flickering candle on a small table at the head of the bed.
I moved over to stand in the small pool of light and looked down at my body. Someone, probably my father, had placed a bouquet of Leilani blossoms in my pale hands.
I stared down at the pink and orange flowers feeling tears well in my eyes, but then I noticed something incredibly strange. Brushing the tears away I crouched down by the bed putting the flowers at eye level. Holding my breath, I waited…one second…. two seconds…three. There!
I felt a mix of hope and horror well in my chest. The movement was only slight but it was definitely there. My body was breathing!
“Oh my Gods I’m not dead” My voice was a shocked whisper in the darkness. A moment later that whisper turned into a terrified shriek when a low voice spoke up from the shadows on the other side of the room.
“You’re really here, aren’t you?”
I spun around looking for the source of the voice but because I was still stood within the light from the candle, my eyes couldn’t pierce the darkness to find the source of the voice.
Solen stepped forward into the candles light. His face wore that same expressionless mask that he used so well to mask his true emotions, but his eyes were finally fixed on me.
I felt a moment of regret that I wouldn’t need to put all of my haunting plans into action after all, but it, along with my former anger at his callous reaction to my situation, was quickly washed away by the sheer relief that I again had someone who I could speak with.
It had only been a day and a night since my whole world had been turned upside down, but without the human interaction, which I had taken so for-granted for the whole of my life, those hours had seemed the longest of my life, or whatever this new existence of mine was.
“What am I?” normally it would have irritated me how much my voice shook as I asked the question, but right in that moment I was too overwhelmed to care. How was it possible that I was a spirit when my body wasn’t even dead? No wonder I can’t move on. What if my body stays this way for the rest of my natural life?
My mind flew to images of the long years ahead with only Solen able to see and hear me. Never able to walk my life’s true path. No home of my own, no husband or children. Just trapped in this half-life having to watch as everyone I knew moved on and forgot me.
I had thought that the pain of being separated from those I loved by death was the worst possible outcome of the Amphis’ bite, but this…this was far worse. I slumped down on the edge of the bed and dropped my head into my shaking hands as despair and hopelessness rose within me like a tide threatening to wash what little there was left of me away.
Moments passed and then I felt the bed give slightly as Solen sat next to me. His presence should have been a comfort but it only left me feeling hollow. I wanted to bury my head in his shoulder and cry out all my sadness and fear but I knew that if I tried I would only pass straight through him.
He seemed to sense that fact as well as he made no move to comfort me. Had I been in his position I think my curiosity would have driven me to reach out a hand and watch with fascination as my fingers passed straight through him, but not Solen.
We sat in silence for a time, and after a while, his solid presence next to me started to drive away a little of my hollow despair. He seemed to pick up on this too, and when I finally lifted my head I found his solemn gaze on me once again.