CHAPTER NINE:: NIGHTMARES
"Ephemera! Wake up!"
It must have been an hour or so before dawn. I remember Selvaria shaking me awake and yelling for me to get up, that he was back. He...? I can remember wondering who she was talking about. I had blissfully decided to forget about the hellish month I had spent in the cage, but when she had said 'He's back, we have to run!', I can remember the pure terror I felt. Immediately, I felt the searing pain that came from his hand grasping my throat, and the twisted, wicked smile that spread across his face when he heard my screams of pain.
However, as soon as I woke up to Ksatriya licking my face and realized it was all just a nightmare, I couldn't stop shaking. It felt too real. Much too real. I remember stepping out of the small house and walking across the valley, holding Ksatriya in my arms. I followed one of the streams through the labyrinth of homes and other buildings until I made it to the edge of the valley, standing amongst the blossom-rich trees and tall grasses painted with a variety of colors from the wildflowers. As I felt the puppy squrim and settle back down in my hold, I sat down, feeling the tall grass tickling my chin as I leaned forward to shield Ksatriya from a gust of wind that came down from the tall mountains that ringed Nuwa's beautiful valley.
By the time dawn came and Selvaria awoke, naturally, she had flown into a panic when she realized I wasn't there. She had prepared to go on an all-out rampage on whoever had stole away with me and Ksatriya in the middle of the night, but later, she told me that her fears were quelled when one of the women in the village led her to where I had curled up underneath one of the trees to return to a blissful sleep. I remember waking up to her sitting beside me, her twin picks set up against the tree I had fallen asleep under.
"What unearthly power convinced you to sleep outside?" she asked me as I sat up, making sure Ksatriya was still nearby--he was busy trying to catch the flower petals as they fell from the tree, I think. Anyway, I told her about my nightmare, explaining to her how it jolted me awake and scared me so much that I couldn't even fall back asleep. The look that crossed her face, I remember, was more terrifying than the nightmare itself. She then grabbed me and pulled me into her arms, holding me tightly.
"Remember, I made a promise," she told me. "If that monster ever returns again, he'll be gutted before he can even do so much as lay a finger on you." I remember clinging to her, feeling myself begin to shake again when the idea of him catching and torturing me surfaced, despite my efforts to keep such terrifying visions away. I remember we just sat like that for a while, before Ksatriya began bouncing up around us, whining and barking for food.
With that, I remember Selvaria letting go of me and standing up, making sure to bring her picks with her. I picked Ksatriya up in turn, and the two of us walked back into the village. By the time we got back to the house we were staying in, it was just us. I remember sharing my breakfast with Ksatriya, and Selvaria sharing hers with me. By the time we were finished, we stepped outside when one of our new friends, Shen, had beckoned us over. He first asked us how our new bodies were holding up, and I remember showing him that mine was working very well with a cartwheel that ended up with me landing flat on my face much Selvaria's horror and Shen's amusement. As I assured Selvaria that I wasn't hurt (I remember Shen joking that my pride might be a little bruised), I could've sworn I heard some kind of sound from behind me. I couldn't tell what it was, but when Shen turned his head and stared out toward the mountains, I knew something must have been up. He stood up, walking a short distance forward, before saying, "Selvaria. Come see this." Selvaria followed suit, and when I tried to follow, I realized I wasn't tall enough to see what it was they were looking at. Finally, he turned to the two of us, a grave look in his eyes.
"The two of you need to get out of here," he said sternly. "I'll warn the others."
"Of what?" I remember asking, but before I could get an answer, the man was driving us off, saying, "Get to the mountains! There's a network of caves behind--" he pointed to the waterfall that fed one of the valley's larger streams, "--that waterfall. I'll gather up everyone else and I'll see you there."
"Why?" I remember asking, much louder this time, but he didn't give me an answer. Selvaria seized my hand, leaving me to clutch Ksatriya with one arm, and began to pull me toward the mountain. I remember begging Selvaria to tell me what was going on while I constantly looked back toward the mountain the two of them were staring at. I couldn't see a thing. When we reached the waterfall, Selvaria led me behind the cascade, over the slippery rocks, and into the cavern. It was a small opening in the rock, big enough for me to step inside with no problem, but Selvaria had to duck down and squeeze in. However, the inside was much larger, and, to my surprise, it was faintly lit by some sort of odd squishy...stuff--I have nothing else to really describe it--covering the walls. I remember sitting down far enough away from the water in one of the drier spots of the cave, cradling a squirming Ksatriya in my lap. Selvaria was toward the front of the cave, her picks brandished, pacing back and forth, as if she were expecting someone to burst through the wall of water and attack her.
Not ten minutes later, we began to hear the screams and see the flames.
Whatever Selvaria and Shen had seen, it was setting the village on fire. Several of the villagers came fleeing into the cave, including the young woman who had given me Ksatriya, with Shiva and Krishna in her arms. When I had asked where Maya was, she wouldn't tell me, only shaking her head and telling me not to ask. I had assumed at that point that Maya was dead, and I began to cry, cradling all three of the puppies in my lap. However, when the cave began to fill up, Shen had run in, his body badly burned in several places, carrying Maya in his arms. He went to place her in the woman's arms when he whispered something to her, causing her to burst into tears. I remember placing the three puppies down and scooting over to her to see what was wrong, when I noticed the burns on Maya's face.
"She's blind, Ephemera. The fire burned her eyes," she whispered to me between sobs. "She won't ever see again."
I remember picking the little white puppy up and cradling her, feeling her nose prodding me as she went to take in my scent. She must have recognized me, because she snuggled down and, despite the pain she must have felt, fell asleep with little problems. I remember the woman saying, "Maybe Nuwa will be able to help her. I'll have to see after this nightmare is over."
Night soon fell, and the lights from the burning village only grew brighter. Selvaria and Shen urged us all to try to get some rest, and I remember falling asleep cradling little Maya, with Ksatriya, Shiva, and Krishna all huddled together. As soon as morning came, Selvaria woke me up to tell me to step outside.
I shouldn't have. I knew very well what I was going to see.
The village lay in ruins. Everything was burnt to ashes. The beautiful golden roofs were black from the smoke and fire. I remember seeing a figure amongst the ruins, just standing there, looking around. However, when he turned to face me, I remembered my nightmare.
It was him. The sorcerer.
Selvaria saw him, too, because she released a loud war cry and ran straight for him, ready to attack. However, before she could get close enough to deal the killing blow, a pillar of flame shot up around him, causing her to stop in her tracks just in time to keep from being incinerated. Unsurprisingly, when the flames dissipated, he was gone. I remember then dropping to my knees, shaking, when Selvaria walked over to me, carrying her picks in one hand, but something else in the other.
"Here. The ****** must have left this behind." As Shen took Maya from me, I reached out to take whatever it was that he left behind. My fingers curled around the silk-wrapped hilt of a fairly heavy sword. It was oddly-shaped, unlike any of the swords I had ever seen before. I remember Shen saying it resembled a scimitar, but saying the edge was odd. And indeed it was. It looked as if the edge had been chipped off and resharpened in several places, giving it an almost wave-like appearance. The guard and pommel were crafted in shining gold, and so was part of the blade--an embellishment that resembled a beautiful dragon in flight.
"You might want to learn how to use it," Shen said gently, "If you two plan on leaving, as Selvaria said, you'll need to learn to defend yourself as well." He turned toward the only building that was still standing out of the entire village--the one that surrounded Nuwa's pool--and beckoned me over. "But first--" He took the sword from me and placed Maya in my arms. "Go to Nuwa. She may be able to help Maya."
The huge gates were opened, and with the entirety of the village watching me, I stepped inside.
The gates didn't even close entirely before I found myself in the goddess' beautiful realm. I remember seeing her laying on the shore, face-down, sobbing miserably. I wasn't sure exactly what to do, but Maya's gentle whining startled the goddess enough to make her fall silent, and when she rose up, she regarded me with teary eyes before grabbing me and Maya together and pulling us both into her arms.
"I'm so sorry," she sobbed, "I wish I could've done something...anything..." But Maya, no doubt in pain from the burns on her face, let out a yelp, making the goddess realize what she was doing. Gently releasing us, she regarded the injured puppy and said, "Here. Let me see her."
I remember placing Maya in her arms, and Nuwa gently stroking the puppy's face. I had almost told her not to, but when I saw that Maya wasn't crying or writhing against the goddess' gentle touch, I realized she must have been working her magic on healing her. I remember watching the burns heal, and soft, white fur sprouting from where there had once been open wounds. However, even when Maya was completely healed, Nuwa seemed upset.
"She's blind." Her voice was laced with sadness as she turned to give her back to me. "I tried to heal her eyes as well, but I can't. My magic won't let me. I'm sorry, Ephemera," she whispered. "But she's still young. She has a long life ahead of her, even without sight. She will learn to live without it, and she will be as happy as her brothers."
I bowed to her, thanking her for what she did, regardless of the fact that she didn't completely heal Maya. However, before I was able to turn and leave, she stopped me, saying "I have something for you and Selvaria. You plan on leaving, correct?"
"That's what Selvaria said," I replied, wondering just what she had for us. She then told me to stay put before slipping back into the water. She must have been underneath for at least a minute or so before she resurfaced, two bundles of clothing in her arms. However, despite the fact that she had come up from the water, they were completely dry.
"You two will need better clothes--your robes will hardly do you any good should you get into a fight." She placed the bundle on the shore beside me and leaned forward, cupping my face in her hands.
"Be safe, Ephemera, and remember, I will always be watching over you."
With that, the world vanished around me, and the gates opened. I stepped out, carrying Maya in my arms. I remember telling everyone that Nuwa was unable to heal Maya, but that she was going to live a long life without it. The young woman, despite her tears, was smiling as she gathered the little white puppy in her arms. I then beckoned Selvaria over, pointing to the bundles of clothing. "Nuwa gave these to us," I told her, and when she asked who's was who's, and picked up the dark green and red top that was obviously too small for her, she burst out into a laughing fit and passed that bundle over to me.
It took a while for us to get completely dressed. I remember Shen explaining to us afterward that Nuwa was fond of odd clothes that were an adventure to get on by themselves. That was exactly why they all wore simple robes--because they didn't want to have to spend half an hour getting dressed every morning. He then presented us with our weapons--Selvaria's twin picks, and my new wavy-edged sword. With Ksatriya following close behind, I remember going to the young woman who had given him to me and giving her a big hug, telling her goodbye.
"It's not goodbye," she whispered back. "You'll see me again. And you'll see these three again as well." I wanted to ask her what she meant, but Selvaria then took me by the shoulder, leading me away. I remember looking at the people of the village, seeing how they all looked so hopeful despite the fact that their home had been completely destroyed, and hearing Shen say, "Don't worry. We will rebuild. It might take a while, but we will eventually return to our lives."
By that point, the wind began to pick up, swirling around us. Shen stepped back, smiling as he waved to the two of us. "Be safe!"
With that, the whirlwind picked us up and whisked us away to the place I now call my home.
The Kingdom of Wu.