When Aya arrived at the destination a couple of days later, she found that it was a small shack on the river with a couple of boats and a couple of barges as well. She didn’t see anyone outside so Aya walked up to the shack and knocked on a door that looked ready to fall off its hinges.
It took a few moments for the door to open, which Aya found surprising given how small the shack seemed.
A woman with broad shoulders and well-muscled arms opened the door. She had long brown hair, but it fell down in tight curls which appeared slightly unkempt, as though not much attention was given to them. The woman wore a brown leather vest over a green tunic and a pair of green breeches to match.
“I take it you’re Aya?” The woman asked right away.
Aya nodded, “does that mean Jesay and Kriofft are here?”
“They were here.” The woman answered, causing Aya’s heart to stop for a moment. Had they left her? “But they went back off to do a bit more trail work, said ya should be right along today and they’d be back this evening. Tomorrow at the latest.”
“Oh.” Aya said, her heart rate returning to normal. “Might I ask your name?”
“You can call me Bash.” The woman said, grinning. “I’ve got some pork roasting, should be ready in a couple hours. If you sleep overnight though, you’ll need to find a spot outside. Not much room in the shack, I’m afraid.
When Aya entered the shack she could see what Bash meant. Not only was the place as small as it seemed from the outside, it seemed every inch was filled with belongings. Some books and papers, with accompanying quills and ink. There were tools of every sort, perfect for repairing boats. A small wood stove and oven was off to one side and a bed big enough for Bash to sleep in was up against the far wall. There were multiple chests, one of them partially open. Some clothes were draped over them.
“I’s nay much,” Bash said with a grin, “but i’s home. My brother Rold keeps the boats at the other end, jus’ outside the city. He might keep some fancier digs, his cave’s a bit bigger than my shack an’ he has tha’ whole city to take from. Most o’ what I got ‘ere I buil’ meself.”
She gestured around proudly and Aya, taking it all again, had to admit it was fairly impressive. However, Aya’s mind had slipped off to thoughts of her own brother as soon as Bash had said the word. It took her a moment to shift her thoughts back enough to reply.
“That’s really good!”
So Aya got a grand tour of the tiny, ramshackle shack. Bash told her all about the traders and vagabonds who would swing by. It seemed business along the river wasn’t exactly steady. However, it was readily apparent that Bash was at least as good a woodswoman as Jesay, if not better.
Aya found herself distracted much of the time though, she only gave brief, passing comments. This seemed to be enough for Bash to feel she was being listened to, while Aya stewed on what she had seen in her vision. There was a sense of urgency that was difficult to contain and put away. There was nothing for it, though. With all that Aya had learned, she still had little hope of reaching Talvale alone.
A couple of hours later found the two of them seated on crates outside the shack eating pieces of pork that were so tender they seemed to melt in the mouth.
“This is good.” Aya offered after a few bites. There was also some flat bread to go with it, which helped her . “Is it just you out here?”
“For the most part.” Bash said, “there’s a fellow who usually gets one of my barges and takes it up and down stream, see him once a month or so, depending on where he’s going. Brings me news of tha city, me brother.”
Aya looked up and down the river where it ran like a straight shot in either direction. As far as she knew, the next stage of their journey would be by boat. It would be nice to not have to walk all day, though by the looks of things they would likely need to row.
“How far is it from here to Talvale?” She asked after a moment.
“Oh, bout a couple o’ weeks or so by boat. S’long as you make good time, of course.” Bash replied.
A couple of weeks was about a couple of weeks too long for her brother. Aya would still do her best to get there as quickly as she could, but whoever had taken him would have had plenty of time to stash him, take him away from the city, or… no. Aya refused to consider it.
Neither Jesay nor Kriofft were back by the time evening fell, so Aya found herself a place near the shack with a bit of shelter from an overhang intended to help keep wood dry and camped herself out for the night.
Around the river was enough of a clearing that she was able to gaze up at the starry night sky and wonder.
She had a brother. Her brother was in trouble, but she had one. She wondered if he was looking up at those same stars. It made her happy to think that just maybe he was. Though she realized it was just as likely that he was holed up in some building or in the hold of some ship, cut-off from the rest of the world. That thought made her heart ache, but she merely closed her eyes and prayed that it wouldn’t turn true.
Was it a crueler fate to never have a chance of meeting her brother, or to never have a chance of knowing he existed? That thought tormented her as she lay underneath the velvet sky. How could she sleep when his own chances to sleep might well be numbered.
Her dreams that night were a confused jumble. It was mid-day but she was walking through Thrum’s shop and it was empty, no one was there. Fresh fruits and vegetables, and some prepared foods as well were out and on display, but no one was there to buy them. Aya went through to the storeroom in the back, where the staircase leading up was.
On the second floor there was a bit of a balcony on all sides of the little hovel she shared with her mother. The rest of the city seemed quiet and silent too. Something was terribly off. Aya walked around the entire balcony two or three times, gazing out at the empty streets and dark windows.
What is going on here? But there was no answer to her question.
Aya entered inside the small apartment that had been her home, but it was empty as well. There was fresh bread sitting on the counter, but her mother was nowhere to be found. Eventually Aya found herself in the small corner of the apartment that was her room. Her mother had the only true bedroom in the apartment.
When they first moved up there, Aya’s mother had insisted she take the room. But, after a few years, Aya begged her mother take the room. Aya said she would still have plenty of privacy behind a curtain if she needed it, but that the home was her mother’s and that her mother should have the bedroom. Eventually Aya’s mother accepted.
How foolish and silly it all felt now. Her mother was gone, and having her own bedroom wouldn’t do her any good. Horrified, Aya realized she hadn’t even stuck around to see her mother buried. She was certain Mer Vakson would have seen to it. But she was her mother’s daughter, her only living family–well, that she’d known of at the time. Instead, Aya was fleeing across the continent to a city of thieves and ill-reputes.
Aya woke up in the middle of the night drenched in a sweat. She looked around wildly, then realized there was a dark shape hovering just a few feet off.
“Wha’?” Aya began, then the shape came forward and revealed itself to be Jesay.
“It’s alright. You should go back to sleep, I figured one of us should keep watch.”
Aya nodded vaguely and then slumped back into a sort of half sleep. She sort of watched Jesay as well, who seemed to be looking up at the sky, like Aya had been doing earlier.
This time, when she finally slipped off, the dream was of her making her way through the woods alone once more. However, it felt intensely like she was being watched. Aya pushed through the forest anyways, doing her best to leave little to nothing of a trail. She wasn’t going to compare with the woodswoman, Jesay, but she did passably enough.
Eventually the feeling of being watched was too much. Overwhelmed, Aya began to scale her way up a tree, climbing it as though she lived in them, and, with the advantage of height, looked all around.
At first there was nothing, just the usual underbrush in a forest. Then there was a glimpse of silver. It was just a flash of something, but Aya maneuvered from branch to branch and looked around further and that was when she saw it.
It was the most beautiful bird she had ever seen. Its silver feathers gleamed like a polished version of the precious metal. It had expansive wings and long tail feathers. Slender and graceful, the bird made its way over the forest floor with unmatched grace and loveliness.
Aya realized she was staring, and then the bird found her gaze and stared back. Its eyes were pools of amber, like molten gold, but the look was warm and comforting and Aya felt instantly relaxed.
Suddenly she found herself slipping out of the tree and landing lightly on the ground, right in front of the mysterious bird.
“Why do you feel so… familiar…” Aya whispered, reaching out a hand.
<< Because I am a part of you, dear one. >> The feminine voice resounded in her head, Aya took a staggered step back. << It is past time we met. >>
“What are you?” Aya asked.
<< I am a reflection of your spirit, your spirit animal if you will. Through me you are connected to the world and your… magic. >>
Magic!? Aya was certain that magic was solely for the realm of stories. The Church was absolutely adamant in denying the existence of magic. Just speaking of it was blasphemy, a crime worthy of getting the attention of the Church law itself. If someone was saying Aya had magic, that could explain why the Church was chasing after her.
However, just someone claiming Aya had magic wouldn’t have been enough. Aya would have had to make claims herself, or demonstrated latent talents which could only be explained by magic. None of those things were true.
“Magic isn’t real.” Aya said.
<< How do you explain me, then? >> The majestic bird asked. << I’m able to talk to you, and my very essence is… magical. >>
Aya was stymied. The bird was very clearly magical, it had an aura about it that was otherworldly, and she knew of no animals which could speak like people, let alone in a person’s mind.
<< You may have heard of my kind. >> The bird continued, << I am what is called a Phoenix. When we die, we are reborn from our own ashes. In such a way, we never truly die. >>
A Phoenix! Aya couldn’t believe it. Most of the lore had them as red, though Aya knew that other colors were mentioned as well. They were creatures of fantasy, they had to be, for they were as magical as any other creature out there, some thought they were the very essence of magic itself. Personally, Aya felt they were simply connected to magic in a way greater than that of other creatures.
“Where can I find you?” Aya asked, drawing her hand back to her side.
<< I’m inside you. But it will take extra effort to actually manifest me. There’s strong magic where you are that prevents other magic from happening. >> The bird sounded sad, which was a strange quality to attribute to a voice that was in her head.
Aya was unsure how to take the information that the Phoenix was inside of her. “But how do I… access you?”
She was aware that she must be dreaming, which was a rare enough sensation. However, having to dream in order to speak to this spirit animal of hers was a prohibitive barrier. Aya reached out again and, this time, ran her fingers through the Phoenix’s feathers. They were downy, caressing her hand in a way that was comforting. The Phoenix closed her eyes, seeming to preen a little at the touch.
<< Practice self-reflection. Connect with your inner self and the path will lay itself before you. Find me, and you will find your brother. >> The Phoenix stretched its neck and nuzzled Aya’s neck, then it pulled back and flew around her, following a corkscrew motion up into the sky where it faded and disappeared.
When Aya woke up, many of the details of the dream were already blending together and getting lost. However, she remembered the Phoenix and what it said.
“Have you ever seen a Phoenix before?” Aya asked Jesay after they had finished loading up a boat and were waiting for Kriofft to arrive.
“Can’t say I have, no. They’re just myths though, right?” Jesay was checking the boat over and inspecting the oars.
“I thought so too, but…” Aya hesitated, she realized how crazy it sounded to talk about a strange dream. Nevertheless, she continued, and relayed as much of the story as she could.
Aya did her best to tell the story as objectively as she could, as though distancing herself from it might make it seem a little less ridiculous. She did her best to convey the message of self reflection, hoping that Jesay would have some helpful tips for her.
“Well, a strange dream.” Jesay said, “but a dream nonetheless. I shouldn’t think you need to worry on it much.”
“What about the, um, self reflection. How do I do that? I think I do a lot of… reflecting.”
Jesay chuckled, “not the best to ask about that. I know adults always seem to have all the answers. And, with all the traveling I do alone, it does seem like I should be good at self reflection, but the honest truth is that I’m not.”
That was disappointing, but Aya figured she could ask Kriofft as well. At the very least, she could try to learn how to better self reflect on her own. Oddly enough, she recalled it being brought up in school. Given that Magic was a stated enemy of the Church, and self reflection apparently being important to Magic, one would assume they would want to discourage others from such reflection.
Kriofft arrived a couple hours later, during mid-morning.
“They should be well off our trail by now. Even if they do get to the river, there will be at least two trails leading away from it, so they can’t be entirely certain of whether or not we actually took a boat.” He said to Jesay.
“What about Bash, will they torture her over it?” Aya asked.
“They won’t mess with Bash. They know they’ll have a bad time over it if they do. Besides, Bash can take care of herself.” Kriofft answered.
Still, Aya looked to the shack and worried over the brawny woman she knew to be inside of it. They hadn’t spent much time together, but Bash seemed nice enough and Aya felt she already had blood on her hands as a result of fleeing the Templars and Inquisitors. Mer Vackson was likely alright, but what if he wasn’t? Aya feared returning home only to find out that her former landlord and his family had come to some end over her.
“Bash said it would be a couple weeks or a little more until we’re in Talvale?”
Kriofft nodded, then gestured to Jesay. “She’s the expert, but I’ve been this way before and that sounds accurate.”
“Probably closer to a month if we had to make our way through the mountains, but this river actually cuts right through them. Though, that being said, it does go into a tunnel. We’ll be in darkness for much of the final days, and there are rapids in that darkness that we’ll need to be wary of.” Jesay added.
Kriofft shuddered at the mention of the rapids, but, by the look Aya caught in his eye, she decided not to press for details.
“There’s something else, too…” Aya began, and then she told them about her brother.
There were any number of ways that they could have responded to her strange, mysterious revelation, but the equanimity they gave her was telling.
“You… knew?” She asked. Aya tried to keep the tone of accusation out of her voice, but she couldn’t help it.
Jesay shifted a little, clearly uncomfortable, but it was Kriofft who answered.
“We knew about your… brother,” there was something weird about how Kriofft said the word brother, but he continued, “not about their capture. However, it doesn’t change much. We’ve already been trying to get you to Talvale with all possible speed.”
Aya found it strange that Kriofft used them instead of him, but she pushed past it. The little details weren’t important right now.
“You’re taking me to my father, aren’t you?” Somehow Aya knew. She wasn’t sure how, only that she knew. Her mother had raised her, and her father had raised her brother. Separately, but why?
It was Jesay who responded, “aye, that’s who we’re goin’ to see. Ya might not be feelin’ kindly towards him, but I know him personally. Have for the past twenty years. It tore him up not ta be with you. He’ll be over the moon ta meet you. Try not to hate him, aye?”
“I don’t hate him, I…” but Aya didn’t complete the thought. She was certain she didn’t hate her father, but she honestly wasn’t certain how she felt about him.
The fact that they had to be separated, Aya from her brother, her father from her mother, it infuriated her, but somehow she knew it wasn’t her father’s doing. Aya looked down and noticed her fists were clenched and shaking. She bit her lip and let her hands relax at her sides. No wonder Jesay thought Aya hated her father. The mention of him simply made her so upset.
Jesay picked up where Aya left off, proving she was far more insightful than her self-deprecations would lead one to believe. “I’m sure ya don’t know how to feel about him. That’s probably normal… I dunno, I mean, none o’ this situation is normal, but tha’s how I’d feel. But the good news is that you’re going to get ta meet him. The better news is that he’ll be so happy ta see ya.
“The only bad news is about yer mum, and possibly that your brother is in trouble. But if there’s someone who can figure it out, it’ll be your pa.” She finished, then fell silent.
Aya expected to chat about their solo journeys. It had, after all, been a few days since they’d seen one another. However, the first part of their river journey was spent in silence, with only the sounds of the forest and river accompanying them.
Rowing proved to be more effort than Aya thought it would be. In some ways she felt like walking would be easier. However, they were able to go faster with the rowing than they could walk, and, with three of them in the boat, they were able to take turns, allowing people to rest while others rowed.
Eventually, by mid afternoon, Aya did broach self reflection with Kriofft.
“Hmm, I think it’s very important for you to do. I do like to think I’m very self-aware, but the sort of self reflection you’re talking about is more specific. Part of our goal here is to get you to those who can help you train. Those teachers will be your best bet at connecting with this Phoenix you mentioned.”
Aya tried to think back on the mythos of Phoenixes. Though they were mentioned briefly in class, the Church’s curriculum shied away from anything in-depth on what they considered to be frivolous topics, such as mythology.
Not all mythology was considered silly though. The Church’s own mythos was taught heavily. There was a class of it for every year of school.
In fact, according to that mythos, it was the Church that had saved the world from the dangers of creatures like Phoenixes. Manticore, Dragons, Baerex, and Wulvex were all fearsome beasts which terrorized the populace in the days of old.
Then one figure rose to the top in the Church. His name was long forgotten, instead he was known as the Katha, the Savior. The Savior wandered the lands, preaching a gospel of penance, hard work, and tolerance. He quickly gained a massive following. The Savior’s followers rivaled in number that of any of the major cities in Alton.
That was the first time he was killed. Assassins from the kingdom of Qiho sought to take him out first. In the land of Qiho there was a group of mercenaries known only as the Ghost Wanderers, or simply Ghosts. They had centuries, perhaps even more, of reputation to back them up. It was said that of everyone who joined the Ghosts, only one in a hundred made it in. And of those hundred, they might go through ten groups of prospects over the course of ten years. Which meant they tended to only add to their ranks once every decade.
Those who did complete the training were considered to have peerless power. They could change their faces at will, glide across the ground without even the faintest footfall, and kill with one sure, fatal stroke.
Of course, that was mostly rumor and all reputation. In truth, the Ghosts were on the decline, and while they were still fearsome, it was difficult to know which stories about them were true.
A team of Ghosts had been sent to kill the Savior. Ten times they succeeded, and ten times the Savior came back to life. These miracles only made his following that much greater. Soon he had enough followers to rival that of any of the nations.
But the Savior had no aspirations for the power of leadership. He simply wanted to teach. In some account, the Savior was a woman, but most seemed to agree that he was a man. Either way, he formed a council to help run the Church he had started.
What the Savior lacked in cravings for power, the council more than made up for.
During its formative years, the council was held in check by the Savior. Such was his following that if he didn’t like a ruling from the council, his supporters would be swayed by him and the council would have to back down.
However, as the years went on, the Savior took less and less of an active role in the affairs of the Church. Eventually, like all mortals, the Savior succumbed to death. The council seized on his death in the only way they knew how: by gathering more power. They first founded the nation of Enbrev, a nation entirely devoted to the upkeep and maintenance of the Church.
More importantly, as Enbrev grew in strength, both Rathuma and Qiho realized that many of their citizens were converting as well. There were some brief skirmishes at the beginning. Minor wars that didn’t result in a lot of bloodshed, but always had the result that the two other nations would have to concede more and more to Enbrev and the Church.
It took a couple hundred years, but the Church established itself as the eminent power in the lands of Alton. It was true that Rathuma and Qiho were technically their own independent states, and thus had equal standing with Enbrev. However, both nations tended to capitulate to the whims of the Church, the results otherwise tended to be disastrous.
It was something the Church had that Aya felt she did not. Yet, if the Phoenix really was a part of her spirit, then power was something she could achieve more of. More like than not, she underestimated the power available to her. After all, Aya didn’t dwell on power. With everything happening, though, it occurred to Aya that maybe she should care just a little more about it. If there was anything she’d learned in the past couple of months it was that she had plenty of power, and her brother likely did too.