The Hood of Aalayfa: Book One by Sylvia Ioannides

It all began in the sacred void; a single tear in the encompassing universe, a whiff of perfumed wind carrying the sweet, mysterious flavours of Nubia.
The Hood of Aalayfa: Book One
The Hood of Aalayfa: Book One by Sylvia Ioannides
A breathless murmur of shifting sand tinkled softly and unfolded like an unconquerable song. From the void, a repetition of tempered time. And suddenly she was there. Crossing the desert. But from where she came, nobody could know. She was the Soultana of Siduri. And her vision stretched into the quartered universe. Her sandaled feet left deep imprints as they moved assuredly toward an unmarked destiny. A blue flowing tunic lined with black embroidery protected her body and face; at her hips, thousands of twisted braids snaked out of confinement. Her gaze as black as obsidian stone strode over the horizon. She followed silently those ancient visions that arose. Behind her, two faceless women clad in white tunics followed, pulling a camel, their arms draped in ominous hissing vipers as they moved over the shifting sands. Over their heads, white winged headdresses spiralled into the sky. Onward they went heedless of the harsh desert that sprawled behind them and crashed into the Euphrates into the depths of Mesopotamia. Aalayfa, Aalayfa…swept into their thoughts aligning new horizons. The moon was faint in the sky and the reddish Sirius star was watchful. The Soultana of Siduri says to them: Here is where we will find her, in this ancient corner. She beckons, drumming in the icy cold. Building secret fire altars for Yemanja. She explains: here is where she will begin. Horizons were bleeding into them and universes collided and crashed, erasing boundaries. Comets twisted out of galaxies, linking their golden tails illuminating visible and invisible worlds. Remember, in the beginning, there was a crash, and there was the Void. But you have forgotten, that in the beginning there was the other sun Tiamat. Mazadalik Tazal Maratan Oxra. Come yet again. On the cave walls. Scratching. Someone is there. Scorpions scattered from the nestling arms of the dunes. A blast of wind like the violent Harmattan, carried torrential pockets of crimson. Watch my feet cross the bridge. Creating paths of ecstasy. You know what they secretly call me. That word behind your lashes, unfolded from the memory of your eyes. The flute of the beloved is telling its own story. This is the way we turn the heart. Go to Aalayfa, Hurakan whispers precariously. Because Two came from One. Khalaqukum min nafsin wahidatin wa ja’ala minha zawjaha li yaskuna ilayha. *** Chapter 1 I am Seshat. My heart is with me. The wall of the deep cave seemed to bleed profusely, crimson strokes lavishly sequestered every corner, and deep grooves, sinewy spaces spilled over with clots of ink. Parts of the cave were shallow and narrowed into crevices where the sun never burrowed. Cool, unperturbed tunnels refused any presence except for the persistent wind. A woman draped in a leopard skin squatted. Spotted orange and black and bronze. Black hair. Double horns and a seven pointed star. She saturated the cave wall with seedy paint, seeking voids as she journeyed over a microcosm of rock valleys and imaginary volcanoes. The dry scent of ochre. That inner womb. Her hands crept over the cold walls scratching in the story she remembered. Fleeting images crossed the uninhabitable landscape and in a trance, she transcribed those eloquent symbols, unraveling secrets of herself. The wind breathed senselessly into her ears, lifting dust winds from the surrounding desert. Time was a point on the horizon and yet everything was happening now; in the present where linear lines left whimsical trails. Here is the opportunity for an alternative. She brushed across the wall intently. A finger points to the moon uniting time and space. You converge with me and I will converge with you, she says. Her finger trances the powder red labyrinth and she smiles. It is here where I will remember myself once more; here in the darkness where the Other dwells, weaver will meet weaver. For the universe is only that story we tell ourselves when we dream with eyes wide open. **** Chapter 2 The Hood seemed to have appeared out of nowhere in the company of a hungry wind from the distant desert. She rode haughtily on a well-bred stallion as she made her way through the narrow streets of Isha, pausing just beyond the marketplace, in the old cobblestone square where mosaic lanterns swung beside baskets of hanging bougainvillea. Accustomed to the cloaked figures stealthily creeping through their town, most people did not notice Anatat, the Hood of Aden, her red cloak billowing to form a bloody gash across the crystal blue sky. She rode into the market, surveying the streets where bouquets of wild flowers had been strewn. Beyond the white oleander trees that stretched beyond the public temples, fiery ovens unleashed the intense scent of baked sorghum cakes and flat taguella. She stared in secret delight at the sweetbreads topped with Magaria cherries and crimson gold pomegranates sprinkled over tiny cream cakes. Mint sauces, dried locusts, red tea leaves and batches of rosemary were on display along with wild gourds and freshly striped catfish from the Mylittan River. Lutes and drums and brazen sitars played complex rhythms as men spontaneously whisked leopard spotted women into their languid arms. People were everywhere. From the Galena Dunes to the depths of the Sabal Forest, many had come to Isha for the spring festivals. Tawarek queens carried pythons and sand cats from the nocturnal corners of the desert. Some had come from the innumerable northern desert temples where priestesses wove the winds into starlight. Poetry and songs were carried on the Zephyr winds that swaggered through scattering the seeds of new life. Ishtaritu from the main temple of Isha distributed sacred grains as they traipsed between the sandy stoned dwellings where traders displayed their wares: from desert roses to purple gemstones to golden Umrae brocade to decorated saddles. Anatat was aware of the intense suspicious gazes but knew the reason for their hostility. The growing anger toward Queen Heliandra and her Hoods of Aden only intensified after power was established at Allirea Castle. Though there had been no disagreement that the queen was one of the children of Tiamat who reputedly lived in the sacred heights of the Rhean Mountains, none of the kingdoms had ever trusted Heliandra and with good cause. Anatat could sense the undercurrent as she drew forward through the crowds streaked with the fervent beams of the setting sun. It had not been by choice that Heliandra had initiated her into the group she referred to as the Hoods of Aden, a tight group of messengers and loyal advisors who kept the order throughout the kingdoms. And yet treacherous plots and narrow surveillances abounded. Manipulative tactics had not only become ritualistic but had given rise to the secretive group known as the Hoods of Aden which had taken it upon themselves to come into conflict with the people. Anatat glanced at the carts laden with grain quickly lining the crimson roads. Despite Heliandra’s attempts at appeasing the Ishans, they were outwardly rebellious and had even marched on the castle demanding that the true dragon queen be restored. Heliandra, outraged at their audacity was getting desperate and knew she needed the support of the Ishans, even if the other kingdoms in Aalayfa were bucking. Anatat tried to sound confident. “Queen Heliandra announces that in gratitude for your support, excess grains are to be added to the town vats and also a new cistern will be added to hold more water…” Guilt washed over her at the falseness of her words. What she really wanted was to wander through the market free of encumbrances. Like the other Ishans, her heart wanted something different though she did not really know what it was, for she seemed to be in an impossible situation. Once initiated into the Hoods of Aden by those strange happenings between her mother Timarion and the queen, she felt as though she were bound forever; even if she left, where would she go to escape the queen and her constant berating. Especially when it came to the topic of her mother, a mysterious figure that few ever wanted to speak of any longer, and yet Anatat’s longing had never abated. Why had she been abandoned to this dreary life under the crushing weight of Heliandra? But the queen had come up with a thousand diversions to keep Aalayfans struggling and invisible walls of contempt continued to rise, forming great separations and political factions that only further divided their world. Like most of the other Aalayfans, Anatat did not know what to think about the terrible oppression that had been slowly impacting their world. She knew she did not want to play a part in it and secretly longed for freedom; and yet there did not seem to be a way out of the endless politics complicating an otherwise simple world. “We need the old pipes replaced,” a voice barked. “She has to wait before bringing in the new cistern.” “Of course,” Anatat replied, “I will advise the queen.” Guffaws and snickers erupted through the marketplace. Someone cursed. “Why don’t you do that?” drawled a male voice. “There are changes coming and not even Heliandra can prevent them.” “You can tell her that we know what she is doing,” another man growled, his eyes hard and accusing. Anatat pulled away from the crowd and urged her nervous horse back as the snapping remarks followed. She rode thoughtfully along the main road hurriedly toward Allirea, her eyes scanning the roads for any wayward bold enough to start a confrontation. She stopped as she saw someone in an old narrow alleyway, a wayward shadow that appeared through the grey mist. Chills moved up and down her spine and she slowed down, her horse rearing slightly. Her perception twisted suddenly, halting her world like a cutting dagger. What I tell You, let the Singer weave into Song. The crackling voice cut into her veins. The shapeless figure came toward her, a billowing black cloak shattered and exploded into streams of crows. She took a sharp intake of breath. Her eyes were playing tricks. Raven wings flapped in the darkness. Disconcerted, she blinked and the noise from the crowd rushed into her reality again. Her heart thumped wildly as she pulled on the reins, riding away from the pointed gazes still drilling holes into her. Maybe she had imagined it. After all, she had always been a good dreamer. Scaling through her dream world and shifting beyond dimensions knowing in her whole being that other unseen world’s most certainly did exist. She glanced back at the alleyway but there was nothing there. Before the end of the spring festival, she would return and search the alley again. She would come without her red robes, disguised as an ordinary citizen, as she had countless times before to dance with the crowds on the white stone slabs that reached high into the constellations. The very idea of coming to the festival truly excited her and it was during those nights that she felt most alive. Anatat let her hood fall to her shoulders and the winds caressed her cheeks; her long wavy mane fell to her waist in a shock of black against red. Fissures crept up and down her spine again and an itch at her crown reminded her of the figure. She gently stroked her horse as she drifted through the pine scented forest. What had she whispered? What I tell You, let the Singer weave into Song. She did not really want to be a Hood of Aden and part of the queen’s fearsome entourage but the queen wanted them to be as interested as she was in controlling the water, the vegetable fields, the grains, and the structures of their world. In her heart, Anatat wanted freedom from duty and tradition more than anything; she preferred to be a lover, a poet who preferred to write songs to the unfurling stars so that perchance one day they may confess their unknowable secrets. Many knew that Heliandra was in the wrong and yet everyone was afraid, for she was known to impose her treacherous will upon the innocent and would not even stop at murder to get what she wanted. Anatat could see that the crystal vibrancy of Allirea that certainly had an aura of heaviness around it despite all the new additions and glorious gardens. Her stallion trotted over small tricking streams and into the rolling fog that surrounded the periphery of the castle, where strange creatures changed shape and blended into the surrounding landscape. Willows and oaks and pines played with her tresses as she moved through the dense thickets feeling a weight around her heart as she headed into the heart of duty and tradition. And all Heliandra ever talked about more and more was that she was the dragon queen, that she was part of the ancient bloodline, and that the dragon symbol was upon her, an indisputable mark of her right to rule. She insisted that she had the authority and that none would dare rebel against her. Anatat felt a tightening of the noose around her neck as the cold clutches of Allirea began their strangle hold on her. She didn’t care about the throne or the dragon queen. She only wanted to escape. Her thoughts suddenly turned again to the curious figure in the alleyway and she felt a prickling along her spine to the crown of her head. *** Nadal Kalen Amaro stared at the flames rising high into the chilly desert night. The flames changed a thousand times: from emerald-green gowns to vermillion to deep gold, the scattering hues wavering against the darkness. Tearing his eyes away, he stood and looked beyond the fire into the Alak Desert where dark jackals hunted beneath the watchful eyes of glittering stars. It was not as cold as usual, he thought, sending an inner prayer of thanks to the demon Apophis. He walked toward the caravan where his wife and her creature slept. Wooden swords lay sheathed and tied in neat bundles ready to be bartered for extra grain and livestock. He reached for more kindling but paused as he gazed into the empty horizon. Aalayfa was not the same. Certainly not since his grandfather was alive. Heliandra and her secret politics had seen to that. The invisible question hung dryly in every part of Aalayfa: was Heliandra dooming them to the same detrimental fate that confronted the Old World? But he knew how to read omens. The way the wind moved. The behaviour of the animals. The pattern of the stars. And he knew that something was changing in the fabric of the cosmos. He could feel it in his bones. The winds shifted direction. He narrowed his eyes as he scoured the horizon. The wind was temperamental and fluttered to and fro as he moved closer to the fire. Wild Alak horses, jackals, and even scorpions seemed to have disappeared from existence this night, buried expectantly in after shadows of night. He glanced suspiciously at the yellow moon, half buried in untidy secrets. Past the glow of the fire, night seemed like a deep void, almost all-consuming as he gripped the smooth bone handle of his dagger. The wind whirled suddenly and sand spattered until finally they moved into a smooth synchronicity. The Chilala, the spirits of the desert clamoured like bells aroused inexplicably from their earth beds. He could feel his heart hammering in his chest. Feared and revered, these spirits lived on the satin sheets dividing Aalayfa and the Old World. Rotten and devious, morbid and profound, they were guardians of all the natural oases and interloped between worlds. His last encounter many years ago occurred when he was travelling with his father toward the river. The Chilala had appeared in a ghastly form: the body of a serpent and the tongue of a dragon. To his utter horror, they had wound around his father and plunged silently into the liquid sands without any explanation. Just as strangely and suddenly, they rejected the stone corpse back to the surface. Maybe he had promised them something. Or he had broken his vow. Amaro would never know the reason. But now the winds and sands were intermingling and the Chilala were taking shape. His legs trembled in fear as he waited. When the winds finally settled, a giant tortoise stood with green-gold eyes; the expanse of its back seemed to gleam with mosaic gemstones as wide as continents. They spoke in rhyme: “The Three carelessly with intent cross the Falls, And yet do not fear this place to tread, Three women Enter the gates of Aalayfa, One wears the Horns of Tiamat on her Head.” “The one with the Thousand Names does come, A wild mighty Queen of the vibrant Night, Aalayfa sprung from her Midnight dreams, She is mysterious, Veiled and hidden from sight.” “Traipsing Through all Those Worlds Beyond, The dancer Comes from that Other Place, Coming with that Explicit Invitation, Searching for the One Who has Her face.” He was transfixed until whirling storm swept around them dragging the creature into a mysterious void of silence with only that slurred residue expelling into the night. It had been a heavy prophesy that had equally surprised and frightened him so deeply, that later, he could not recall the words. *** Thirteen Hoods of Aden sat at the long table in the queen’s dining hall. Tension hung in the air as they focused on Heliandra who had called the meeting and sat on the high-backed chair. “Were the grains distributed?” the queen asked finally. “Of course,” a Hood responded promptly. “All except to the Galena Dunes.” Heliandra arched a brow. “Why not?” “King Fiachra would not accept anything,” the Hood said laughing nervously. “He says... you know, that he has power over the water.” “The bastard,” Heliandra snarled. “He has been given to mocking me as of late.” “I would not aggravate him, my queen,” the Hood said cautiously curling her hand around her teacup. “He says that any more aggravation from you and he’ll topple this whole world….” “Then why doesn’t he?” she snapped. The Hood was shaking. “He says he is merely indulging you.” Anatat felt her cheeks flush as she glanced at the queen. She knew that Heliandra would not argue with the Galenean. But she desperately wanted him to acknowledge her as queen. And yet true to his nature, he remained silent, almost passive despite the queen’s many attempts to engage with him. “Did you remind him that I have the dragon symbol? That I am the one who appeases the Goddess?” She pushed back the ornate veil ominously and pushed back her coiled hair where the gleaming symbol was prominent. The Hood blushed. “He has said much that I cannot repeat, my dearest queen, for he has a foul tongue…” “Tell me.” There was an intense silence as the Hood of Aden briefly hesitated. “He says he doesn’t care if you can spew fine gold from your arse, he has seen better queens crawl out of the rat holes of Baltana.” A stunned silence fell across the table. A unified gasp echoed as all eyes flew to the queen. “Undoubtedly,” she said finally, “he has forgotten his place.” She took a sip from her goblet to ease her mounting fury. “But then he has always sided with the Sabals when it comes to important matters. Those treacherous Sabals.” Anatat felt her heart beating. She did not want to engage the queen in a useless tango of words but she could not resist replying. “Ixapa Eidan is a Zerelia if you recall.” She nodded to Zahrina who sat beside the queen. “As is your most trusted Hood.” The queen fixed her with her gaze. “All my Hoods can be trusted. Even the daughter of Timarion who claims a high position at Allirea.” Anatat felt her cheeks burn as the queen smiled smugly. Again her mother was thrust at her like a cutting accusation, an incessant reminder that she was a traitor to all that was precious in Aalayfa. She seemed to always be at the brunt end of her mother’s humiliation; a stain that Timarion had left on the hearts of the Aalayfans. And when she spoke that name, Heliandra spoke ruthlessly, eager to cut deep. “You were raised in the Allirean temple,” the queen continued smoothly, “even though your mother, Timarion was a loyal supporter of the Sabals, you have joined the ranks of my Hoods to demonstrate loyalty and of course, to pay for her crime.” Anatat was furious but did not rebuke her as she became aware of the other gazes perusing her. The queen smiled coldly and picked up her spoon. “And you are paying well for her crime.” “I have no thoughts of betraying you,” Anatat finally replied. “I am sure I have proved it countless times, nor have I consorted with Ixapa Eidan who is your sworn enemy.” A deep silence fell through the hall as the name reverberated powerfully. Her name was rarely spoken among the Hoods but it was a well-known fact that like Zahrina, she was also a shape shifting Zerelia. Not to be outdone by Ixapa Eidan, Heliandra invited another, named Zahrina to join the Hoods of Aden. “She is my enemy because she has divided my kingdom and proclaims herself Sabal queen and hides my own warriors in an alternate reality,” Heliandra replied with narrow eyes. “But Timarion’s plans however were loftier. She wanted to rule all of Aalayfa.” Anatat felt waves of anger again. “It is as you say, my queen.” Stories abounded about the Sabals who had remained completely hidden from the rest of Aalayfa especially in the last hundred years since Ixapa Eidan had submerged them in an alternate reality, securing their secrecy. Much to the dismay of Heliandra, tales and myths were born about the Sabal queen that spurned curious travelers to make the pilgrimage to the west into the barren landscapes where the skeletal trees harboured the Zerelia. And it did not make things easier that Timarion was also a Sabal and a supporter of Ixapa Eidan. Images from her childhood suddenly arose, crisp and intense and the story once again played in her thoughts. It happened in the late harvest, in the early evening during the dark moon when ripe apples scented the air heavily. Crisp green, orange leaves blanketed the forest. Heliandra had worn a crimson circlet low on her brow; her hair was gathered expertly to the side displayed the prominent symbol of the dragon upon her neck. In those days, it glittered as bright as a star. Timarion was there too, wearing a simple indigo gown split at the thighs, her fingers and hands marked with blue swirls and patterns. Eloquent circular prints danced across her fingers and wrists. Spirals and flowers emerged. Blue triangles, crescent moons, crossing diamonds connected to create a symphony of spirals over her thighs and breasts. Indigo painted bracelets slashed across her arms and her hands were heavily inked. Upon her forehead, a circlet dipped low to the point between her brows dangling tiny crystal jewels like tear drops. Timarion inclined her head and waited until the queen dropped her robe to revealing the warrior dress beneath; a hard glinting dagger lay flat against a dark thigh. “I do not know why you get this excited, Heliandra. You have already lost.” “You stupid little upstart,” the queen sneered. “You issued a challenge to the throne. Did you think that you would ever take over this world?” “I would make a better queen,” Timarion snapped. “The shadow has taken over and is riding on your back, making decisions for you. You do not even think for yourself anymore.” Furious the queen tightened her fists. “I don’t know what you’re talking about!” “Your lies will be revealed,” Timarion spat. “Vibrations of truth have already begun to infiltrate our world.” “This battle ends here and now,” the queen screamed as she moved along the periphery of the gathered crowds. “My own throne is exactly what I want,” Timarion screamed. Heliandra’s eyes tore into her opponent. “You have been plotting with those Sabals!” Timarion swung her quarterstaff smoothly, clipping her on the shoulder. “And why not? Who wants a tyrant sitting on the throne preaching about so called freedom?” Gasps swept through the crowd as eyes moved nervously between the two women. Quarterstaff met sword and they moved together in a wild dance that quickly escalated into frenzy. The queen’s sword twisted between the flicks of fire and then thrust forward hungry for blood. Timarion pranced around the fire, dodging and bending away from the fierce jabs of the sword. And they battled on restlessly, their ragged breath fierce seeking relief or resolution. Sweat poured down their temples. Timarion grunted as she blocked the queen’s vicious thrusts, her wrists flicking back and forth expertly. With a sudden kick of her leg, Timarion sent the queen down to the ground but Heliandra pounced to her feet lithe as a panther, her sword circling over her head. “You are no warrior,” the queen managed with a gasp, striking hard so that her sword almost lodged in the quarterstaff. “No, I am not.” She watched narrowly as the queen lost her footing and stumbled backward. “I am not a warrior but the rightful queen of this world and though you have manipulated the elements! The power of the Spirit cannot be denied!” “Spirit chose me to rule,” the queen screeched. “I have the symbol of the dragon!” For one strained moment there was a pause and they seemed to move slowly. Muscles flexed, arms flailed. Their breath rang out like fire as they clashed against each other savagely. “A snake coiled at the spine must start moving upward to evolve,” Timarion said enigmatically. “You have been deceived. Or you really are as delusional as they say. Get your head out of your arse, Heliandra!” Suddenly she lost her balance and slipped, the quarterstaff falling from her hands. A long stillness and then a gasp lashed through the crowd. Thrilled the queen shifted into a black panther and advanced on the queen, her teeth snarling and her eyes gleaming with white rage. Timarion sneered. “No matter what you think, you do not have power over me. It has been so decreed that the fall is coming.” “You will fall!” the queen screeched. Anatat snapped out of her reverie and blinked back the shadows from the past, fragmented memories that made no sense. “I had a vision,” the queen said quietly. “It is why I have called you all here. It would seem that one is boldly crossing into Aalayfa from the Old World.” “But many enter in and out of our gates,” another Hood said with a shrug. “Why is this so momentous?” Heliandra’s bracelet scratched the table as she picked up her goblet. Spicy cloves and cinnamon incense trailed out of pomanders hanging beneath fragrant blossoms. Echoing footsteps shuffled somewhere in the depths of the temple. The sound of drumming. “Yes they enter but not through the gates where the cobras stand. Whoever she is, she is very bold entering into our world from the falls. Perhaps she is foolish enough to want my world. Someone must go and bring her here.” She glanced at Anatat. “Perhaps one who wants to gain the favour of Tiamat and prove her unwavering loyalty should go.” Anatat’s thoughts raced as her hand brushed over the wooden table where drips of beeswax had hardened. Here was an opportunity to prove herself and erase the betrayal by her mother but even more exciting, it also meant a reprieve from the stifling formality and repression of the castle. “I shall go.” The queen brightened. “Bring her here as quickly as you can.” “When must I leave?” Anatat asked determinately. “As soon as possible.” The queen leaned across the table. “This will make you my most trusted Hood of Aden. You will be bestowed with honours, Anatat.” She flashed that cold smile again. “Go and make your prayers and offerings to Tiamat at the Ishan temple.” Anatat felt her heart singing and that strange feeling at the crown of her head again. She didn’t care if this would take her to the darkest most dangerous paths of the bloody underworld; she would do anything to get away from the castle and from beneath the constant surveillance of the queen. In the desert, there would be nobody to watch her and she would be alone and free at least for a while. *** The echoing footsteps in the corridors finally faded. Only drops from a cool pipe in the wall could be heard. The queen glanced at Zahrina whose mischievous smile matched the gleam in her eye. “This was easier than I thought,” the queen snickered. “She is intent on pleasing you.” “She has her mother’s countenance. She makes me ill.” Zahrina smiled coldly. “Well, this is the chance you have been waiting for.” “That is what I am hoping,” the queen rocked forward slightly. “Anatat stands no chance against this stranger, but they must both be watched. Follow her to the gates.” “And what if this stranger has powers greater than my own?” A thoughtful pause. “There is a small possibility that Anatat may survive, for we have tried many times before to do away with her.” “Perhaps you have had a vision?” The queen smiled. “Indeed I have. This woman comes bringing the stench of death. And this is worth a try. Nobody would ever accuse or suspect me.” She shrugged. “I cannot trust that one day she may not try to take the throne. Her mother was blatantly treacherous and this is an opportunity that has presented itself.” “It is a strange thing.” “What is?” The Zerelia shrugged. “This stranger who comes. You seem more afraid of Anatat than of her.” The queen laughed. “Those who enter the gates do not know our world. They have no unscrupulous ideas of taking over the throne.” “Even with the stench of death?” “We will be rid of her too once we know who she is. One such as me who holds the symbol of the dragon has nothing to be afraid of.” Zahrina lifted her brows. “That’s true.” **** Chapter 3 The sky was a brilliant colour, a sheet of crystal illuminating the gleaming town of Isha. Anatat was inconspicuous as she crossed the cobblestone street toward the main temple where several water springs flowed. Sheep and goats were bleating as shepherds led their herds across the country roads beyond the city. Various travelers from Baltana and orange haired mermaids with long legs from the dunes frequented the town exchanging obsidian, shells and semi-precious stones. Laurel and yew trees grew steadily around the sanctuaries of the horned god where Mylittan men had begun gathering eager to defend their abode against Heliandra’s derisive forces. Golden haired horses from the Alak Desert were traded to the highest bidders and the horned priests hummed through the temple labyrinths dedicated to Olorun of Dea. The town was surrounded by walls and a circular watchtower which stood between the queen’s castle and the main town. Interconnected houses in the town, strung together bycorded oil lanterns were made of mud and bricks that had been hand shaped by stone builders ad painted in azure, stained yellows or chalk-white. Beyond the town, situated on a high hill, the temple of the Goddess boasted dozens of stairs to the sky where doors opened to invite wayfarers within. Priestesses wearing silk, white robes and gold crowns climbed the steps, their arms full of myrrh incense, lilies of the valley and pure beeswax candles. Anatat also climbed the temple steppe, shifting her gaze to the priestesses, lingering on the marble platforms, wearing leopard skin dresses and gold gowns slitted over the length of their thighs. Tinkling laughter spilled forth from dark cherry lips and eyes gleamed casually in her direction. Anatat remembered many spring festivals when she had found herself in the crowd in this very place where drums and lutes had created ecstatic rhythms. Great platters of red dates and pomegranate drifted into the crowds and beneath the cataclysmic eyes of the stone dragon, burning frankincense and myrrh wafted through the crowds. Anatat remembered how she had conspired with the temple priestesses who perfumed and pinned her hairr. They painted her mouth until it was a torrid pink rose and finally set a mask upon her face. The stiff ridge down her nose gave her the look of a menacing hawk. And then accompanied by all the rhythms of the universe, with her gauze veil dropping over her shoulder, she slithered like a cobra up on the high platforms. Her feet, tattooed with the marks of Neith moved with their own volition, as though they had their own primal memories. It was in those moments that she touched her core; knew she was trackless and eternal as her feet pressed into the earth. I am Tawarek. The Forsaken One. Anatat had felt the joy springing from within. And if Tiamat were watching, she would be envious as she vanished into the crowds, expanded into horizons, shuddering into her own constellation all hawk faced, with gold coins around the wide hips, her bare midriff inviting something from beyond. She had not bothered asking herself what she was doing with her body; issuing that ultimate invitation to some familiar lover as her movements became more spontaneous. Anatat blinked away the image and smiled secretly as she climbed toward the top of the pyramid temple. The sky stretched above the temple like a golden blue mantle. “Tiamat welcomes you, Hood of Aden,” a priestess said, her face veiled. “We are honoured.” Anatat inclined her head and lowered her eyes to hide the mutinous thoughts. “The honour is mine.” Young priestesses with wine dark eyes and secret smiles fluttered away like moths as Anatat inhaled the scent of orange blossoms. She went past the altars and stared into the mouth of the dragon where white marble teeth were barely visible. She stared at Tiamat, the earthen mother, her lines of power extending from the core of the earth where wisdom sprang. Whoever she was to meet at the gates did not really matter. It was the trek itself to the vast Galena Dunes that promised freedom from the constraint of everyday life, from the condemning eyes that tackled her from quiet corners; judgmental eyes that disapproved of her, condemned her and found her very presence to be offensive. No matter how Anatat pondered the problem, the more puzzling it was. She rose and turned away from Tiamat, eager to go into town to gather supplies and water and maybe a good camel before she headed into the Alak desert rich and vast with oases, hidden springs and mysterious grottos. The desert where isolation tore into the soul until there was nothing left but dismembered perceptions, and where freedom seemed more than a vague possibility. *** “Sorceress,” Lytai said with a sigh as she struggled to sit up in the longboat. Her arms weary as she steadied the supplies as the vessel rocked. “Sorceress, are we almost across the river?” “Not yet,” she replied softly. They headed further and further into the dark chasms of Arabia past sultry Edessa toward fiery Babylon with her rich floral essences. The Soultana of Siduri knew they had a long way to travel but did not want to inform her friends of that yet. She was moving determinately through the thick wall of fog trusting that they would eventually stumble upon the road that was meant for them. Trusting that the universe would carry them. A song softly spilt from her lips: “There is one Who has been Sleeping long, Chased in Her dreams by the Primordial snake, She Crosses the water and The desert land, Her souls Seeks truly to Come awake.” “Here in the Void is where we Will cross, For it Has been written eternities Before, That the Lady and I will Embrace in soul, And Together to Ecstasy we will soar.” “Anatat comes to Taste my poison, The bite of My serpent will arouse her Fires, But what her Soul craves is to be empty, To awaken the Memory of Hidden desires.” “So come to me, Anatat, and Surrender to death, Come and Abandon All that you know, Follow the footsteps into the Great Dark void, Drink from Ecstasy’s most dazzling flow. Her words collapsed on the soft wind and Rauva’s incessant groans. The sorceress stroked her hair and glanced at Lytai. “Have you given her the herbs?” “The last of them. We must stop soon,” Lytai murmured, searching the shore. The portly oarsman shaded his eyes. “There is a village just behind that hill. We should reach the shore soon.” “Do you think it is very serious?” Lytai asked with a frown. “No,” the sorceress replied. “She will recover quickly and then we will continue the moment the sun breaks the horizon.” As they drifted through the grim fog, the oars moved powerfully through the shallow water until the longboat was dragged to the shore. Torches with large flames spotted the banks of the river and their abrupt presence drew crowds of curious women and children. Villagers dressed in long tunics carrying reeds, brushwood and baskets came haphazardly out of their houses. Suddenly the voices rose and people rushed to carry Rauva inside. “Go with her,” the sorceress told Lytai. “I will stay on the banks of the Euphrates for a while longer.” “Why? Where are you going?” The sorceress said nothing at first, listening to the murmuring voices. She sighed nostalgically as the reeds rustled. “The wind beckons.” Someone thrust a wooden cup at her and draped a blanket over her shoulders and she moved away into the fog away from the curious gazes. She moved cautiously toward the edge of the river where the wind broke through: “The stars are Reflections of you and Me, The Origins of life Dance in the sky, Come join the Mystery of Eternal bliss, The stars will Tell you Which way to fly. “ The sorceress searched the reeds and paused as her memories emerged from the darkness. “Trust yourself, Kabaka,” a voice had said. “It is the place where you will uncover yourself. A different kind of reality.” And the voice murmured: “Abandon all that You’ve ever known, And enter a World where women Are asleep, Weave your Own Story for You are the source, Go my Daughter into a death so Deep.” “Our descendants Will be Crying for a Saviour, For Our women will dismiss the Powers that be, They will Forget Ecstasy and Worship sorrow, A dead Man on a cross to Come and Set them free.” “So they will Cast their Deathly gazes Upon you, And a Roar of hatred Will rise from the Earth, When You dare to Speak your Darling rhymes, And Cast your riddles upon Their hearth.” “But From the fiery Depths of Boiling anger, Memories will Rise from the Unconscious deep, Shattering all Those old Foolish illusions, And slowly They will rise From their sleep.” “Seek the Other Whom in Death you meet, Birthing her soul in a world that is Spoiled, Rousing the Feminine divine from Her dreams, Where the Sleeping serpent Remains coiled.” And the sorceress closed her eyes and sang back: “The Ghostly wind will Become my lover, The moon and Sun will Join my song, As I enter Aalayfa, I will Not be alone, For the Feminine Divine will Help me along.” “The stars will Fall into my Eyes once more, The waves of the sea will Dress me with fire, And in my hair, night birds will descend, And my soul Will be aroused By certain desire.” “And I will be Grateful and I Will sing, Each step I take Will be Joyful and aware, For This whole Universe makes love To me, And Conspires with me in a passionate Affair.” The reeds rattled along the cold moist banks where crickets pulsed with new songs and her eyes roamed over the diamond sky. From where she had come from, she was not certain, but she knew where she had to go and exactly who she was looking for. Her heart sang at the very thought of Anatat, because for many eons, she had loved her behind secret curtains and now, it was time for the reunion. She sat on the blanket and stretched out her legs aware of the wind embracing her like an impatient lover, tossing lyrics through the reeds. *** Anatat sat back on her legs and stared blankly out over the Mylittan River. The trade ship, which was heading across the river with its cargo of timber fresh from the Sabal Forest, moved toward the desert and the flourishing town of Baltana. Burned tannins from wood smoke filled the air. “You are well, mistress?” the merchant asked striding toward her. “The river is churning more than usual.” Anatat’s eyes crinkled softly behind her veil. “Just a little nervous.” “The Mylittans are not to be feared,” the trader reassured her. He brushed his hair to the side to reveal the horned marks. “They are delicate with women. Should they capture you..” “It is not the Mylittans that make me nervous,” Anatat interrupted. It was the one who was coming to the gates who worried her. Shivers rippled down her spine. The river seemed to coil suddenly with inexplicable drifts of fog. She listened to the trader’s footsteps becoming fainter as he moved to the other end of the ship. There were many stories exchanged throughout Aalayfa about the notorious Mylittans who roamed the river like wolves. Gifted with the mighty tail of Tiamat, they truly were the masters of gliding unseen through the Aalayfan gates. Sailing easily through time and space, they were chock full of stories, especially from the Old World. The Mylittans held the secret teachings of the elders in high esteem and also embraced the more basic teachings of the Great Horned god; their quest as hunters was to explore the facets of all that was male in the universe. Anatat had learned a great deal about them in the Ishan temples where she grew up. Tales of alternate realities buried in the vastness of Tiamat’s body, her limbs crushed and scattered to create the waters and lands of the earth. She knew many stories of the Old World and their laws which had created a world dominated by reason. Long ago, it had been said that many of the ancients had escaped into a parallel reality through a crack in the fabric of time. Anatat snapped out of her reverie. She rose to stand at the edge of the wooden rail and stared into the cold fog which began to take the shape of a woman with tentacle hair sing among the reeds. A wind suddenly tore through the sails and she glanced up with a gasp. Before she could react, someone pushed her against the rail and planted his body firmly behind her. “How sweet is the flavour of a Hood of Aden.” “Not as sweet as you think,” she replied through gritted teeth. An arm circled her waist and an imprinted dragon seemed to stain the wrist like blood. She quickly assessed him: neatly clipped nails and palms worn away by ships and ropes. He was undoubtedly, a Mylittan. “This is by far the greatest gift from the Goddess to Her Consort,” the man murmured. He pushed back her hair and caressed her shoulders, feeling his gaze roaming over her and she found herself breathless. “You cannot do this,” she murmured. “The trader will return any moment.” He continued sliding his hands over her. “I don’t think so. He is unconscious.” She could not find the strength to battle with him as he continued his slow seduction. His voice drummed into her gently, agitating something primal until she had fully surrendered. He plunged into her deeply until waves rose to grip her; and yet he breathed deeply with great control, expert precision, extracting her delicate secrets. He explored hidden crevices and damp sultry caves. And he continued smoothly until her energy ebbed and flowed like a tumultuous sea. Eternities passed before he released her, having taken his fill, harvested the power of her until he was fully sated. “And you can tell Heliandra that if I ever catch her, I’ll wring her neck myself. All of Aalayfa will love me for it.” He crouched on the rail and leapt into the shapeless fog. Anatat clutched her robes against her bare trembling body. Silver light created shifting shadows. She clothed herself quickly and then walked over the creaking boat searching for the trader. The cool fog drifted across the deck and wound around her ankles like manacles. She found him struggling to rise. “Are you alright?” “What happened?” “What do you think?” “Bloody hell,” he grumbled touching his head. “They come out of nowhere.” Anatat listened to him curse irritably as he shuffled away. She put a hand on her belly and knew suddenly that she had conceived a child this night. The fog that shadowed the moon was tinted with ripples of crimson, as though someone was painting the sky with a loving brush, writing wild mythologies in fiery ink. There was something behind that moistness, an insinuation folded under the wings of a sultry wind. Whispers of things to come. **** Chapter 4 Breathless winds heavy with cinnamon wood and mint carried sounds of crackling fire. The wooden boat carried the three women into the unfathomable darkness of the south, whisking them past the dusky warmth of Babylon with its florid gardens and watchful, painted eyes. “Say goodbye to centuries of oppression,” the sorceress murmured. “Watch for the waterfall and bridge that will lead us through the mist. It is the way to Aalayfa.” She glanced at her companions. “We will maintain our memories as we descend into the lower worlds.” Lytai grimaced. “I really hate to descend into denser vibrations.” “But I have to go and get her,” the sorceress said with a sigh. “She will be waiting….” “I thought you said she wouldn’t remember you.” “Her heart will remember for we are travelling into the heart of darkness.” “Hmph, doesn’t sound very inviting,” Rauva muttered. The sorceress laughed. “See it as an opportunity.” Lytai patted the damp beads of sweat from Rauva’s forehead. “Do you think she senses us coming?” The sorceress laughed. “She knows she is not of that world. That she is of a different vibration.” Lytai smiled at the sorceress. “So this is going to be a big surprise then.” “Love is always a surprise. It finds us in unexpected places.” She leaned back slightly to look into the sky. “Sometimes it comes in disguise, and we have to look to our heart and intuition for answers.” “Oh this should be interesting,” Rauva said glancing at Lytai. “The poor thing won’t even know what hit her.” “Oh, she will know right away,” the sorceress replied. “The mirror will break into a thousand shards and then it will join itself again. She will know alright, that she is the weaver of her own tale.” The Euphrates sighed complacently as the three women were carried deeper into darkness. Tentacle hair swept along the side of the boat making hissing sounds. *** The lowland along the river was dense with rowans covered in orange berries as well as a huge variety of oak and birch and pine. Frightened hedgehogs and swarthy hares scuffled away at the sound of strange footsteps. Woodpeckers and red-crested birds fluttered to and fro in the branches, the animated conversation carried on the wind. Between the heavy branches, sunlight spilled onto the river. Anatat glanced to the north where the Rhean Mountains stood proud like ancient gods and gazed deeply hoping to penetrate the fog and its thick secrets. It had been whispered into a thousand ears, that Tiamat herself lived within the mountains waiting to engulf the eager into her void. Anatat was not certain how true the stories were and few dared to trespass through the sacred cliffs where Tiamat was said to guard the ancient knowledge. She paused and searched the horizon where the dunes heaved toward the heavens, offering their flesh to the sky. Miniature hills and valleys dipped so low that they were often annihilated by salty rivers snaking into endless waterways. As gentle and sparkling as they were, the Galena Dunes were under the watch of their notorious guardian, King Fiachra, who could be as violent as he was benevolent to all who crossed through his watery world. And yet like all the Aalayfan males, he was arrogant, willful and found it necessary at times to partake in pranks that ranged from the comedic to the outright dangerous. Anatat knew he was already aware of her presence, though she could detect no movement on the silent waters dotted with spots of sunlight. She tied her outer garments into a loose knot and bundled them around her waist. She took a deep breath and scoured the expanse of dunes that rose from the Mylittan River as far as the eye could reach. She felt her sheathed dagger and then sprang forward, leaping from one dune to another, wading across longer distances as the sea wind pushed at her back. The waterfall was a curtain of colours that created a tangible, seemingly impenetrable veil that separated one reality from another. From rose hues to purple streams to golden beams, the water shattered on the sharp rocks. A small distance away, a silver fish with sapphire dark gills leapt in and out of the water. With no clear intentions, it leapt towards her. Anatat sat on the dune and waited, her eyes following the brilliant flash of silver. “Come closer, young one,” she said. “For I am well starved for sustenance.” She searched for dry rushes and leaves to start a fire and saw that the fish dallied at the edge of the shore. “Come now,” she called. “Just a little closer and you will make a rather fine tasty morsel.” “That is exactly what I was thinking about you,” the fish gurgled. It splashed and shuddered. “A tasty morsel indeed.” Anatat smiled wickedly. “King Fiachra! You intercept me yet again!” “You are always in trouble and I am the gallant that saves you each time.” His tone was husky. She raised her brows. “I was only thinking of satisfying my hunger.” “Funny,” he replied softly, “that is exactly what I was thinking.” Anatat raised her brows haughtily. “It seems our thoughts are similar.” “As are our appetites, it would seem.” “Mine wavers toward a fish upon a roasting spit.” With a sudden hoarse guffaw, the fish suddenly plunged deep into the waves and moments later, a merman emerged from the waves. She had not been in contact with many Galeneans, but the few she had known had been creatures of supreme beauty and the king was solid evidence to that popular claim. From the pale tinted azure of his skin that glittered with coral flecks, to the shock of black hair that fell across his forehead, the king emanated a sheer masculinity that was impossible to resist. Dark tribal symbols were carved into his arms and a magnificent double tail curled up suggestively. As his water droplets evaporated, a pair of legs stood solidly on the sand. His laughing eyes were intelligent and she felt her blood leap wildly through her veins. His presence was enthralling as she lost herself in the gleaming gaze. “What a shame-” she stuttered, “it would have been to consume you.” His eyes danced. “It is ummm, still possible. Stay here tonight upon this dune.” “There is one whom I am to greet. One who arrives in Aalayfa,” she said softly. Fiachra drew her closer. “Greet her?” Anatat’s eyes searched his face. “You know about her.” “I know of someone coming.” She was taken aback. “Who is she?” “The river keeps many secrets,” the king reminded her. “This happens to be one of them.” She caught his wrist. “Tell me.” “Why? So you can tell that rotten old turnip? She is no longer the same, you know. Suffers an imbalance, that one.” His gaze fell to her breasts as he paused. “The one you await will not arrive until the sun rises. Until then, you will stay.” Anatat did not know what to think. Was he here to distract her from her duty to Heliandra? “Your queen has fallen but you have not yet realized it. Still, I would not dream of distracting you from your duty, my dear. I know how much she means to you.” She stared at him but he was pulling her down on the sand, his hands exploring. “I don’t know what you mean. I am a Hood of Aden and it is my duty.” “Yes, your support of Heliandra is steadfast.” “There is no question of my loyalty.” She paused. “But you seem to be divided.” Fiachra gave her an amused look. “Do not make the mistake of thinking that I am anywhere near being loyal.” The fiery proclamation was resolute and it startled her. “Why do you say that, my king? She has upheld the traditions of this world as best as she could.” He snorted. “I’m sure. If only you had eyes to see, Anatat.” A sudden splash revealed several maidens with ruddy gold hair rolled out of the waves, carrying oyster and crab meats, coral umbrellas and rolls of seaweed carpets they proceeded to unroll. When the maidens disappeared into the river, the king turned toward Anatat again. “Eat.” “I will if you start the fire. I am not used to eating them raw.” He laughed and set to work building a fire and skewering the shrimp on long thin twigs. As they roasted, he lay back lazily on the dune, half covered in sand and seaweed. He closed his eyes and fell into silence and Anatat sneaked a few peeks at his body. “Do you like what you see?” he muttered. She pinked slightly and turned her gaze toward the fire and before she knew it, he was pulling her down onto the sand, her hair scattering wildly like the black tentacles of an octopus. Moving smoothly like a cool fish over a wave, he wrapped his limbs around her vigorously until their bodies merged. One moment disappeared into the other, and she forgot herself in that dance of joy; she felt one with the waves, the dues and the wind gathered her laughter and sent it hurling through some unknown ancient galaxy. *** Amaro sighed wearily and looked out across the sand where ravenous scorpions darted ominously across the desert plains. Jagged sunlight cast long eerie shadows. Two Alak horses dragged the double caravan that carried his young family and his small herd of livestock. In the cool dusk, he could hear the flap of the caravan snapping as the flick of the long-fingered wind played strange rhythms. Salauq’s voice wavered between thick layers of dust as she sang fantastical tales of flying silver dragons and lascivious dancers. They had been travelling for many days to reach the foot of the Rhean Mountains where nomads gathered to trade. He thought Salauq might enjoy mingling with the other women, trading for clothing, bartering for supplies and filling the canteens at the water wells. In the shadows, Amaro cast a scathing look back toward the caravan. He had once hoped that she would admire him, that a child with her would be a celebration of their union but nothing was further from the truth. The only blessing was that the child was not even his. And where it had come from was beyond his understanding. Even worse, since the birth of Belil, Salauq had immersed herself into longer silences, casting strange, expectant looks into the horizon. “Why do we continue in this blasphemous way?” he demanded. “You followed me into the midnight desert, keep me from my tribe and yet you no longer share a pallet with me.” She gave him a scathing look. “It was not my idea. And I would not share a pallet with one like you.” He was startled. “And why not?” But she had remained stubbornly silent. “Perhaps you should have stayed in the confines of the temple,” he growled. “And then you would not be condemned to wander the desert with that destitute creature. I don’t understand you.” Blinking away the memory, Amaro flapped the reins against the snorting horses. “Easy,” he murmured. “Take it easy. We’ll be stopping for water soon.” Mostly dry and arid with enormous dunes and sweeping landscapes, the Alak was also well renowned for secret havens so rich and fertile that the waters were opaque. Rich fertile land with fruit trees laden with figs and pomegranates and varieties of citrus. But it was also these havens guarded jealousy by the fierce Chilala who shifted the sands to confuse unwary travelers. To ensure their survival, they often used the oases to lure the unsuspecting before consuming spindly flesh and chewing through chalky bones. His eyes swept over the sand in disgust as he pulled a horse blanket across his shoulders and glanced up at the glittering stars. There were no winds carrying thick clusters of locusts and no sand storms hovered on the horizon and yet he felt anxious. He had to find a resting place for his horses. And soon. His skin itched and he felt prickles up and down his spine. In the distance, Amaro could see drifts of light, shifting and changing. He slowed his horses down to a trot as the haven seemed to rise like a watery mirror. His eyes narrowed over the long stretch of sand as he halted his caravan train. There was absolute silence, but for the wind that had sidled up like a strange aberration forming a dark shape. A Hood of Aden. Her cloak was bright crimson as though dipped in blood and the wind tossed her hair. She stared at him with blank, silver eyes but he stood in utter shock. A dragon stood behind her solid and protective, wrapped around her, the long snout nuzzled on her head. Their eyes glowed like rubies. Standing on those Dragon lines. The dark-haired woman wrapped in the arms of the dragon smiled at him most seductively and a sudden surge of desire rippled through him: warm skin, a pair of large shapely breasts and an intoxicating presence. Who was this daughter of the earth? This strange dancing ghost tangled in the arms of Tiamat? Then slowly, the curvaceous Hood of Aden disappeared, taking the complacent dragon into the shifting wind with her. He gasped for air as he stared at the emptiness where they had stood. There was nothing left; not footsteps, not a sign that they had existed; only a print of a faded vision. Something was definitely happening in the deep recesses of the earth; perhaps something stirred in the Old World. Rare were the visions of Tiamat, so why had she appeared to him? He sat back down shakily. Perhaps it was the Chilala playing a trick, distracting him from his quest to find a haven this night. Anything was possible in this desert where magic mingled with the stark dry heat, like an incompatible marriage of opposites. But he had been ensnared by passion and a distinct memory of a woman whom he was certain would not easily fade from his mind. *** Nantale Dore moved with the quarter moon, the snapping twigs beneath her feet crackled loudly in the quiet forest. The moon wove silver braids into her green hair as she paused momentarily in the foliage thoughtfully. Groaning trees rose from moss-covered mounds. Drifting wafts of winds seemed determined to confuse her. She wondered about the Orion spirits that haunted these woods. But nothing was going to deter her from finding Ixapa Eidan. There were many rumours surrounding the queen of the Sabals; possibly that she was a myth, a raven, a powerful queen who commanded the sun. That she had been once a golden blonde and burned by the flames of a fire, she transformed into a demon. And yet this was all irrelevant to Nantale Dore. Her curiosity about Ixapa Eidan spurred her forward. Her limbs were weak and her stomach unsettled as she was overcome by the unfamiliar terrain, but deadly traps and nightly spirits would certainly not deter her. She knew that her senses were not as sharp as they were in the water and even the slightest unfamiliar noise would send her hand flying to her waist where a sword hung. Not that she knew how to use it, she thought grimly. But it was better than nothing. She pushed through the cold large leaves as she drifted into the mysterious forest. She knew that the Sabals were well protected by bewitched Zerelia trees transplanted by the clever Ixapa Eidan. There was no Aalayfan that had not heard the rumours about the Sabals. From abrasive fishermen with fine nets, cunning tradesmen selling trinkets and skilful nomads who travelled through the Galena Dunes, there was much speculation about their powerful dreaming abilities especially since Ixapa Eidan had taken over. Her proclamation as queen had threatened Heliandra who decreed that they were the true enemies of Aalayfa; a declaration that created further separation and conflict among all the inhabitants. Though it was well agreed upon by all kingdoms that Aalayfa had its origins in the womb of Tiamat, it was also an accepted belief that their world was deeply influenced by the old parallel world. And it was this reason that compelled the Sabals to covet the forests where their mysterious ways of living and ancient rituals would thrive. And beneath the Zerelia trees that kept them cloaked from the surrounding kingdoms, they were able to enjoy life away from the eyes of Heliandra. Few claimed to have seen them and fables and songs emerged as a tribute to their mystery and courage. But it was Ixapa Eidan who captured their imagination. She had come from the dark void of the west, descended from a mysterious race of shape-shifters: strange corvids that shifted from woman to bird. Nantale Dore paused and looked around. If she was the daughter of a Zerelia, she certainly had none of their abilities. Only the Galenean talent for shifting into a mermaid with green hair, like the colour of moss. On the desire to know her mother overwhelmed her. “Your hair is vibrant green,” King Fiachra had told his daughter in amusement when she first told him. “Don’t you think you would be an outcast among the Sabals? And besides, how will you find them? They are very secretive.” “I do not know how,” his daughter replied, “but I know I must find her.” “I cannot allow you to go,” he said softly. “You know that.” Their eyes met like fire and ice. Nantale Dore kept her eyes fixed on his. She had immersed herself in swimming meditations, allowed images to rise from the depths of her womb. “What I know is that I must do it myself. For many years, raven has seeped into my dreams, guiding me. I must go.” And so one morning, quite unexpectedly, she left everything behind and swam into the currents that would gently spiral her to the surface. She found the outer world quite different than she expected. Strange and harsh. Her skin was extremely wrinkled but eventually smoothed out beneath the sun’s warming rays. The earth was dense and as she breathed, she found the air abrasive. Her tail dried quickly and split down the middle and lengthening into legs; her gills snapped noisily, almost uncontrollably as she wrestled with her breathing. She tried to stand and then eagerly took her first steps. Her seaweed gown was not slick and warm as it had been in the water. It now hung askew, scratching her like an intricate crochet creating cool diamond patterns over her skin. She tried desperately to avoid contact with the sun. It was a long time before she was able to walk and yet she knew she had to start moving before her father found her. Half stumbling, she followed the southward flow of the river, passing by caravans and markets and towns. River nomads and even other Galeneans guided her toward the forest, warning her that none have ever found the Sabals and that likely, she would have to return to the river. And yet she pressed on, gaining more strength in her legs as the moon cycles passed until finally she found herself at the edge of the forest. In every direction, vast arrays of creatures engaged in frivolous affairs: blue crested birds, flitting sparrows, cooing turtle doves, blue butterflies and darting magpies all performed their own greeting dance. She breathed in the scent of smoke and decaying wood and earth. She had never seen the forest before and was spellbound by the wavering pastels of the water. She spent long hours gazing at the trunks of trees and sometimes if she stared long enough, female figures appeared and vanished suddenly, often frozen within the wood. Faces were like immobile wooden masks. Eyes examined her from the trees. “I want to see Ixapa Eidan,” Nantale Dore said bluntly. “I know you have all been watching me.” The face in the tree seemed startled. Nantale Dore stared brazenly. “Yes, I can see you.” Annoyed, the figure stepped easily out of the wood. “Who are you?” The woman was was wide hipped and large breasted, she was superbly strong and supple. Her skin glowed like ripe peaches and long marked crimson symbols seemed to emphasize her status and fertility. “I am the daughter of your queen, Ixapa Eidan and I have come to find her.” The woman looked vaguely amused as she stared at the flimsy legs. “You must be Galenean.” Nantale Dore was irritated by her stare. “I have never walked on land before if you must know.” The warrior contemplated her. “I don’t know how you saw me, but you must know that nobody enters the place of the Sabals.” “I have travelled far to find her.” “Ixapa Eidan has many daughters.” Nantale Dore never thought of that possibility. “Perhaps, but what does it matter?” “Perhaps you are a spy for Heliandra?” “A Galenean spy?” she replied tersely, “my father would have my tail!” “He’ll take it anyway for leaving the dunes.” Nantale Dore arched her brows. “Do you really believe that I am here by the orders of Heliandra?” The Sabal seemed startled. “I feel that you are not but anything is possible.” “Take me to your queen.” “Alright,” the woman said with a slight grin. “It is obvious that whoever you are, you have the eyes of a seer.” “Everyone is a seer. It is not that difficult if one is willing to reject their preconceptions.” Nantale Dore could feel the woman’s rawness and her heart pounded excitedly as she followed the warrior over the path, stinging twigs whipping her delicate arms. “I must say that I have dreamed of this moment for a long time.” “Ixapa Eidan is the queen of the erratic and unreasonable, always challenging our beliefs. She is not only a leader but a fire walker.” Nantale Dore fell silent as she recalled her dreams and in them, she had followed ravens into deep underworlds where women stepped out of the secretive void. “Nobody deserts their home and goes blindly into the forest,” the Sabal finally murmured. “Only mad people do that.” “True.” The Sabal shrugged. “I am sorry if I didn’t believe you but Heliandra is always up to something to irritate or undermine us. We find it hard to trust anyone.” “Father says she has been trying many years to penetrate the world of the Sabals.” “Trying very hard. She wants us dependent on her system for food and shelter and ideals but we will never yield to a system that wants to make slaves out of us.” “If you have the support of Aalayfa, why do you hide?” “Your mother says there is an advantage in remaining cloaked. It will not always be this way, but for now it allows for surreptitious growth.” “And I guess it torments Heliandra who wants control over everything.” The Sabal grinned. “Ixapa Eidan has made rebels out of us all.” **** Chapter 5 Dawn spilled over the cool dunes and yet the river gleamed, capturing the light reflecting from the warm waterfall. The stars that had triumphantly glittered a few hours ago now seemed subdued, defeated by the awakening of day. In the far distance, long limbed mermaids with spinach green hair rode astride enormous orca as they slipped and tumbled into the shattering waves. Salty skinned maidens with long legs dangled over caramel coloured rocks argued playfully. Anatat stood over the embers of her midnight fire and gazed lightly taking in the view. Water and sand clashed in a distorted amalgamation that formed a thousand islands as ringing laughter and uninhibited cries rushed between the sigh of waves and wind. But Anatat was preoccupied with the one that was coming; one who was possibly a threat to the foundations of their world. Certainly there had been many entering their world before from other realities but the fact that this stranger was powerful and audacious enough to enter through the gates had obviously created fear in Heliandra. She thought about the Old World that stood separated from their reality by a mist of illusion and thought about the many stories she had heard about them. “Don’t believe the Mylittan stories,” priestesses often reminded them in the temple schools. “They are masters at extravagant narrative.” Anatat moved steadily with great strides toward the churning waterfall. The light mist created illusions of undulating curtains coloured gold and orange and vivid green; and in the nearly invisible fissures, two humanoid creatures swayed curiously, their flickering tongues darted in and out. As she moved closer, heads unlocked and necks moved forward threateningly until they were filling the skies above. Ravenous empty sockets flashed gold as poison began to spew from their mouths. A shrill rhythm unfurled on the wind: “What daughter of Tiamat wades Toward these falls, Coming to Gaze upon us with Deadly eyes, Unaware she is About to face an Opponent so strong, Is she Certain however that what She does is wise?” Anatat replied: “A daughter of Tiamat is what I certainly am, So settle Back and do Not Block my way, I am Simply Waiting for The one bearing news, Crossing willfully into Aalayfa This day.” The slithering cobras startled the gulls that screeched in fright: “Nobody will cross Through these Gates that we guard, For what fool would forfeit the glory of Her soul, To Wade into this world ruled by the Snake and Dragon, And Surely pay a heavy, deadly Toll.” Anatat narrowed her eyes from one cobra to the other and searched again beyond the trembling waterfall. The creatures stretched to their full height, their winged hoods flapping sharply as they turned to stare into the mist: “Who dares to Cross the gates of Aalayfa, And move Toward us with powerful strides? It is a woman of Earth Sprung from the Void, A woman as Wild As the wind That she rides.” A voice suddenly emerged from beyond the waterfall splitting it into fragments like a paper spine. And the misty curtain suddenly shifted and figures rose out of the dark glittery web, crossing some intangible bridge. One figure had a head full of fibre tendrils spreading into eternity like flashes of light. At her side, seagulls flew flanking her as they shifted into two women. The tendril head spoke sharp and clear: “Love has come to Sweep you Away, So part the Gates That you guard so well, I cross into the World that I have Dreamed, This is the Story that I have Wanted to tell.” “Love Imparts secrets and beckons You near, Dissolving the illusions You Crave and desire, Stand away from the Gates that You guard, I sprang From the Inner Earth with this Fire.” She moved forward deliberately, her black eyes appearing as fierce and dark and luminous shattering the entire bridge. Seemingly disembodied, she moved with supreme power, transforming into something more familiar as she contorted like a strange acrobat. A smooth oval face framed by hair that scattered into hundreds of snapping pythons, horned vipers and golden snakes. Her skin was cinnamon dark and smooth and across her bare arms, strange solid marks formed dotted patterns. On her forehead, the full round moon was flanked by two crescents. Strands of glittering coral, fine shells and coins materialized. Beaded shells, fine embroidered flesh suddenly reverberated as though she were weaving herself into existence. Three women shifted out of the mist, their bodies curving like bright candles as they moved like great luminous spheres into her reality. Anatat felt dizzy and strange, her awareness wavering and she watched breathless as the cobras hissed raining venom on the figures who moved unperturbed to the end of the bridge that dissipated behind them. They seemed like any other Aalayfans. Belted tunics and leathery feet with dramatic skirts and tassels, limbs heavily covered in spiralling red and white and black tattoos. Blue inky patterns. Dappled gold circles. The guardian cobras shrank in protest: “The Woman has the Heart Of a Dragon, Soultana of Siduri is how She Is known, She bravely Enters the Gates of Aalayfa, Powerful and Fearless and yet Not alone.” Anatat watched motionless as the three women came toward her. The two women flanking the Soultana of Siduri had similar markings on their face and arms. All pairs of eyes were sharp and sparkling. Immobile between two rock formations, Anatat watched in astonishment as the three women shuffled toward her, walking through the streams that joined the dunes like miniature bridges. “Well, here I am,” the Soultana of Siduri said smiling, her eyes brilliant gems of black fire. “And you are the one I have come to find.” She turned smugly to look at her companions. “And you were worried we wouldn’t be able to find her. Obviously this meeting was destined.” She flashed a grin at Anatat. “A synchronistic meeting at best.” Anatat stared at her. “Who are you? And how did you get through the gates?” “Well, it wasn’t easy,” the woman replied, her eyes dancing. “Do you know how much effort it takes to sing a song like that? I had to speak quite loudly.” She gestured to her companions. “This is Lytai and this is Rauva, my companions. I am as you have heard from the cobras here, the Soultana of Siduri. But you will address me as ‘sorceress’ for we have no need for formalities.” “I asked how you got through the gates and what you want in Aalayfa.” But the sorceress was surveying the landscape. “It has been a long time. This place is beautiful, you are very lucky, Anatat.” “A long time? Have you been to Aalayfa before? And how do you know my name?” But the sorceress ignored her and spoke to her companions, pointing to the pink and gold fauna. Anatat blinked. “I am a Hood of Aden, in service to Queen Heliandra who rules this world and she wants to know why you are here. My duty is to take you to Allirea.” The sorceress turned to her delighted. “You came to take me? How charming. Did you hear that Lytai? She has come to take me to Allirea to meet her queen.” She laughed and then inched toward Anatat so that they were nearly touching noses. “You are certainly marvelous, Anatat. It must be a wonderful thing to have forgotten yourself.” Anatat did not know what to say. “I came to take you to Allirea and it is what I must do.” The two companions giggled. “Yes, sorceress, don’t stand there gawking, Heliandra is waiting.” The sorceress joined in their laughter. “Alright, let’s go.” Anatat glared at her. “Do you come from one of the lower worlds?” “This is the lower world. Hmph, you don’t even know where you are,” she replied, moving past her. “And you are the one who is dead. I am very much alive.” The companions nearly convulsed into laughter as they listened to the exchange. “That’s ridiculous. I’m as alive as you.” “Look,” the sorceress said suddenly opening her arms to the dune. “Look.” Millions of snakes sprang into the golden landscape until there was nothing but black and green rippling around them. Impending death unraveled suddenly as thick knots of frenzied serpents moved toward them. “Death has come for you. It is here now. You have nothing to worry about though since you are already dead. They can only bring you back to life.” “What are you talking about?” Anatat cried, her eyes widened as rattlers, cobras, vipers and black mambas descended on her with bobbing heads. “What’s happening?! Help me!” The sorceress looked her. “Why in heavens would the dead want help? Nothing can happen to one who is already walking unaware.” “You are mad,” Anatat hissed as she turned in one direction and then another gripping her dagger. “Make them go away!” “It is not death that really matters,” the sorceress explained crossing her arms calmly. “It is the way you die that matters.” She paused. “The question is, what is death to you, Anatat? Have you ever thought about it?” She tapped her cheek thoughtfully. “Does death consume you entirely like the turnip you are? Or do you become aware and make it wait for you?” Anatat nearly screamed as the vipers snapped. “I don’t know!” “But you are a Hood of Aden,” the sorceress replied gently tapping her foot. “Surely one as privileged as yourself should know these answers? You who have all the knowledge at your disposal. You who are so unique and an honorary Hood of Aden!” Spurts of venom left marks. A wave of dizziness made her spin and she stared in horror at the sorceress who was hovering over her nonchalantly. “Hmm,” the sorceress said, sighing dramatically. “All that work making you into a warrior. Now what would Heliandra say if she saw you? A total turnip.” Stars that once spun in the sky now turned weirdly as she was gripped by death’s mellow arms, squeezing the life from her. Between the throat and the naval, she felt drained and finally, she surrendered to the vile grip of the unknown. Her body slackened and began to inwardly collapse. “Alright, that’s enough. Now wake up.” Someone was shaking her. “Come on, that’s enough drama.” A sudden influx of breath filled her again bringing blood raging through her veins. Anatat sat up and looked around at the sand dunes. Water sparkled invitingly and there was no sign of any serpents. “What in the name of Apophis is going on around here? What have you done to me?” The sorceress was amused. “I did nothing to you. You were so horrified hearing the truth. I guess it can’t be easy to find out that you are nothing but a turnip and so you so desperately, you wanted to die.” She opened her arms. “Don’t you know that here in Aalayfa, thoughts become reality? It is like a movie that you are projecting. In essence, the mess you are in is entirely your own fault.” “Heliandra was right! She said you were deadly,” Anatat croaked as she struggled to rise. She suddenly noticed that there were no marks on her body from the bites but before she could remark, the sorceress crouched beside her with a water flask and a mischievous smile. “Nonsense. She hates you and you know it. It is envy really. She doesn’t want anyone shining brighter, but you have been shining lifetime after lifetime.” Anatat stared at her. “Why do you say that? And how do you know anything about me?” “Of course I know. And so do you. Don’t pretend with me, Anatat. I know all your deepest thoughts.” Anatat noticed the companions watching but their energy seemed more subtle and mysterious. They looked nearly the same; soft dark skin and long silky hair. Eyes brimming with something unfathomable, dark and intense like the midnight sky. But there was more. Something intensely familiar. Lytai pulled the sorceress to her feet. “Come on then. We must continue on our journey.” Anatat dusted herself and fastened her dagger at her thigh. “What journey?” “We are going into the desert,” the sorceress explained casually as she dusted her tunic. Anatat stared at the other two women for some explanation but they remained aloof. “The queen is expecting us. We cannot just wander off into the desert alone. And it’s ridiculous, why would we do that?” “Oh you’re going with us,” the sorceress said finally. “Relax. The desert here is friendly enough.” “What? I will do no such thing. Do you understand that we must go to Allirea?” “We will. Eventually. Just after you give birth.” She patted her arm. “Worry not. The queen will hardly miss you.” Anatat was startled. “How did you know?” “You know how.” “You keep avoiding my questions, telling me that I know and I know but I don’t know.” “Exactly,” the sorceress said, “you don’t know.” Guida Sicura. “What?” Anatat stopped suddenly and looked around. “Who said that?” But the three women had already wandered off searching the sky for patterns as they formulated the direction they wanted to go. Anatat did not remember seeing them bring possessions and yet now they were pulling camels and expertly tying knots and securing bundles. “Where did that come from?” “Well that’s the one that you rode when you got here,” the sorceress explained, “and we brought those with us.” Anatat was confused. Her camel? Hadn’t she left it tethered at the edge of the forest? “I didn’t see you bring anything through the gates.” The sorceress frowned. “Well, that’s because you were dazzled by my beauty and didn’t notice.” Anatat stared at her. “You are truly mad.” She laughed. “Come on, Anatat. Do you really want to be seated beside Heliandra again? Be honest! Isn’t it time to emerge into the ecstatic being you are?” Dark eyes melted into dark eyes, shuddering into limpid pools of fire. “But you attacked me,” Anatat said automatically. “I brought you back to life, didn’t I?” She giggled. “Heliandra attacks you in a different way. She attacks your perception and gives you her definition of what she thinks your life should be. How appalling is that? But you are as vast as the universe and to find yourself requires a journey to the centre.” She pointed to the desert. “So we are going out there so we can go into the heart.” She embraced her. “Welcome to the edge, Anatat.” Unable to make sense of any of it, and still feeling nausea, Anatat felt compelled to follow, her feet moving effortlessly. Up ahead the companions pulled the camels and chatted in a foreign tongue, their bodies like slivers of light and energy. “It is all very simple,” the sorceress continued, “one hardly ever chooses to change their life. They are thrust upon a path and that is what I’m doing to you. Because it is time to change your perception. To transform.” She took her hand. “You don’t have a choice. It is not yours to make.” “But you are choosing it for me. And who are you? I still have no idea.” The sorceress glanced at her. “Your heart knows.” They fell into brief silence and Anatat secretly studied her. They were the same height and seemed to have the same body, their hands and feet were strangely identical. And yet the sorceress moved confidently and crackled with tangible power. Heliandra had no chance against this woman, Anatat thought. She was powerful and unrestrained and had no qualms about breaking the rules. She was like the sun in the sky, effervescent and pervasive. The sorceress gave her a sideways smile as though she heard her thoughts. “She has no chance against us, Anatat. Not on this path of the unknown where you and I will become what we have both secretly desired.” “She will kill us both if she finds us.” “She will do nothing of the sort. The queen is afraid of you. And envious. She does not have a powerful force guiding her, leading her, dragging her into the desert against her will. Take a risk, Anatat!” She paused. “Or would you rather be a boring Hood of Aden forever? Serving in a hierarchy of utter stupidity?” “For your information, we have many great things in this world.” “This world can only get better if you allow your true self to shine through. And remember, you were the one who beckoned me.” Astonished, Anatat fell momentarily silent. “I beckoned? When?” “When you began asking those questions to yourself. When you go dancing secretly at night in the streets of Allirea.” Her jaw dropped and her eyes widened in astonishment. “How do you know that?” “A fine Hood of Aden you are. Sneaking around unable to restrain your passion for life; flinging your body flirtatiously at the stars, inviting them in. The way you look at a flower. Your sheer innocence when you sing to the unknown galaxy. Did you think nobody would notice?” They stared at each other silently for a long moment. The sorceress’ eyes were sheer black fire. “Always outside of society. Always on the fringes of the world. You have always been there.” “Yes.” Anatat was spellbound. “Your affairs are not only with men for you have extended yourself to the universe and now it has replied. It is what you have always wanted.” She paused. “Your poetry cast into the river, love letters to the moon and the sun and the stars.” She paused and put a finger to her cheek. “Let me think. What was it again? Oh yes. Silver moon, come secretly to my balcony tonight. Well, who do you think you were you talking to?” Anatat stared unblinkingly, her tongue feeling heavy. “But how do you know?” “That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you. I’ve come for you. You who have always been there at the edge of society, unwanted, cast away, exploited. Always alone. A Witch. Nomad and Prostitute. Rebel. Wandering into places because you followed your heart no matter what people thought. Breaking all those religious dogmas! It was then that you really sparkled.” She put an arm around her waist and they walked together. “All those battles with religious authority. Dealing with control and repression. Breaking with tradition. Carrying your own head around. Believe me. You were definitely noticed.” Anatat was crying as she heard the words reverberate into her heart. “You who I have always loved through time and space.” “You noticed?” Anatat murmured as she wiped her tears. “I did but so did the whole universe. Don’t you know that the universe responds to vibration?” *** Nantale Dore looked up into the sky as strands of her hair were lifted by the wind. A vast array of homes in the oak trees sagged comfortably against each other; wood and mud and rushes were camouflaged under enormous branches that provided protection from the rains. On first glance, the Zerelian trees seemed ordinary but their great shadows created barriers penetrated only by the Sabals themselves who knew how to slip between the magical cracks. Within the extreme silence, a vibrant world stirred. Laughing women suddenly swung from one tree to another, their brown hands gripping thick cords; others grunted as they pulled flat woven baskets of mulberries, blueberries and strawberries out of the surrounding forest. Young girls with stained tongues and sticky hands skipped through the forest giggling, playing, while bickering young women carried water from the nearby river. Along the ground, several temporary abodes lay snuggled against each other, half formed so that there were only three walls. Tiny finger-thin streams of smoke escaped from a series of small fires. The question of how they perpetuated their species had been a secret for millennia until the Mylittan elders dreamed the Orion into existence. Aroused by the mountainous curves and dark leafy secrets of the forest, the glistening emerald moss, the Orion were irreparably seduced by the earth and longed to merge with her. And so they tumbled down from the depths of the night sky, blazing stars that burrowed into the mysterious passion of the earth. They hid for millennia in the forests seducing Sabal women secretly at night when the scent of hyacinth and honeysuckle saturated the wind. Their only demand was a return of their Orion sons whose souls belonged to the complex geometric patterns of the night sky. As she surveyed the camp, her eyes fell instantly to the one that had suddenly appeared. An amalgamation of sea and frost and earth, Nantale Dore knew immediately that the golden vision was her mother, Ixapa Eidan. A small curvaceous woman with wide hips and dark golden locks; volatile eyes that seemed strange and mutable. They were silver metallic and seemed to gleam as though shards of crystal were embedded within. Upon her forehead, a full moon flanked by two crescents glimmered between shadow and light. “You are far from the Galena Dunes, daughter of Tiamat,” Ixapa Eidan said in a booming voice staring at the girl’s simple gauze tunic and the green vines that circled her body. Nantale Dore met her mother’s gaze unflinchingly. “I have been looking for you.” “Why?” “You are my mother.” The eyes gleamed gold. “I have given birth to many children. You are not unique.” Nantale Dore was unmoved. “Evidently not as you left me with my father at the dunes.” The queen was equally unperturbed. “You are a Galenean as is your father. There was no question that you had to stay.” “But I am here now.” She could feel the stillness around her. Hundreds of eyes were watching. “Come then and sit with me in the longhouse,” Ixapa Eidan said. When they were comfortably seated, the queen gave her some mint tea. “It is always best in warm weather. It will cool you.” She studied her dispassionately. “You were able to penetrate the trees with your naked gaze.” “Yes.” “Then perhaps you have inherited my vision.” Nantale Dore gazed at her. “I was brought here by something that is beyond me. I came here because I was carried. I cannot explain it really.” Ixapa Eidan remained motionless. “And who do you think carried you?” Her daughter looked pained. “I am not certain how to describe a feeling.” The two women gazed at each other over the flickering flames. Ixapa Eidan finally put her teacup down. “So you have come to stay in the forest.” “Only if I am welcome.” Ixapa Eidan scrutinized her. “And your father?” “He may fuss about it but he will accept it.” The eyes shuddered from dark coal to fiery gold. “He may lift the waves of the Mylittan in his wrath.” “Tell me, my mother,” the girl said softly, “am I here to make a journey?” Sparks flew from the fire and snapped. “You are on a journey that requires no physical movement. Only a look within.” The fire illuminated Ixapa Eidan with soft crimson light. The head of a raven. Black eyes rippling like shiny mirrors. “So it is true that you are indeed Zerelia.” “It was never a secret.” She put her empty tea cup down. “I lived in the forest a long time, long before Heliandra ever became a threat.” “It is said that she has become worse than ever, though I am not sure how true that is.” “Well if she has become imbalanced, we will remain guarded.” Ixapa Eidan nodded to the trees. “But the trees I have planted will always protect us.” She smiled coolly. “What I do know is that despite her great proclamations, Heliandra does not support an evolving awareness in our world.” “If that’s true, then why is she still in power? Why has she not been removed?” “That is something that will slowly be revealed.” She paused. “Tell me more of what you have seen in your visions.” Her daughter glanced at the enormous redwoods and oaks supporting the houses that leaned against each other. “It was an inner shifting, you can say. I saw something I had not seen before. And I knew it was time to forge my own path.” Women swung to and fro easily from branches carrying open baskets of rushes, twigs, twisted ropes, flat bread and mulberries. “I see,” she murmured studying her curiously. “But your hair is as green as springtime leaves and your limbs fair and limp like those of a fish. Did you have no fear that you would not fit in with the woodland Sabals?” “I did until Raven came into my dreams, the one who brings magic.” The queen seemed taken aback by the unexpected words. “I see. And what did raven say?” “It began to guide my dreaming. And then I knew what I had to do. It was really not my choice.” Ixapa Eidan seemed amused and nodded to the fire that had fizzled into a grey heap of dust. She rose slowly, put down her teacup. “I have to go but will be back soon.” Vibrant conversations reverberated like crystal chimes through the dense foliage. It was so different from the underwater kingdom. A dreamy place bathed in green-gold light. The sun’s rays on her pale virginal skin penetrated to the bone. Nantale Dore really wanted to ask Ixapa Eidan so many more questions. She had been intrigued by their conversation, by the constant shifting countenance of the woman. She was cold and detached and sharp. Not really very affectionate. But Nantale Dore did not care as she felt her heart turning excitedly. She hid her grin behind her cup and whispered after her mother, “Ah, dearest Raven, you came to my dream and now I come into yours.” **** Chapter 6 Exhaustion swept from every direction as the desert winds gathered fistfuls of sand and scattered them maliciously over the figures who rode slowly on the two fresh camels they had traded at the northern part of the river where the nomads periodically gathered after the date harvest. They had also purchased bukars, several burnuz and facial headdresses for protection from the elements. Anatat thought that the dry desert wind had left sand trails so deep that stretched down her throat to her lungs and she felt the intensity of the new life in her belly. Ahead, the two companions rode silently on their camel while just behind her the sorceress sat comfortably. Anatat found herself secretly enjoying her protective presence. “I can’t imagine how I will birth this child,” she commented, breaking the silence. “Here in the desert.” “You will.” Anatat paused thoughtfully. “I am surprised the queen hasn’t sent anyone after me.” The sorceress looked smug. “She has, but nothing to worry about. You worry too much about what she thinks. It is time to make a stand. Why do you want her approval?” Anatat was first startled and then offended. “I don’t need anyone’s approval. I am a Hood of Aden after all.” “You are not that at all.” “I’m not?” “That’s right. What is a Hood of Aden? A title for an idiot. That is what all titles are.” Anatat grinned. “I knew that was coming.” “Besides, you know you love being with us. You don’t really want to go to Allirea.” “I know, it is true.” She sighed. “You know me so well, sorceress and yet I still know so little about you.” A pause. “Well relax about it after all, life is a great mystery so why not revel in it? Like you revel in your secret dancing in the streets. Why do you do it?” “No reason.” “So you know what I mean.” “I suppose, but secret dancing once in a while is different from outright snatching poor me, like a thief and sneaking off into the desert. You have compromised my position at Allirea.” “What position? Village idiot?” Anatat and the companions giggled. In the distance, the Rhean Mountains loomed dangerously, like matrons with taffeta dresses. “Should we stop for a while?” Rauva asked as they slowed their camel. “Yes, let’s do that,” the sorceress said urging the camel to kneel as she descended. Draped in layers of cobalt dark blue, she seemed like a strange bird as she helped Anatat down. “Past those trees, there is an oasis. We’ll go there.” “Where?” Anatat asked frowning. “I don’t see anything.” “That is because you are using your eyes only. You are not seeing energy.” Anatat frowned. “We have to be careful. The Chilala are particularly dangerous in this part of the desert.” The sorceress waved her arm. “Worry not about them. I will watch out for you.” “Your own private army,” Lytai said giggling as she and Rauva dragged the camels toward the palms. “Are they your servants, sorceress?” Anatat asked. “They are the companions and always align their journey with mine. Happiness is their way of being, as it is for all of us.” Anatat studied them as they worked at unfurling the tents. “I have noticed you are very close.” “We are and have been always. It is because we are honest with ourselves. Nothing worse than deceiving yourself.” Anatat looked at her. “You mean like I do?” “I didn’t accuse you yet, but you could use some self scrutiny, don’t you think? Watching your own behavior, the scenarios that life presents to you will help you identify old patterns of behaviour. It wouldn’t kill you to start doing that.” Anatat snorted. “You almost killed me. That was enough.” The sorceress laughed. “Come on, let’s help with the fire and then we’ll bathe in the stream.” Anatat observed how quickly and gracefully the companions fastened the tents and partitioned the quarters expertly as she gathered flat stones and brushwood. Gold dark sands rose from the ruffled dunes like funnels and then settled just as suddenly as Alak horses thundered in the distance. “What about scorpions and snakes?” Anatat asked. “These valleys are full of them.” “No,” the sorceress reassured her. “They will not bother us. Sleep easy.” “They won’t?” “No. We intend them away.” Again, Anatat was confounded. “You do what?” But it was only after they had bathed and settled around the fire that the sorceress spoke. Lytai brought loose leaf tea and golden figs and millet cakes. Yellowish spices were sprinkled on flat cactus that Rauva roasted in the fire. “I use energy to keep them away,” the sorceress said. “When you have true power, you can do anything you want. But I don’t mean the queen’s kind of power. As I said, titles are useless. Honors. Awards. Ranks. Complete idiocy.” Anatat felt absorbed in the evening light as she listened. Light seemed almost otherworldly and the sorceress’ sultry words compounded the feeling. Everything moved slowly and sometimes in the haphazard light, the sorceress’ hair snapped between the gusts of sand like nefarious vipers. Anatat was not certain if her eyes were playing tricks on her. Later as they lay down listening to the noisy night herons, Anatat was delighted when they asked her to recite poetry. And so she tossed it into the isolated darkness up, toward the vast skies where stars silently watched: “-I am She who is the daughter of the wind- The Beloved of the Sun. engaged in a Promiscuous love affair with existence-” Above them loomed the black tent and sultry warm air from the fire seemed to waft toward them and somewhere distant, the sands tinkled like an infamous orchestra. On some nights, Anatat felt she had lost herself, dropped out of existence, lost among the sea of stars creating galaxies that sailed like olden ships from one side of the universe to the other. “Sometimes I ask myself why I am here. Lost in this way with you. And yet it is all so familiar. I cannot explain it,” Anatat told them a few nights later. “Feelings rise within me to the surface but disappear before I can know them.” “The universe always conspires with you when you want to know things. I’m sure you will discover what you want to know.” “It was conspiring with you before you were even born,” Rauva added. “In fact,” the sorceress interjected as the fire crackled at their feet, “it is conspiring with you now and you aren’t even aware of it.” Anatat was thoughtful as she rubbed her belly. “Are we going to stay here in this valley until I give birth?” She was quiet. “Well, we shall see. But one of these nights, I am expecting visitors.” Anatat propped herself on her elbow and looked at her surprised. “Really? Who?” “The Chilala.” Horrified, Anatat rose halfway and stared down at her. “Taken by the Chilala? Nobody who has ever been dragged into their world has ever lived to recount their story.” “Well, we will live,” the sorceress assured her with a slight yawn. “The desert spirits are unconscious. They are easily manipulated by one as knowledgeable as me. We must allow them to take us below.” “What is below?” She sighed and turned her back. “There is something I want to show you. What’s wrong? Don’t you trust me?” “Of course I do,” Anatat exclaimed, the words tumbling from her lips bluntly. “Completely.” “Well go to sleep. I’ll tell you when its time.” Anatat stared at her and then with a sigh slipped under the blanket beside her. “How will we know when….” “You ask too many questions and I’m tired. The companions are already sleeping. You’ll wake them up. You’ll know when it is time.” Anatat gently touched the sorceress on her back. What was this feeling rising from her core? This feeling that filled her entirely with utter ecstasy? *** The Mylittan stood completely still, but his eyes were dark and haunting behind the roaring black paint bordering his temples. Around his neck, long sabre teeth hung pointedly and clanked when he shifted his sandaled feet. His torso was dusted blue and dark and displayed a picture of a dragon raising an enormous tail. Beneath his keffiyeh, his hair was cropped short revealing two thick silver loops in his ear and a mouth curved in a sensual line as he surveyed the Alak Desert. Displayed prominently on his wrist was a crimson symbol of Tiamat’s thrashing tail. His eyes narrowed onto a small caravan crouching in the sand like a silent scorpion; occasionally a drift of sand rose and fell like a wave threatening to engulf him. “It’s this way,” he rasped to the other man coming up behind him, dragging his tired horse. The expression on the face of his younger companion was sour as he raised his brows despairingly. “I can’t breathe in all this bloody dust. We shouldn’t have left the river.” The other man grinned and grabbed the reins of his horse. “Listen, my young, inexperienced cousin. If Fiachra wants us to find out what happened to his precious daughter, we do not want to anger him.” He put a hand on the other man’s shoulder. “You know well that he controls the waters of this world. And he who controls the waters cannot be angered.” His cousin grinned. “And the pay is a bonus. Three trunks of fragrant gold spun by the hands of maiden priestesses will give us an advantage in the Old World.” “It will bring even more than that shipment of copper we traded last year in Baltana. You know, Jarxyle, sometimes you are so suspicious.” “Yes, because I know you.” It was the tail of Tiamat which allowed them to sail through the waterfalls a fortnight ago cloaked beneath an invisible shield. The journey had gone well as their ship easily skirted around the dunes and sailed toward the open mouth of the river. When Fiachra suddenly tore out of the surface of the waters, his torso blocking their vessel like a marble pillar, they were surprised. “Do not fall into invisibility until you have heard me,” the booming voice scuttled over the waves abruptly bringing other nearby ships to a standstill. “We will not,” Pharon assured him.”What is it? More warnings about Heliandra?” Sniggers of laughter could be heard throughout the ships. “My daughter Nantale Dore has disappeared. I will offer gold if you can find out if she is safe. I do not want you to interfere except to assure me that she is well.” Jarxyle elbowed him sharply. “Stop daydreaming.” He nodded in the distance to a dune where a caravan seemed slumped. “You think there was an accident?” “No.” Pharan narrowed his eyes. “But I am curious. A nomadic caravan wandering alone? Very strange.” “Maybe it is the Chilala. We should wait until morning to approach.” “The nomad has already sensed us. I don’t think it’s Chilala. They wouldn’t bother with a fire, would they?” Pharon crouched. “Stay here and watch the horses until I return.” “Still, maybe it is a trick.” But Pharon was already moving toward the stranger. “What do you want?” the man asked, looking up at him with narrow eyes. Typical of the desert nomads, the owner of the caravan was slightly short, slender and possessed a shrewd gaze. His face was stubbly and a razor-thin cut ran from his neck into the depths of his collarbone. He stood solidly upon the desert sands as he eyed the intruder. “Mylittan,” the nomad said in a scratchy tone. Pharon stared at him. In the vast deserts of the Old World, these simple nomads would never stand a chance against the rising tribes gaining strength in the regions of Arabia. Although it was true that the blood of Tiamat ran through their blood, they were mostly unskilled in combat. But they were masters of something greater: the art of dreaming; and they wove patterns of their lives according to the power of their collective intent. And it was said that the great city of Baltana where they went for trade and supplies was maintained entirely by an act of will. An extraordinary feat of skill by any measure. “I am looking for King Fiachra’s daughter.” The dark man stared at him. “The king has many daughters.” “She has green hair. She cannot be missed. Has she passed this way by any chance?” The nomad seemed momentarily distracted when a baby’s cry permeated the twilight stillness. “I have not seen her. Try asking in the marketplaces of Baltana.” From the corner of his eye, Pharon detected a slight movement from the mouth of the caravan. A woman peered out from the darkness. Light glowed behind her making her seem like a phantom. A naked creature squirmed in her arms as it sucked greedily at her breast. He could not make out their features but he felt a shiver of dread. “What are you looking at? There is nothing for you here, Mylittan. Leave.” Pharon saw an indiscernible emotion flitting through his eyes. What was it? Could it be that he was embarrassed by the woman and child? And why he was living here alone with her? The nomad pulled his veil over his face and narrowed his eyes and stooped over the fire again crudely. Pharon involuntarily moved away, sheltering the sand from his mouth. A hot desert wind whistled a melody in his ears as he searched for his cousin in the dunes. There were many strange stories told throughout Aalayfa; of creatures born of sand and earth and fire. The Alak was known for its sultry secrets. Known for its alternate realities. And this night he may have slipped into one of the many silent eccentricities that could not be explained. *** It was a fortnight later, one early morning when a fine white dusting settled on the sands and the dawn was hazy. Larks warbled covert stories in the nearby acacias. They had finished feasting on red dates and millet cakes they had cooked under the sands the day before. Lytai and Rauva had managed to gather tiny shrimp from the streaming river as they planned their evening meal. Anatat had not only grown accustomed to waking up with the three women but was exuberant to learn a variety of skills from them. The companions were sharp and knew how to identify plants, how to create herbal medicines and displayed astonishing skills in desert survival. Anatat also learned that her energy body had secret caches of energy that could not be seen by the naked eye. “But why does that matter, sorceress?” She was cracking open desert gourds and draining the milky sap into tiny containers and paused only momentarily to glance at her. “Since energy is everything in existence, then being aware of energy around your body becomes essential.” Anatat stared at her. “Essential for what?” “Whatever you learn now may come back to you later when you can go freely into the second attention.” “The what?” “An alternate perception of reality. There is so much for you to learn.” “I gathered as much,” Anatat retorted. “Likely you have some horrible deed planned for me.” The sorceress grinned. “Not that horrible. There is only one task: to acknowledge the face behind the veil.” Anatat froze. “What face?” “Your own. Self awareness. To know that here we are living a story, that all your lives are stories. That all of this is a projection.” “I can hardly believe that. Yesterday when I scalded my finger, it certainly felt real.” “In that sense you are real. But I want to teach you something called witnessing.” She cracked open another desert gourd thick with sap. “That is why we are waiting so anxiously for the Chilala. They will inadvertently take us below.” “That’s what I’m afraid of,” Anatat said eyeing her. “You are full of surprises.” Her eye caught Lytai and Rauva gathering brush and grass for the fire. “I’m going to help them.” “No. Stay here.” “Why are they gathering so much wood?” The sorceress shook her head. “We will need it to create more of a gate around the tent. For extra protection.” “Protection from what? Are we in danger?” The sorceress sighed patiently. “No, but once we are below, we don’t know how long it will be until we come out again. Maybe some moon cycles. By that time, you may give birth to your son and we will need more room.” “What?” Anatat was astonished. “We will never survive below with the Chilala. It is a crazy idea. We are going to die down there!” “Relax, Anatat and look at that.” A chameleon sat on a flat rock beneath an acacia listening to their conversation. “An omen of change,” the sorceress said, “we should expect the Chilala soon. Meanwhile why don’t you gaze at those shadows the way I taught you. Turn your gaze to the horizon.” “You have a bigger belly now so we can’t do as much physical activity, so while we wait for the birth, you can stare at patterns in the sand, walk on the earth. There is plenty of space here in the desert. Just be grateful, after all, you couldn’t possibly be this free at Allirea.” Anatat sighed and sipped her tea. “At Allirea I was lucky enough to be allowed a breath.” At the mention of the castle, Anatat felt nausea sweep over her and went to lie down. Her dreams were powerful and sweeping with images of watery dunes rich with foliage. Dark golden berries and sea waves heavy with pomegranate seeds split open to unleash fierce condors that covered the expanse of the dream sky. The winds were blowing and in the dream she could see that someone was with her. A stiff wooden shadow. No matter how much she tried to see, it remained out of her reach. But the figure was wearing dazzling pink roses that covered her ball gown. Anatat looked down at herself and saw the same pink roses were on her as well. Stunned, she glanced up at the changing landscape. A man was dancing. Deer dancer. Beating some invisible drum, he alone seemed to abide in his own joy. That actor on a stage wearing those skins. Those horns. Who are You. But he was dancing like an anomaly and his features seemed indistinguishable. She could hear him talking about Coyopa. Silver liquid fire in the blood. Coyopa, says he. Anatat reached toward him but was suddenly caught in a whirlwind. The sand dunes rose vehemently like enormous walls enclosing her before collapsing like broken towers fragmenting into a horde of wind scorpions that droned around her. The stiff wooden shadow was beside her again seemingly caught in the storm. Anatat opened her mouth to breathe but found that she couldn’t. “Anatat.” Her eyes flew open and she heard her own scream. Then she took a deep forceful breath as she stared up at the sorceress clasping her hand. “Oh, it was only a dream.” The sorceress raised her brows. “I’m surprised at you. You should know by now that there is no such thing as only a dream. The dream is an alternate reality. A gateway.” Anatat was on her feet instantly as she looked around. “Where are we?” “The Chilala have taken us below the surface. I told you they were coming.” Anatat frowned and looked at the gleaming gold caverns. “What is this place?” “It is a labyrinth that connects the lower worlds with the upper worlds.” Anatat could hear breathing. Echoes and murmuring. “What is all that? Like there is something in here with us.” “It is why I brought you here,” was the reply. “Come on. We’re going to find what we’re looking for.” Anatat examined the walls like enormous honeycombs linking together various hollowed caverns. Some seemed more spacious and others were empty and everywhere she turned, in every direction were wayward shadows. “What are these? People lost in the underworld?” “Some of them.” “Where are the Chilala?” “Rest assured, we shall soon encounter them. Meanwhile, we can explore these lower caves.” “Explore? Looks morbid.” Anatat felt the sorceress’ hand on her shoulder. “What is it?” “Over there.” Anatat froze as she recognized the figure stepping into another cavern. “By the stars churning above!” The figure paused, her hand on the side of the cave and glanced toward them casually, absentminded as she continued into the cavern, her lips moving conversationally. You. Me. At the corner of my eye. “It is an aspect of yourself. A parallel being living in the shadow of herself. Look, each time she passes from one cavern to another, she becomes something else. A witch. A wanderer. A prostitute. Someone’s wife. This place is where realities converge.” Anatat could scarcely believe her eyes. “She is saying something.” “It is you and you are saying something,” the sorceress corrected as they trailed the shadow. “I have to get closer. Can you hear anything?”Anatat impulsively followed the shadow straining to hear the words. “Come on, I have to know what she’s saying.” …can never be the same when existence is your lover…. but who can I tell this to? Here in this isolated cold. My parents brought me here when I was two, you know. And from then on, I kept saying it to everyone that would listen. I am leaving this country. I hate it here. How do these people live so isolated and disconnected? Secretly, I dream in corners. Corners where I am dying slowly. Because this place is death for me. But nobody understands. I tried telling my mother when I was young. Why do you think of death all the time, she asks me. How do I explain this feeling of alienation? This disconnection I feel but could never understand. Because life is a only a series of silences. Children know quiet things and you should always listen carefully to what they say. Wide-eyed, Anatat followed with the sorceress at her heels and listened: …. how to stop this powerful yearning for the Mediterranean—people tell me that I have to forget about it. To accept where I am. But the heart knows, oh and it knows so much! The yearning encompasses my whole being. In the mornings when I awaken, I ask myself how it is possible that I am still here in this nightmare. I am missing pieces of me. Sometimes, I want to be ungrateful. Really, I try so hard to be but oh that joy sneaks up on me from unknown places, assailing me and I find myself dancing through the kitchen, the dining room and out the door reveling in this feeling of ecstasy coming from nowhere. Only an idiot can still find reasons to dance. Teachers and masters make themselves known. Don’t believe what you read in books, my mother used to say. But she was so wrong. Books fall into my hands imparting secrets that resonate with me. I am cleaning the bookshelf and one falls open, ‘the place where you are is the place God circled on the map for you’ it says. I see myself in my dreams, elevating in consciousness. Well I guess a woman like me has to be coerced into aloneness. It is not an easy thing after so many lifetimes of torrid politics. You know, I cannot help but resent my husband. This relationship was over long ago because our energies have become incompatible. I am grateful to him but it is over. Lion, you sleep with one eye open. Hawk headed. Twice born. Horus. Look at your bird feet. I want you to know. Snakes were in my dreams, he told me one afternoon. And you walked among them fearlessly. The figure moved into another cavern and Anatat tripped after her, hanging onto her every word, her mouth dry: - in the morning after that dream, I looked into my eyes and saw something unexpected. It was just as odd as the dream of the black dragon at my window when I was fifteen. Look, the universe wants to play. To reveal something: that I have an important part to play in creation. You know what this means? That I have an obligation to treat everything on this planet honourably, especially myself. Boy, were my parents ever wrong. Whatever they told me is, it is not. They worried too much about what people thought and steered me away from the truth of my heart. But I told them when I was young, I warned my parents that one day I would fly away and never return. And now I am in London all alone. In this place that feels strangely like home. And here revelations unfold but in a city like London, you have to resist being sucked into the ways of the mind. Everything is a distraction from yourself. Hidden behind everything is a new strategy to steal away your breath. Your ability to dream. To tap into your hidden fears and create drama where there is none. It is a city haunted by its own past, where passionate lovers are oppressed behind a sinister moon; that illusion that twists the truth and redefines your perception. It is the city of the trickster, after all. “How long are we going to follow?” the sorceress finally asked. “You won’t remember anyway once we leave from these lower caverns.” Anatat was startled. “Why not?” “Because you won’t. Believe me.” “Not at all?” “You will have a sense but because this is an experience, it will be stored in a point of your perception.” The sorceress nodded to the figure. “She is only one possible alignment of your perception.” Anatat stared at her. “What do you mean? There are more mes running around?” “Yes and I wanted you to see this so you can understand that everything that has happened to you is just like this. A play for the one who is watching.” Anatat was puzzled. “Who is watching? Us?” “We are watching this,” was the slow reply. “Just as someone is watching us.” “Nobody is watching. Just us.” “Oh but somebody is.” The sorceress smiled wickedly. “You see, it never ends because the universe is a mystery.” “Then what is the point?” “There is no point but not getting caught in all the drama is essential. That is what we are doing here. Learning about detachment. That means not getting swayed by things that happen around you. It is the most essential thing on any spiritual path.” “Why?” “Because of perception. If you are a baker or a butcher or candlestick maker, then you have single-handedly narrowed your definitions of yourself into a tiny box.” The sorceress pointed to Anatat’s shadow. “And there you are. Contributing wholeheartedly to narrowing definitions of yourself.” Anatat glanced at her. “I always considered myself naturally rebellious.” “Oh but don’t worry,” the sorceress said patting her on the arm. “When it is time, I’ll be there to poke you in the ribs. Wake you up.” “But still I do not know who you are.” “Oh you will.” She nodded to the shadow. “She moves into another cavern.” -thought that the sea had forsaken me but I was wrong. I wrote all that poetry to the stars only to discover that I myself am the whole galaxy, the lover of the sun and the beloved daughter of the wind…I swear I didn’t know…. and I looked into the mirror so many times. My left and right sides of awareness. So different. Chasing myself all along. And there is nowhere to go but inside. Inside the womb. Into the heart. They say to me: what are you doing in those coffee shops so early in the morning. Minus twenty degrees. Always on that laptop. Always alone. I don’t tell anyone at Starbucks that I am channeling but they’re giving me dirty looks for being here too long. But I am creating along with the universe. I channel in the day and then collapse on the bed in the afternoon, so swept up in the excitement of the story. I am grateful for this chance and this is what I’m doing while you are all working at your jobs. Caught in the loop of an old story you keep telling yourselves. Stuck in the same old patterns. Playing make belief. You are make belief. But can you tell a dreamer that they are only dreaming? That life’s goals are just another strategy. A funny diversion. So I am carried into the river, detached from myself. Watching myself unfold. Writing myself into the unfolding. A sudden pause. -been aware that someone is behind my eyes. I can’t believe I didn’t know. Thanks to the mirrors the universe keeps bringing into my reality. And this poetry that pours from me is a story from myself to myself as I set out like a mighty hunter to beckon it out of hiding. Okay so I have lost interest in moronic Hollywood movies and I can’t stand celebrity news.Why is an actor a celebrity? That would make everyone a celebrity, wouldn’t it?But I guess everyone is running from themselves. Idle conversations bore me to tears. I have to keep explaining myself so I stopped talking and discard anyone who is a supposed friend. As for lovers, well, don’t flirt with me or try to entice me into romantic dinners at some great restaurant. Or bore me to death with the some old news report you heard or your bloody promotion. No way will I settle for any kind of partner because they have nice eyes or a nice house or a nice unblemished history. Or because like most couples in the world, I don’t want to be alone. That is pathetic. What I demand is hurricanes of passion. An attraction that destroys reason. Don’t talk to me unless your soul is made of fire- Anatat felt her eyes flood with tears and she put a hand over her mouth. -so this is what it means to be a lover-to see with the eyes of the heart. I fought every moment to escape aloneness. Did everything possible to rush into those same old patterns. Memories of past lives poured into me. Especially when I met the twin. Contact with him has contorted me into fragments. And at the same time, it brought me into unity with myself. Ecstasy and agony keep tearing through the fibres of my being. Keep going into aloneness, something urges me, pushes me. Takes away monetary security and leaves me bedraggled, stressed and running for my life. I take the risk because I know I am not alone and who are we kidding? The truth is I have no damn choice. Because there is the Other one behind my eyes. No family. No friends. Okay, here I am at Heathrow airport. Trust the universe, I kept telling myself. Well here goes. One foot in front of the other. Catch me, universe. “Alright, it is time for us to go,” the sorceress interrupted, touching Anatat. “No, there is more, I am certain,” Anatat said. “We have to go,” the sorceress said as she dragged her away. “Do not look so annoyed. I wanted you to see that it is only a story. No point in getting involved.” Anatat was thoughtful. “It is a story to you and me. She is involved in it.” “But that is exactly what is wrong. She is involved. In order to evolve, she will have to disconnect somehow from identifying with her mind. When you are too involved with the mind, you become a slave to it.” “You mean like believing I am a Hood of Aden.” The sorceress raised her brows. “But you see that you are more than that. Each lifetime, each perception, you become something else. And each time, you believe the illusion.” Anatat stopped and looked at her. “Then what am I?” The sorceress laughed and put an arm around her waist as they plodded through the windy tunnels. “Once we remove what you are not, then you will see for yourself what you are. And all answers will be available. It is a process.” “I don’t care what you say, sorceress,” Anatat said glancing back, “she and I will meet again.” “Aren’t you tired of yourself?” “On the contrary,” Anatat said lifting her nose haughtily. “I’m enthralled.” *** Nantale Dore was flying. Arms were outstretched on a vast cloud that carried her higher into the sky. She whirled past the Rhean Mountains to the sacred places where the great sleeping dragon Tiamat was weaving her own tale. She spun on the coat tail of the impervious wind, her hands heavy and cold, her hair spread out beside her like wings gathering fluid rainbows of golden coral and deep lavender. A wingspan of a raven cast shadows into eternity. It carried her toward the furthest parts of the Mylittan River toward the expanding Galena Dunes and the crystal clear waters of Valar Falls. Into the shadowy darkness at the crimson edge of the Zerelia forests where the steep Rhean Mountains grew more radiant with Olesia blossoms. She felt her body suddenly jerk and she sat up mystified. She was aware that she was in a Zerelia tree. In the branches that tinkled with the breathless wind, soft snores of women and children could be delicately discerned. Nantale Dore peeked outside into the coolness. The sky was slightly grey and the sun had barely begun to appear behind the curtained trees; the moon, still unblemished by the approaching day seemed to hang wearily on a sleepy branch above. Ever since she arrived, she had been having strange experiences. She surveyed the trees and thought about her mother, Ixapa Eidan. Was she watching? The queen of the Sabals had certainly left residues of intrigue in her mind. Though Nantale Dore had been mystified by her, she was very aware that her mother had maintained a respectable distance. But she also had the feeling she was being watched. She rose from her pallet and crept outside where she grasped the thick rope that hung from the solid branches of the redwood. She looked around hesitantly and twisted to the ground. The cold dark bushes that surrounded them buzzed with hungry mosquitoes, moths and sleeping dragonflies that whirred in annoyance as she parted the bushes. She swatted them away as she attended to her business gathering a handful of leaves from the ground. Moments later, as she quickly made her way to the protective Zerelia trees, her eyes riveted to the sky where a sheet of dull grey began to dissipate like smoke. She turned her face toward the river instinctively and found herself heading down the river knowing the water would instantly refresh her. With great anticipation, she dropped her tunic and waded into the icy water. She could feel her body reverting to its original form. Ripples of fire tore through her body releasing primordial energy that changed her legs into a long scaly tail. The leaves that hung above in the trees swayed as she waded through the serene waters. When she climbed on the bank, she felt like she was being watched. Breathing gently, she scoured the shores casually until a tiny movement alerted her to a presence. “Who is there?” But whatever was hiding continued to remain cloaked. Then suddenly the wind was whispering a fervent song: “Before This windy Night Be through, Know the Secrets that I Hide from you, For everyone Has a secret They keep, Mine are Vast and painful and True.” Nantale Dore froze. Her heart pounded as she took a thick batch of leaves and cleaned the excess water from her tail, crushing the glistening droplets. Suddenly a figure was emerging from the forest with a terrifying precision. A pale wispy phantom was suddenly floating in front of her. The eyes blazed out of the shroud like strange fiery crystals. “Who are you?” Nantale Dore felt her hands shaking uncontrollably and her legs were already beginning to show. The figure moved coquettishly between two worlds, visible and invisible, exuding heaviness and pain. Nantale Dore replied gently: “What painful Secrets Do you Carry, oh spirit, And you Lurk in the Mist of dawn’s Light, What is Your name, Speak to Me true, Tell me all about Your unearthly Plight.” The eyes suddenly softened and she jerked back, flickering back and forth like a trembling butterfly. The voice wound through the trees as she replied: “A name it Plagues My ghostly dreams, Like a Myth it drowns Me in sallow tears, Anatat is her Name who Plagues me true, Tell me Where she is and allay my Fears.” Nantale Dore shakily stood to her feet and faced the apparition. Her aura was a silver light and the winds seemed to weave an invisible mesh around her. She could feel her heart pounding as she met the violent blue fire of the eyes framed by greyish hair. A river of sorrow filled her eyes. Nantale Dore replied: “Who is this Anatat of Whom you dream, Who is this maiden filling You with grief, And you Wander in Such utter Agony, Without Finding a Moment Of relief.” But the apparition turned away, her eyes suddenly tangled in some unknowable vision. She began to move away from her, but the spirit was there undaunted, gripping her with an agonizing gaze. Nantale Dore could feel the intense energy of the spirit as it drummed again in a high- pitched voice: “A forest Queen Abandoned her daughter, Now she Dances in a world full of Lies, She gave her life Away as a Willing sacrifice, Knowing Her Daughter will Surely rise.” The apparition put a hand over heart and closed her eyes but her voice reverberated: “I am the Mother of my Beloved daughter, So I dutifully pray to Tiamat the Divine, To Find Anatat who Plagues my Dreams, So if You see Her, pray give Me a sign.” Then she drifted away in a storm of dissent, back into the forest where the shadows of night hardened into tangible warmth. But the exchange remained with Nantale Dore. The wind whispered between crisp leaves and a sigh escaped the lips of the effervescent dawn. “Where have you been?” a young woman demanded entering the clearing. Nantale Dore arched her brows at Elgita. She had a strong build with eyes that sparkled with flecks of hazel and olive green. She stood with her arms akimbo. “Well? I was worried you got lost in the forest.” She shook her head. “If you get yourself kidnapped by the Orion, I won’t be responsible. I have been made solely responsible for your safety, Nantale Dore, as commanded by Mistress Mornai who, by the way, is waiting for us at the temple.” She paused and sized up her companion. “What is wrong? You look pale. Well, paler than usual anyway…” “I went for a swim,” Nantale Dore explained. “Truthfully, I am a little shaken. I had an encounter with a troubled apparition.” Elgita looked startled. “An apparition?” “Yes, a woman.” “Timarion?” Nantale Dore shrugged. “The only name she mentioned was Anatat. Was Timarion her mother?” Elgita fell momentarily silent. “Come on. Let’s tell Mistress Mornai. You are not the first to encounter Timarion.” “Who was she?” “She was once a Sabal.” “And?” She looked at the younger woman curiously. “She seemed tormented.” “Yes,” the girl replied slowly. “But nobody speaks of it anymore.” She paused. “It is well known throughout Aalayfa, this story of Timarion and her daughter Anatat.” “Who is Anatat?” “One of Heliandra’s Hoods of Aden. It is a story told over again of Queen Timarion and how she betrayed her daughter by leaving her in the hands of her old rival. We were all astonished that Heliandra allowed Anatat to remain at Allirea. Even more astonishing was that Anatat was transformed into a Hood of Aden. Ixapa Eidan says it was a strategic manoeuvre to keep the girl as close as possible.” “Why?” “Because the queen was certain that Timarion wanted the throne and that Anatat may aspire to do the same. Their story is very old. Nobody mentions it anymore.” Nantale Dore stared at her in astonishment. “But her spirit haunts the forest. She does not rest.” Elgita led her down the path. A whimsical wind tugged at the trees chock full of white blossoms. “Nor will she rest because Timarion is not dead. As you know, nobody dies.” “Where is she then?” “Trapped in a world between worlds. Nobody knows where though many suspect she is in the Old World.” The temple loomed over the small hillock as they scuttled over the beaten path where the laughter of girls could be heard. “What does Ixapa Eidan say about it?” Elgita shrugged. “She says there is a reason for everything and that things will eventually become clear. We don’t know what she means.” Nantale Dore thought there was a movement at the corner of her eye. She turned to scan the treetops where she could have sworn a stealthy black bird had fluttered out of the treetops to escape detection. **** Chapter 7 Anatat stared at the viper rising from beneath the sand like a wave unleashed from a silent sea. Some of the caverns had been empty but others had some vegetation; desert roses heavy with grains and liquid patterns. An occasional waxy insect making clicking sounds. And always there was the sound of the winds rubbing its sugary hands to create elated rhythms. But she had her eye on the horned viper. It had been the third time she had seen it in the last two days. “Watch for those omens,” the sorceress had warned. “They will leap out at you when you least expect them.” “How do I know it is an omen?” “You will feel it. It may be an unexpected event or encounter. Or it may be something you see over and over again. The universe communicates with you all the time. But you have to be alert so you can connect things. Women are natural seers and have this innate ability.” The sorceress had been in deep meditation when Anatat tried to slip away into the strange windy caverns. “You should be careful when you sneak away,” the sorceress warned in amusement. “The caverns are particularly dangerous. They can pull you deep into other worlds. You already know that.” Anatat lifted a brow. “How do I manoeuver then? There must be a way. You did it.” “Watch for the omens.” “And the Chilala?” “Not yet. Take some red dates. You must be hungry.” “What will happen when we run out of food?” “By the time that happens, we will dragged below. They will give you a feast before they feast on you.” Anatat grinned. “Sounds horrific.” “You are not afraid?” “Nothing scares me after meeting you.” The sorceress returned the grin. “Then my plan has succeeded.” Anatat stared at her for a long moment then picked up her hands and kissed them. “Teacher, you won’t tell me anything about yourself. And yet, with you, I know I am protected and loved.” Shining eyes. “One day you will know that we never really met.” Anatat was startled. “We didn’t?” “No, we have known each other all along.” And she closed her eyes. A movement made Anatat turn. She fastened her eye on the leathery viper with its tiny horns jutting above its eyes. Suddenly she knew it would guide her safely. And yet she could not dismiss the thought that she knew this place. That she had been in it before and would return to it again. She was intensely alert as she tiptoed behind the viper through the caverns searching. At first she did not see herself but it was not long before the voice found her: My bedroom is scented with lavender. We just came back from our vacation but the astral body of my twin soul has returned with me. Moved into my bedroom. Here he comes now as inescapable as ever, through the invisible door linking my closet with the corridor. Infused with his energy, I am convinced he is aware. How could he not be? Our soul uncoiled itself from the pit of unawareness and is rising to life. I am stirring like a volcano at the very edge of an explosion. You know I was involved in a car crash. I was secretly overjoyed. Finally the universe is terminating my attachment to my husband and his family. An omen, I say. An omen. But then I am in the line at the motor vehicle department. My father in law and husband bought me another car. My world is crashing around my head. Standing in line waiting. The whole world is going on as usual. People taking pictures. Getting new license numbers. Chatting with the women behind the counter. Everything is going very slowly. Only I do not move within this time frame. I have ceased. I move incredulously, repulsed by the truth crashing down around me. I think of my twin. Of the romances I am missing. Of paradise with the twin in London. Instead there is a fucking new car and I am sick to my stomach. I am screaming inwardly for something to change but I know I must stay put until the universe moves things for me. But how long can I stand this? Sinking in this illusion? In a prison that does not appear like a prison? My soul won’t stand for it and whatever they tell you, the soul doesn’t care about your bullshit morality. It flies across the Atlantic to find him. Criss cross those dates off the calendar. Praying. Begging. Searching my dreams. At least in prison, you lose hope. There is nothing to imagine. Nothing to pray for. But I know I will be with him. In this lifetime. When will I see him? Now. Now. I scream secretly. Inwardly. Twin soul union. With abated breath, Anatat watched the viper slip into a sleeve of loose sand. Then she saw her shadow lingering at the edge of the corridor and she frowned at her. Who in the name of Apophis was she talking about? What twin? Anatat strained to understand the words and suddenly realized that she wasn’t really hearing words but retaining images and feeling vibrations. …. the twin soul union has broken me from the inside out. Possessed me entirely because you see, the soul knows without question. It doesn’t ask, hey what’s in it for me?It grips your innards powerfully like a menacing claw and shreds you. I come across a book in the library. Twin soul union, it says. This means you cannot leave your husband. Sorry. And according to the Sufis, this is a gift. You understand my position, don’t you? Trying to pretend I am not interested. But he is there, whispering into my dreams that I belong to him. My husband wanted a separate bedroom, made the unconscious decision and left me alone with my twin S--o, his astral body beside me at night on the bed and yet I cannot tell anyone. Who would believe me in this world where people believe only what their five senses tell them? I see him in my house moving dishes, pressing buttons, hiding in closets, watching my every move. I feel his body with me at night, breaking the boundaries of known worlds, bringing me to orgasm night after night. He is wild. Powerful. Bursting with energy. I am convinced his self in London must know what is happening. My heart is singing a song so powerful that I am drunk with joy. He gets drunk with vodka and clings to his sorry life. To the children he has and the ones he pretends not to know. You know. Prostitution. Drugs. Lies. We are divided by the Atlantic Ocean. We are divided by a thousand perceptions. One soul fragmented into pieces. I become judgmental. Stupid idiot, I think. Anatat realized she was holding her breath and her eyes welled with tears. I am aware of the energies I am dealing with among these families. My family. My husband’s family. The twin’s family. All of them are manipulative. So what do you do when your perception changes and everyone else’s stays the same? Well, for one thing the universe is aware and shifts your circumstances for you. It adapts you to its needs. The universe forces me to go to work. To ground me and keep me aligned. So I supply teach and watch the children in the freezing cold thinking about how their lives are so free and ordinary and I envy them. At night in dreaming, I soar away like a bird to London secretly knocking at his door. We brush against each other in silent corridors. Our bodies locked together with a desire so strong it can part your ocean. What was that place again? Oh yes. Seven Sisters Road. Like the Pleiadian star system. I guess that’s what happens when Raven is your totem and you end up chasing each other. But this is beyond my control. Someone else has chosen this route. And because I have become very aware that the universe is working through me, out of sheer awe, I struggle to surrender to it. I reach only for those things that keep me floating, to keep myself from drowning, but I am barely making it. I confess that if left to my own devices, I would choose the easy way out. The Other shifted and Anatat glanced at the quiet viper. Still not moving. She saw that her other self had stepped fully into a different cavern: Six months have passed. I have not yet seen the beloved. In the day, I study maps of London. One foot is planted in this country which is sheer death to me, and the other foot moving forward, disconnected like a trailblazer. Blazing new trails. At Heathrow airport, realities crashed together, you know. At the arrival section. Where I arrived. I arrived in You. Here is my cousin, my husband said warmly. Beloved, I scream within. The flood gates of passion open and I have to pretend not to be insanely overjoyed. I kiss his cheek calmly. A conflicting juxtaposition. Take your luggage, he says with darkening eyes. Talk to me. Curtains in front of those eyes. But I know you , my soul! I know you! I cannot speak, suspended in too much shock. Frozen in that icy pond of recognition. Time suddenly freezes and our beings fuse and I am pulled out time. Reeling with magic. Screaming thank you to the universe with all my heart. In my mind, I am leaping through Heathrow airport which is forever infused with that one single moment. He watches me in the rear view mirror. Those eyes I know so well. Here is Coyote watching me with those Timothy Dalton eyes. This is the gift beyond gifts, right at Heathrow airport of all places, the wild God Pan was waiting for me. You inside of me when I arrived in You. Anatat remained close behind keeping a slow steady pace as the shadow moved into one cavern and then another. An inner struggle. Yes, that’s what they call it. Inner struggle to gain nothing. Or maybe for a glimpse in the mirror. I struggle to reach the second attention. At night when our astral bodies are free, he and I are turning in raging intimacy; in those places where he can escape the eyes of his society. I know that he hates women. He betrays himself constantly. Then he goes to church with his shadow wife leaving me to wonder incessantly how the hell can this idiot of a man be myself? I stand back tormented. I remember his empty house. Nothing inside. Dirty ashtrays. Smoke. Lies and one very large ego as vast as the Atlantic itself. But still I am screaming to touch him. I tried talking to him and phoning him. I wrote my truth letters to him. But you know sometimes ravens play dead. Anatat stared stiffly at the shadow’s profile from the entrance and was about to step into the cavern when she froze in astonishment. Something was fast approaching. Another shadow was interfering. A wave. A purple glove. That nuisance, Heliandra. *** Heliandra placed the silver comb on her dresser and stared into the gilded oval mirror. The fine lines beneath her eyes had deepened over the past few moons. Her dark silky hair was coiled into tiny bundles around her head. Her fingers traced the sacred etchings of the dragon’s tongue, centuries of ancient markings passed down through the ages. The moon spilled crimson light through the wide windows and onto the intricate mosaic tiles behind her. She had sent Zahrina after Anatat so long ago and yet she had heard nothing from her. Even the mirror had been strangely quiet, refusing to reveal any secrets. Meanwhile it was time for another visit to the Well of Maris where her power would be replenished by the sacred union with the Asuryan. Heliandra stared deeply into the mirror and waited for the fog to clear and the visions to rise steadily. She drummed her fingers impatiently on the dresser and glared into the emptiness. “By Holy Tiamat, show me what I want to see.” She gazed obsessively for a long time until the mirror finally darkened, obscuring her view. A thousand possibilities flew through her mind. But with Zahrina stalking Anatat, there would surely be answers soon. She cupped her chin and continued to stare into the mirror contemplating the visions she had seen. Trapping Timarion in the underworld was one thing, but sending the girl to her demise was an entirely different matter. Careful strategies would have to be implemented. And it had to happen quickly before she was discovered. This woman who had entered Aalayfa was not only cloaked in secrecy but also came with rivers of poison. She would surely dispose of the Hood of Aden for her. But had she accomplished the task? Or had something else happened to Anatat? Heliandra rose abruptly and stalked toward the lattice-framed window overlooking the inner bailey. The moist fog mixed with the purple night flowed into the room like velvet wine. Thick creamy white surrounded the parapets of the tower. Her voice cut through the fog: “Fierce creatures With wings and Dreams, Rise From the Core Of the great Hot earth, Find Anatat and Her baleful Soul, Keep Her asleep Between Death and birth.” “Rise Winged creatures by Silent night, From the enigmatic Void, Rise Once more, Do my Bidding, by The name of Tiamat, Rise Swiftly from the hot Earthen core.” Half drowned in shadows, winged creatures rippled out of the foggy darkness. Heads bobbed up and down hungrily as they screeched erratically. Thunderous black clouds rose from the thick fog as they stormed toward the river. Heliandra placed her cold hands on the frame of the window, and stared after the dark creatures until they disappeared. She closed the window and walked back to the mirror adjusting the clasp that held her silken mantle at her throat. The mirror suddenly steamed and from the intense fog, an image floated from the inner core of the silver; an indistinct image: an unfamiliar woman wrapped in a dark veil, her eyes were black and serpentine, ancient markings dotted her chin. Her hair swung in rivers down to her shoulders. Her lips curved as the wind blew incessantly around her. Heliandra was so hypnotized that she moved unsteadily, dragging her scented pomander to the ground. Shards exploded in the air. She grasped the mirror violently. “Who are you and what are you doing here?” But the cunning eyes blinked in amusement. Irritated, the queen wiped the surface of the mirror. Could this be the stranger that was obscuring her view? This Soultana of Siduri who had emerged from nowhere leaving whispers in her wake. But was she friend or foe? Heliandra felt prickles of fear rising over her shoulders as she stared at the image in the silver pool of the mirror. Eyes like black poison darts. Gritting her teeth, she placed the mirror back on its ivory frame and continued obsessively to look into it. She stared for a long time until her eyes became bleary. A shadowy figure suddenly appeared. Cloaked in black, shifting down the snow-capped mountains steadily, singing: “Here in the Looking Glass I see a Reverse, My own shadow Stares fearlessly in my Face, All that has been Left of the Feminine Within, Rationality has managed to morbidly Deface.” “Staring into the Sun can induce a Blinding Glare, I think I am Illuminated and full of the Light, And instead of Going inward to Discover myself, I Obsessively chase Anatat through the Night.” “Here in the Looking Glass I see a Reverse, My Life has ceased Because of My terrible fear, When Spirit is Oppressive and turns only To Itself, I reject the marvelous Earth that we All Hold Dear.” “But what can I Be Secretly Hiding I wonder, Something may Be there that I cannot Deny, Maybe I have Not Really Peered in the Glass, Or Perhaps I do not Know the Truth from a Lie.” But Heliandra was screaming, drenching the mirror with water, drowning the image that rose incessantly and the cackling laughter continued. “Singing songs for earth day and being Environmental, Matters not One Little Whit if truth really be Told, It is Only Your deluded Morality that doesn’t let You see, That the immortal Sun produces Shit as well As Gold.” “Shut up!” Heliandra raged with clenched fists. And the wet mirror fell suddenly silent. *** “Sorceress? Are you awake?” Anatat propped herself on an elbow and studied the sorceress doused in the light of the crackling fire. It was no ordinary fire but a concocted amalgamation of colour; slow moving whips of gold that rose smokeless and vanished mysteriously. The flames illuminated features that were there and yet they were not. “Staring is so rude,” the sorceress murmured. “If I stared at you like that-” “Oh please don’t,” Anatat said grinning. “I have a question and you said if I had a question I must ask no matter what it is.” “Within reason,” the sorceress said, her eyes cracking open. “Is it so important you had to disturb me?” Anatat put an arm around her waist and snuggled up to her. “I saw Heliandra with my double. You know. That shadow.” “You were chasing her again.” “Yes. But what is Heliandra doing in that reality?” The sorceress sighed. “Doing what she does best. Trying to oppress, undermine and diminish. Once delusional, always delusional. But worry not. She will prove valuable to you in the end. Anyway, you will not easily remember once we resurface from this world so there is no point in asking.” Anatat froze. She stared at the sorceress. “Are you saying there is a possibility of remembering?” “Everything is possible. Your double didn’t know but she will find out. She is living the same life as you and has access to all the information you have access to.” Anatat stared at her. “You mean you. She has access to you as I do.” But the sorceress was yawning and closing her eyes. “You’re bothering me. I’m going to start waking you up at ungodly hours and see if you like it.” “How long are we going to be waiting here for the Chilala?” “I don’t know. Desert spirits are strange. We have to wait.” She turned her back. “Be patient and relax because you’re in safe hands.” “That I know,” Anatat grumbled and settled down again. It did not take long before the presence beside her unleashed great waves of peace drawing her into a deep regenerative sleep. The dreams rose like enormous white dunes consuming her entire awareness until she sank into the emptiness. Then just as quickly, she was aware that she was dreaming. The fire was still crackling. The sorceress beside her was deeply silent. But it was the ground that seemed to undulate like a warm brown sea. She stared at the taguella flat breads and water the sorceress had brought to the underworld. She concluded they were still in the same cave. And yet it was not the same. The earth continued rocking menacingly until it began to split open like the seams on a gown. Anatat’s scream lodged violently in her throat. “Chilala!” But when Anatat tried to reach for the sorceress, an arm spurted out of the sands and she heard her own voice crackle from below: “I am the Qanitat, who guards the unseen, Opening your Inner Eye so You can see, Climbing through the Pillar of white Light, Filling All my Spaces with that Ecstasy.” “So call your Four witnesses to Eagerly watch, As I dance with Fitna and expel it with my breath, Here I Delve into the Higher Mysterious Chakras, Discovering there is No such thing as Death.” “Conspiring secretly with that Other one, As this Universe Coerces me to and fro, Until I Follow Blindly into that great Unknown, And That blazing fire Within Begins to Grow.” “Secret Nights I Attempt to make the Climb, Joyfully making that awesome Inner Connection, Expressing my Gratitude to this Entire universe, Here is My heart’s Most Wondrous predilection.” “There is no higher love than the Love of the Self, Because everything is That behind My Own Eye, So I Send Myself Red Roses in that Parallel World, And delve into the Chakras that Link to the sky.” “By the galaxies above,” Anatat breathed. The entire cave was filled with a sea of roses emanating exquisite fresh scents. “Well, it looks like we’ve been found,” the sorceress said with a contented sigh. “By who? I had a dream the Chilala were trying to drag us beneath the earth and-” “It was not the Chilala,” the sorceress interjected sharply. “Didn’t you hear your own words? It was yourself, the Other. Nothing is too good to be true.” Anatat dug her hands into the roses. Petals were strewn in her hair. She stared at the sorceress. “Oh, yes.” “It is time, they are here,” the sorceress said sharply. The desert winds rose chaotically with their own cathartic dance, using streams of sand to create geometric spiraling patterns. The winds roared fueled by hot lashes rising from the earth’s mighty core. The sorceress stood up easily as though she were balancing on air. The white marks around her kohl eyes created lace patterns along her jaw line that disappeared into her black lively hair. Anatat was transfixed by her strange lights as pythons slowly began to emerge from the secret corridors of her being, changing her as she shifted this way and that. From somewhere, voices manifested. Deep throaty male voices murmured as they rose in unison scrambling molecules of creation and reassembling unseen structures. At first there were only indiscernible shadows untangling from the lustrous desert sands that entered through the caverns and swept sultry palms between crevices. Hurricanes lifted rose laden blankets into the air and tossed them up until they formed red clouds. Voices cracked sharply breaking through the cavern to encompass them: “She is the daughter of the Four mighty winds, Bathed in the foam of the Seductress Sea, Master is she of the Serpents and dragons, A daughter of Mystery and Power is She.” “Connected solidly she is to her Womb, Tribal queen beckoning with Fire in her hair, Mistress of Winds and Oceans and Earth, She shifts Dangerously and Has her own Flair.” “Behold she is the One with Secrets Unknown, Beside her Walks that eternal Guide, Unravelling secrets at Night in her Dreams, She Who Never lived nor Ever Really died.” “What do they want?” Anatat cried through the winds. The sorceress glanced at her undaunted. “Didn’t you hear? They want you.” “For what?” Anatat had heard the stories of the Chilala, known for their malicious tactics and mysterious appearances among the oases and even beyond. There were stories that defied reason; shape-shifters, predators and even subtle forms watching for opportunities to exploit, compel or suggest to the unsuspecting wayfarer before dragging them into various underworlds. “They will never let us go if we are drawn below,” Anatat warned. “But that is exactly where we want to go,” the sorceress assured her. “We are going to give ourselves over to them. Trust me.” Anatat stared at her. “I thought they perpetuated unilateral strength by devouring flesh and bone.” The sorceress shook her head. “No, it is fear they relish above all else so make sure you are completely confident in what we’re about to do.” “You have never been clear exactly what we are going to do.” The sands became more agitated, unleashing hurricanes so dangerous they seemed to rise from beneath the hapless cavern. But the sorceress had a solid arm around Anatat and drew her into an embrace; their eyes closed as they stood cheek to cheek with hands clasped. Through the delirious dust, the Chilala could be heard scratching insistently and Anatat was startled to hear the crystal clear voice of the sorceress in her ear: “Whether we go into one world or Another, We command the Winds as we Blaze a Trail, Know that I stand strong at your side, And will be Always without Any Fail.” “Excited by You as you are excited by Me, Beloved, we Dance into the Void Aware, Long have I wanted to Connect with You, So Love me Now as you meet My Stare.” Anatat looked at her as they were folded into the sands like two dewdrops slipping into the pliable earth. And she did not feel anything as she was carried by some inexplicable power. They smiled at each other secretly. Some grand temple with complex geometric designs gathered below their feet and they found themselves relaxed on a cool marble floor that seemed incoherent and strangely watery. From the surface sprang purple gold oleanders, stark acacias and vibrant orange trees. Pink peach trees blossomed alongside giant olive trees bursting with fragrant olives and the scent of thyme wafted past them. “What is this place?” Anatat asked. “An underworld,” she said casually. “No matter what happens, remember we are in a dream.” Anatat stared. “What’s that supposed to mean?” “Exactly what I said. It is all a dream.” “So where are we then?” “We are where we were before but we are dreaming.” “That’s not an answer.” The sorceress was staring at the trees. “Hidden there in the glowing trees are the Chilala. Just use your gaze to shift your perception and you will see.” Anatat remembered suddenly. Gazing. “Yes I remember. I remember you teaching this to me but I can’t remember when.” “Look,” the sorceress commanded. It did not take long before Anatat was able to discern the images hidden within the images; one thing rippled out of existence, shapes that were cool and fleshy. Sand figures uncoiled like long flames of fire. Bursts of flaming glass eyes seemed suddenly visible and exquisite streams of sand wove great pyramid shapes. Mouths dripped with voracious hunger. Mesmerized by the movements of the sand, Anatat felt the minute shifts in her perception. Suddenly, the trees had vanished and they were in some archaic temple with tall white columns that spiraled into emptiness. “This place is created for you,” the Chilala told Anatat in a shrill tone. “But you? What are you? And how did you arrive?” It took Anatat a moment to realize they were referring to the sorceress. “I can’t really see them perfectly,” Anatat muttered. “Remain still, Anatat, and you will see.” “Dance for us,” the Chilala screeched. “No matter what you see, do not give into fear,” the sorceress said, “Stand firm and remember, there is no death.” Anatat nodded as she struggled with shadows shifting in the torchlight. “I can only-” But torrents of sand rose from her feet lifting her tunic to expose voluptuous thighs, round hips and breasts. At the same time, the sand knitted delicate fabric and golden threads made of sparkling sand weaving patterns on her flesh until she was wearing a glittering garment made of fire. Wind and sand fire caressed the crevices of her body, lingering over her swollen belly, transforming her. And the sands wove their blinding spell. **** Chapter 8 Nantale Dore held the reed firmly and pressed the cut end deep into the soft clay until the Aalayfan symbols were large and clear. It had taken a relatively short time before she was able to recognize the different intricate Aalayfan hieroglyphs. Peace, life, death, joy and fear. Some were symbols of Tiamat and some belonged to her consort. Sun and moon and stars and palms and comets. “Take them to the ovens,” she instructed Elgita. “We can bake them today.” “It will take three days before the clay dries,” the younger woman complained. “Mistress Mornai will find more work for us.” “A little work won’t kill you.” Elgita sighed. While some Sabals were cleaning, others were gathering grape leaves and a variety of berries while others were sorting root vegetables. “We do nothing but clean and cook all day and night. I could certainly find better things to do.” “Like what?” “Like learning how to use a quarterstaff or a sword.” “Learning how to do the tiniest tasks,” a voice intercepted, “can be important. You never know what you might discover about yourself.” Mistress Mornai was giving her a disapproving look. “Wouldn’t you agree?” “I am simply saying that this work is for the servants,” Elgita said, lifting her nose arrogantly. “That is why you are doing it.” The girl was astonished. “Me? A servant? Outrageous.” “Not at all,” the high priestess reiterated. “And since you are such a ham, you will continue working here.” “But why?” Elgita said outraged. Mistress Mornai fixed her with a dangerous gaze. “This is the path of the warrior. Especially the light warrior. Servitude and surrender. What did you think it was? Did you think we would decorate you with silver and parade you through the town?” Elgita snorted. “I’ll do what you want if only to get access to the libraries.” Mistress Mornai nodded to a group of women. “You can begin by helping with the vegetables.” She smiled. “Discipline is the first step to becoming a true warrior. And when you can see cleaning carrots as a celebration, you will be ready for the next step.” “Ixapa Eidan says that the Ishans are already learning how to do battle.” “That is because of Heliandra. You don’t want to be as confused as that, do you?” She gave her an amused look. “Then later when you’re done, you can take a bath in the temple with salts and fragrance…” Elgita exhaled impatiently as she went up the steps and through the wild vines that grew through the great spiralling walls of the temple. Smooth crimson berries grew beneath the tiny shady leaves that fluttered in the twilight breeze. Sun-dappled oaks leaned protectively over the high columns. Located in the depths of the forest, the temple was surrounded by great gardens that sprouted thousands of blossoms. Countless priestesses drifted in and out carrying spectacular sculptures and paintings. Within the temple itself, voices echoed with chants and songs. Around the splashing ponds, groups of women lay about, scratching erotic poetry on papyrus. Mistress Mornai used the inner chambers to create a variety of classes related to various methods of meditation through dance and art, healing the energy bodies and methods for controlled dreaming. Enormous libraries contained the sacred teachings and a great deal of knowledge was continuously excavated out of the deepest meditations. Some knowledge came through unknown travelers or from those who darted through parallel worlds. “You have been very quiet, Nantale Dore.” “I am merely observing, mistress.” Mistress Mornai sat beside her. Wide sapphire eyes sparkled. Her shiny smooth head was tattooed with the sun and moon. The symbol of Binah, the dark goddess of the sea. Her dress was cinched at the waist and flared out to the ground. Her slight breasts had been darkened with spirals. “We are all in awe of you. Taking such a risk by coming into the forest requires great courage.” The sapphire eyes changed into twin blue flames. “And still you stepped out of tradition, away from the old teachings of your father and onto your own path.” Nantale Dore shrugged. “I had to come. There was no other way for me but to follow my heart. What other way is there?” “You could have stayed with your father and adhered to everything traditional. You could have struggled your whole life like many people do, fighting with their heart and dealing with the fears of the mind.” “I honestly did as I had to do.” “And yet to follow the heart requires an implicit trust in the universe. Too many people are afraid to abandon themselves.” “I am not sure if I have yet abandoned myself,” was the careful reply. “I simply wanted to know what is beyond.” “But that is exactly it,” Mistress Mornai interrupted. “You did not think like a Galenean.” She leaned toward her gently. “The Orion will love you. Those who trek through the stars and shift into our world seeking the most ancient of dances.” “I have heard it said that your children are all Orion.” “Here we give birth to the children of the stars. Away from the disruptions of Heliandra who is not particularly fond of them.” “Why not?” “The true Orion are rebels, lovers of the earth and do not appreciate oppression.” She paused. “They are from the stars and their influence has given us the ability to dream this existence into being. They are purely male hunters with whom we unite endlessly, for the union of sky and earth gives us access to higher realms.” She shrugged. “The Orion being true to their hunter instincts tend to have dangerous tendencies so caution is always observed.” Nantale Dore swept back her hair. “I have heard it said that they are extremely powerful.” “They are marvellous and abstract and being with them enhances awareness.” She paused. “They also propagate through us without losing their precious energy. We keep our daughters with us but they take their sons as most of the men do here in Aalayfa. But they remain bound to us as we do with them.” “But I am not powerful,” she protested, indicating her pale weak legs. “You see I have very under developed muscles.” “They are not looking for muscles. They are looking for energy. Strong energy. And the relationship between King Fiachra and your mother was positively explosive. It resulted in some great energy. You.” “Me?” She looked mischievous. “You have likely not heard the story. It is certainly well-known among seafarers and poets, lovers and Mylittans. And it happened between the waves of the water and the sharp rocks. A swordfish leaped tremendously high into the sky, catching the glitter of the sun against his long fins. Like a sword brandished for a warrior, he leapt continuously and with such force that he seemed almost like a bird floating through the clouds. He caught the attention of a curious raven going by who was unable to resist her curiosity and as she approached, he rose and crashed into the waves below.” Mistress Morai lowered her voice. “Then in the sky, time ceased to be as we know it. All that was visible to witnesses was a black and silver blur that rippled magnificently. A sacred union of sheer power. And from such a union, Nantale Dore, only the best children are born.” “I had no idea. Father never speaks of mother.” Mistress Mornai hugged her. “Now it is your turn to dance, Nantale Dore. To leap into the unknown, to ride existence…do you have what it takes to shift your world? You have proved courageous enough to risk your father’s wrath.” She stood up and put a hand on her hip. “Come on. Let’s check on Elgita before she sets the temple on fire.” Arm in arm, they went into the temple where a fire burned in the centre of the floor and blue mosaics glimmered with yellow patterns. An enormous viper on the wall across the entrance seemed to sparkle, winding its way curiously around the edges. In the centre, a deadly dragon was doing a playful dance. *** The creature played by the fire. Sometimes it took on the orange flames directly. Twisting, shifting in the sunlight like some fiendish desert spirit half buried in two different worlds. Amaro lifted his wooden cup and sipped the mint tea and studied him in disgust. Before he was born, he had terrible dreams. “He is fiendish,” someone had whispered into his dream. A face he did not know. “Neither frost nor fire nor spirit or flesh.” And the voice crackled on. “He is born of someone’s intent. An eye fixes him to life. He is sun and fire-” The memory slipped away as Amaro picked up his pipe irritably. When the nights fell upon the desert, noise could be heard within Salauq’s caravan where she and the creature slept. Equally as frightening were the wild sounds that came from the surrounding desert. “Where is Belil?” Salauq asked, suddenly appearing behind him. She unwound her long hair and it hung in rivers over her shoulders. Pinching her mouth and eyes, fine worry lines began to make small trenches. She wore a simple tunic made of coarse linen with a rope tied delicately around her waist and a pair of desert sandals. She searched the surrounding landscape. “He was here by the fire.” “Well now it’s over there, playing with something in the sand,” Amaro replied lazily. “You were supposed to keep him close.” Amaro blew smoke into the air and looked as the creature stalked toward its mother. “It will never walk. It’s disgusting-look at it.” A sudden gust of cool wind swept from the deep recesses of the desert. The creature pounced toward them smoothly, shaking its head violently. “You are safe,” Salauq told him gently as he leapt toward her. She cuddled him close, opened her tunic and released a bronze tipped breast. “His strangeness is a command of Spirit. Do not forget.” “I protect you both, do I not?” Amaro replied sharply. “You want for nothing.” Salauq looked at him for a long moment and then disappeared into the caravan with her son. Amaro sat motionless and thoughtful. He knew well that the creature was not his. Perhaps it was a spirit, neither here nor there, but Salauq would hear no such thing about her precious one. He let his gaze flicker over the sand dunes as they magically shifted positions; their great shapes changing distinctly into cities and castles, rising into mountains before collapsing. And the wind played continuously with the agile sands in a game of creation and destruction. Amaro continued to hope that he would simply vanish and stop staring at him with those weird, belligerent eyes. But he had been tricked into a hand fasting with Salauq. He had been against it from the beginning. “I don’t understand why we are here. Aalayfan women always prefer to live together. Why do you want isolation?” “I do not prefer it. I have no choice but to go into it.” “It is a crime against the Goddess,” he had warned her. “Men and women do not live together in Aalayfa. This is so strange.” “I must follow the visions that come to me.” “Why?” he asked insistently. “Why must you follow them?” She had given him a long look. “Because existence has extended an invitation I cannot simply ignore.” “What in the name of Apophis does that mean?” Irritably, he brushed the thoughts away. But instantly another image rose to the surface of his mind, the one thing that kept him sane and provided an escape: the Hood of Aden. She had followed him through the desert, invading his every waking moment with her intentions. Her eyes were so black that they caught every drop of the silver moonlight. That woman whom he relished in his fantasies. Seduced by her essence. Provoking him. Lurking in the light of dusk. He knew somehow that she was looking for him. *** Anatat stood perfectly still as she gazed into the mirrored walls that suddenly surrounded her. A golden circlet was set into the thick mass of her hair and she was covered in salty sea shells, eloquent turquoise and coral beads. Seven divine veils, the colour of undulating desert dunes covered her. Her feet painted in vibrant cherry and cuffed with ruby stones matched her hands heavy with looping chained bracelets, jewelled rings and extravagant coils of intricate spirals and dots. Black silvery powder coated her lashes and her eyes shone like dark crystals. She barely recognized herself beneath the adornments that had sprung forth from the spindly fingers of the desert wind. She felt a movement behind her. “Sorceress?” But there were only red whirlwinds of dust. She put a hand on her heavy belly and wondered how much time had passed since they had come. She really didn’t remember very much. Mirrors shifted and smoke screens dissolved until she could see the Chilala seated in cushioned corners holding guedra drums, their fingers dancing impatiently on stretched skins. “These are the inorganic beings,” the sorceress said breaking into her thoughts. “Always searching for energy, never satisfied.” Anatat saw her suddenly in the shadowy corners. “Where have you been? And how long have we been under here?” “Dance, woman,” the three spirits demanded, their voices creating shivers along her spine. “Do it,” the sorceress said in a booming voice. The drumming began with delicate vibrations, arousing the power around her naval, where already eager life was fluidly pulsing. Her blood rushed like an ecstatic river. “But what about my energy?” “You have no fear and no desire,” the sorceress explained delicately. “Stay detached and aware. They will get nothing.” “Dance!” they screamed. Anatat scowled but began her dance with slow rolling movements, evocative like the waves of the sea as her painted arms rippled. She could feel her body rattling with power and energy as she deliberately snubbed the Chilala and turned her attention toward the sorceress who was hiding in the shadows. With every jagged breath, she twisted and turned, feeling the fluid ground beneath. Her eyes smouldered as she stared into the shadows where the sorceress sat. Forms move and shifted, menacing, virile shapes, teeth gleaming from the darkness. Astonished, Anatat stared into the green eyes. But the inorganics screeched violently, the drumming stringing together strange echoes that catapulted her being into a different reality. Still, she hadn’t taken her gaze from the sorceress, but what was she seeing? And the green eyes spoke: “You Remember me And I remember you, We Are but the mystery In a Mirror that we see, Here we are secretly Meeting In this universal dream. Unfathomable You and Unfathomable me.” “The two of Us sprang from Some Dark void, What pulls Us Together we will never Know, But we Have Been cast on the Road of warriors, The Darkness we share with our Totem the Crow.” She moved effortlessly, ecstatically and it was all for him.For him, she imitated birth and death, vanishing into the dance taking his essence as her own. Filaments of her soul assembled themselves, knitted together one indefinite understanding as she twisted with the guedra on the cantankerous wind. And she remembered being with him in another time and place; walking in sinful places, under the bareness of the sky, the heart wrenching scent of ancient Mediterranean lovers. Her arms vanished into the smoke like blue tentacles as the mysterious being drew her attention. Green eye. Stalking. Coyote, murmuring the Hymn of Osiris: Aukhemu-seku kher ast hraf Ast-f pu aukhem-urtu. The stars which never diminish are under the throne of his face, his thrones are the stars which never rest. Anatat remembered stories of undiminished galaxies. That was what their lives were, a tiny tale that had unfolded itself. Prabuji. Her eyes settled into the darkness haphazardly where the sorceress once sat. But he was much larger than the sorceress and he was kneeling down on one knee with a wicked smile. You. There. At the corner of my eye. Anatat found herself excited by the sheer presence of his energy. He watched her reveal a naked shoulder, a pear-kissed thigh shifting smoothly, like an erotic tarantula. As she spun, she could hear him murmur through the dauntless billows of sand: “Here I whisper to you About Impermanence, Xibalba I tell You Is that Awesome place, Where magic and Mystery can awaken in you, And where you can Finally see Your own Face.” “So I invite you to Xibalba that Underworld, Where You and I can Discover each other Again, Creation never really Begun once upon a Time, That Linear idea is Perpetuated by Linear men.” “Xibalba is the Place where we create a Lie, Where You pretend to Be Separated from me, But divine Love will certainly Unite us once Again, The Higher You Evolve the More you will see.” Anatat spun again and again and suddenly he was gone and in his place, the sorceress reappeared. “But sorceress? Who was that?” The shadow shifted in the corner and the sorceress was coming toward her, her eyes fixed over Anatat’s shoulder. “We have been here many moons and now it is time to go.” “Many moons? We just got here.” “No, no, you just haven’t remembered.” Anatat frowned, searching for the man. “Who was that man who was here?” “There is no time to explain. The child will be born soon and we cannot stay here in the underworld where they can affect it.” Anatat turned as three enormous candlestick figures approached. “The dance is not over yet!” they roared with distorted expressions. The ground trembled threatening to topple the golden-yellow temple. “Return us to the fire,” Anatat said firmly. “Our time here has finished.” But they circled them with renewed ferocity. “Never.” “Then we shall play a game,” the sorceress suggested. “A game?” Anatat said stunned. “Now?” “A game of power. Play with me. If you win, we stay. But if I win, you return us to the upper world where you found us.” Anatat snatched her arm. “They are deceptive and have no intention of letting us go.” The Chilala were intrigued. “A game of power? And you will stay?” “Well maybe,” the sorceress said with a smile. “How about a riddle? You like those.” They frowned thoughtfully and then they murmured in a unified voice: “What magic Does a Name contain? What is the Riddle of Our name? Who are We and we are Who? What is Our name, Tell us what is true.” The sorceress flashed her teeth. “Hmmm. That is a difficult one. I must think about this a while.” Anatat went pale. “You don’t know? But how-” But the sorceress ignored her and replied: “You Ask what Meaning has Your name, Spirits of the Earth known for your Fame. Chilala are You with Eyes of two suns, Your name it Means the Sleeping ones.” The Chilala shook violently. “No! How did you know? How do you know our essence?” But her eyes danced. “Come on, release us as you have promised.” But they were so confounded that they rose into towering walls of fire. “You tricked us!” “I did no such thing,” the sorceress rebuked fixing them with her gaze. “I have won fairly and you will release us.” “Never!” Their voices screeched, tearing through the fabric walls. “You tricked us!” The sorceress remained very still. “Bide by your word.” Snakes rose suddenly snapped from the valley of her breasts reflecting a myriad of sullen hues. “Do you think to kill us?” they screamed dangerously. “Do you think you can? We live forever.” “I answered your riddle fair and square,” the sorceress said in a threatening tone. “If you do not let us go, I will kill her and the child and you will have only me to contend with eternally.” She stepped toward them. “Choose.” Anatat stared at her in horror and knew she meant every word. “Sorceress-I-um-” “Choose!” Her screech sent the Chilala into a new frenzy. “I will not hesitate to kill her!” “How did you know our secret? How?” the Chilala squealed. The sorceress stretched her head forward menacingly. “You do not know anything about me. Only about her and she is dispensable. But I am the one who will readily torture you. I don’t follow any rules like these mortals do.” She raised a tendril of her hair where a squirming viper was already spurting venom. Anatat was so astonished that she could only stare incomprehensibly. The Chilala wavered. But the sorceress moved without hesitation and plucking the viper she raised it over her head and let it fly toward Anatat. The spirits screamed in horror, pounded their feet into the sands unleashing a blinding typhoon engulfing them all within the darkness. The cold sands were heavy as they sunk into her sockets and ears. But soon there was stillness and she opened her eyes. The sorceress sat with her, smiling broadly. “You see. Nothing to worry about.” Stretched around their shoulders was a serpent cloak that knitted them together in a tight embrace. “What in the name of Apophis happened?” “Not very much. We were pulled into the underworld by the Chilala.” “And you got us out? My memories are fast fading.” The sorceress was standing. “They wanted to play a game of riddles, remember?” She helped Anatat up. “You and your big belly.” “I remember and yet I do not. How strange.” “That’s because you are thinking in lines.” Anatat looked around blankly and saw their tents. “Nobody escapes from the Chilala, so how did we?” The sorceress started toward the tents. “Women can walk into anything fearlessly. Women are all natural witches if only they didn’t have such linear thoughts.” Anatat kept up with her. “There was some riddle. Something ridiculous.” The sorceress grinned. “Not that ridiculous. They simply wanted me to name names.” “And you defeated them? How incredible. I’m sure you are the greatest threat to Aalayfa since our chaotic origins.” The sorceress laughed. “No. It is not that at all. I am creating my own reality right now.” She glanced at her. “That’s how I knew the meaning of their name.” Anatat struggled to remember. “But why can’t I remember anything?” She sighed. “I warned you that you wouldn’t. But you are carrying all of your experiences whether you know it or not. Once you tap into the womb, as you will, you will remember.” She shrugged. “After all, that’s why we went below in the first place.” “Why?” “So you can unravel yourself.” *** At first it was a pleasant dream where the wind was carrying her over an ocean, but then the life force within her seemed to roar with its own power, awakening her abruptly. Lytai and Rauva were already stumbling into her quarters, their arms heavy with hot blankets and pails of water. Lytai adjusted the tent so that the smoldering flames wafted in, while Rauva dragged in more hot stones. “It will be some time yet,” the sorceress said entering the tent. “You have to breathe, Anatat-and relax-and surrender.” She turned to Rauva. “Did you mix the herbs? You have what we need?” “Yes.” Anatat closed her eyes as she listened to the women whisking in and out of the tent. At one point she could hear the sorceress just outside the tent beckoning the four directions: “North and South and East and West, Are the four Directions I Call this eve, And A magical Circle is what I cast, Moon Blood is what I Use to weave.” Anatat imagined her arms spread out in the cool desert wind, her painted feet twisting in the sand, the tattoos of Neith giving her protection against serpents and scorpions. “Why would I need protection from anything?” the sorceress replied when a few months earlier, Anatat commented about her feet. “They are not bare. Those are the tattoos of Neith. They will protect me from anything that might be hiding under the sand.” She smiled. “Look at my feet, Anatat. Oh look at my dancing feet. You wish you could dance across the desert like this.” “Can you put them on my feet too, sorceress?” And so she had. With tiny tools made of bone. Marking her with crimson and blue. For those wicked dancers, the sorceress teased. For her who redefines boundaries and entices galaxies. For the serpent women who uncoil from their sleep and rise against indefinable odds. The contractions snapped her back into the present and Anatat found herself drawn into the rawness that suddenly gripped her. “You are doing so well,” Rauva said soothingly as she mopped her brow. “It’s too hot in here,” Anatat snapped. “Are you trying to rake me over the coals?” “We will open the flap just a little,” Lytai said in amusement. “You must remain safe from the onslaught of the wind.” Life forced rushed out of her as she squatted, consumed entirely by a sharpened awareness. She caught an image of the sorceress through a tiny slit of the tent, her linen tunic cinched at the waist with an embroidered belt. She seemed to be walking vertically down the open sky and across the horizon. The contractions brought her again into the present and she squatted deeper. “Anatat, he is coming,” Lytai cried bringing her back to the awareness of her body. “Push now with all your strength.” Soon, a roaring baby joined the inharmonious sounds of the desert but was soon swept into a deeper part of the tent; and when the afterbirth was finally expelled, Lytai pulled the flaps abruptly. “Come between the stones here, Anatat. And I will apply healing balms.” “How is the baby?” Anatat croaked. “A fine baby, as we knew he would be.” The sorceress swept in. “Lytai, bury the afterbirth in the desert.” She glanced casually at the new mother. “Think of a secret name for him.” When Anatat was finally moved into the deep quarters with her swaddled son, the sorceress showed the fussy babe how to latch onto his mother’s breast. “There is still air coming in from that corner,” she told Lytai. “His eyes are already opening,” Anatat said wearily. “Shrewd eyes, I think. Obviously from his father’s side.” The sorceress chuckled as she stirred a broth. “I have some wild asparagus to promote the flow of milk. Fresh from the market.” “How did you get there?” Anatat asked eyeing her. “Burdock. Ground millet. Dates. Fresh milk. We are so far from the closest market.” “Hmph, distances don’t stop me. I go anywhere.” “Apparently.”Anatat fell back against the blankets. “I have to sleep, I’m tired.” “That’s because you keep talking,” the sorceress told her. “I will hold the baby at your breast as you sleep.” “You know I saw strange things when I was in labour,” Anatat murmured but she fell asleep quickly and did not stir for a long time. Her muscles ached as she searched for her baby and saw him in the deep basket nearby. “Where did the sorceress go?”she muttered. But the companions ignored her as they shifted back and forth through the tent doing their usual chores, constantly bringing in crackling flat stones from the outside fire. The night had dissipated into the horizon that blossomed with an orange sun; from the slight opening of the tents, she could see the deep purple, pinks and brilliant orange of the sky. Anatat noticed that she was wearing different clothes and her body had been cleaned and marked with protective symbols. She drew the blanket down to examine her tired legs when the sorceress suddenly burst in. “What is it?” Lytai asked glancing at her. The sorceress narrowed her eyes. “The Chilala.” Anatat’s blood froze. “The Chilala? They want the baby.” “We are within a magic circle,” Rauva assured her. “You are both safe.” But she was staring at the sorceress. “You said they would not return.” “I said we are safe from them and we are.” The earth trembled again and three disembodied oval heads pushed through the protective rushes that they had strewn on the ground. “You have already lost and still you persist,” the sorceress said in a clear voice as she stepped on a head. “Clever sorceress,” the Chilala drawled, their opaque eyes glistening, their synchronous voices smouldering. The sorceress tapped her toes gently, dancing this way and that, mimicking something ancient, her black blazing eyes gleaming. “Watch my feet.” Anatat saw the quartered tent transform as snakes suddenly unfurled from the earth, filling the tent with black silken bodies. There was no sign of the Chilala but Anatat held the basket with her baby tightly. “What happened? Where are they?” “Gone.” The sorceress looked amused. “What can I say? I move fast.” “You certainly do,” Anatat said raising her brows incredulously. “But how did you do it?” The sorceress froze suddenly, her eyes shifting to the tiny streams of smoke entering with the fickle wind. “Hmmm.” Anatat followed her gaze, alarmed. “What now?” “Now that you have given birth to your son, we must return to Allirea. But you will have to leave him like we talked about.” Anatat felt her heart turn to stone. “It is unthinkable.” “There is no other way. He must be set free. And certainly with no father present, he cannot be under the influence of his mother. Unless you intend on nagging him to death.” “He can be returned to the Mylittans as it is written.”Anatat glanced at the two companions, pleading silently for support. “No.” The sorceress spoke in a resolute tone. “He is to be free. You know who it is. Besides, you know in your heart what you must do. You will find him again, or I should say, he will find you.” A deadly silence fell. She gazed at him and caught the gleam in his dark eyes and she knew that he would fare well. “In order to advance on this journey,” the sorceress murmured, as she studied something intently outside, “you and I have to act as one, evolving through our trust of the universe.” She sighed and turned to Anatat. “It isn’t your fault you are a turnip and blind as a bat to boot.” She made the statement so seriously that the companions burst out laughing heartily. Anatat stared at her son longingly. “But I cannot do it. Leave him behind. I would rather die myself. He is so beautiful.” The sorceress stared at her. “He will be fine, I’m telling you. And he will return to you again. For this tale is not only yours and mine but it belongs to something greater than us. And besides, his purpose is freedom, for he will follow in his father’s footsteps and rise to great heights.” Anatat let her head fall back aware of the scent of blood and birth still lingering beneath the surface. “Since you arrived, I feel so different, so transformed.” “We are at the edge of the universe together, not only to uncover the mysteries that we long for, but for the love of adventure, to expand into our full being. To come face to face with the unknown and move even deeper into that.” Anatat shifted her eyes to the tiny slit that revealed the sky where spiralling ribbons of fire creating diamond stars. The dawn was breaking very slowly, and yellow liquid spilled haphazardly onto the horizon creating spirals. The unbearable thoughts of leaving her son in the desert overwhelmed her and her eyes filled with tears. She slept briefly, waking up only to feed the baby through heavy dreams and restless sleep, losing track of the days and nights as she mended. Sometimes she could hear the muttering of low conversations from the adjacent quarters and then would fall asleep again. One late morning, she used the pot to relieve herself and then carried it to the outer quarters of the tent. Today she would definitely bathe by the warm rivers of the oasis. “It’s quiet around here, what’s going on?” she asked the companions. She froze when she caught sight of activity right outside the tent. The landscape had changed dramatically and the horizon was chalky and grey. The sorceress in her hooded burnuz shuffled around the magic circle muttering, gathering the churning wind like gold on a spindle. And the words scattered on the wind: “The one who Flies is an Enchantress true, But Blood Makes us invisible to the Eye, By sultry Sun, salty sea, water and air, Make Us invisible to This curious Spy.” As she moved around the circle, binding it with her powerful footsteps, Anatat searched the periphery. The sky was suddenly filled with dark creatures; ravens, bats and vultures amassed in the sky and swooped down like falling stars. Eyes glittered. Angry squawking filled the desert with thunderous warnings. Then suddenly silence fell sharply like a knife. One raven hovered over the circle slowly. “Zahrina,” she hissed under her breath. The figure shifted into her human form, cocked her head to the side and listened silently, her entire body alert. Anatat imagined that the golden eyes had melted into poignant black pools. The sorceress stood within the circle solidly and focused on the raven standing opposite. Two figures stood facing each other solidly as though they could see each other but neither made any move. And then suddenly, Zahrina shifted back into her raven form and drifted into the effervescent dawn. The sorceress turned sharply and headed toward Anatat. “She’s gone.” “Are you certain she didn’t see you?” “Very certain.” Anatat looked skeptical. “What if she tells Heliandra?” “So what if she tells her? That raven is the shadow.” “A shadow of what?” She followed the sorceress inside. “Herself?” “Like all animal totems, ravens have a light side and a shadow side.” Anatat lifted her brows thoughtfully. “What determines whether you are working with light or shadow?” “Your awareness. Shadow is not aware of itself. It thrives on fear and control and obsesses over power. That is why it is so easy to defeat. It moves only on low levels of consciousness. Breaking out of old patterns then is a must.” “But what is the purpose of the shadow?” “Well the shadow acts like a mirror. It reflects and illuminates dark sides of the self. It really is very helpful in identifying truth from illusion. Sometimes it will sound and appear just like light. But depending on your level of consciousness, you will be able to see beneath the surface. You will simply know. Shadow always operates from low levels of consciousness, linking minds with each other like a spider’s web.” Anatat frowned. “I am not sure I fully understand.” “That’s why it is important to experience. For the purposes of understanding. Think of it this way. Shadow acts only on the surface, it never really wants to delve deeper nor is it interested in truly evolving. And yet its very existence works as a contrast to help one expand into greater understanding.” Anatat frowned thoughtfully. “And how is Zahrina helping us by being a sneaky underhanded rat?” “She is doing the task she is meant to do. She is providing contrast but even more important, she is a mirror to Heliandra. What better way to see oneself than to look directly at who is standing beside you?” Anatat stared at her in amusement. “You’re standing beside me and I can’t see anything.” “Well that’s only because you’re a turnip,” the sorceress said turning back to the tent. “I knew that was coming,” Anatat said with a grin. **** Chapter 9 Ixapa Eidan stared at the puddle that formed at her feet. The cave deep within the Sabal Forest was warm with only a slight crackle of a flickering fire. Shadowy spirits danced on the walls, their shapes forming ancient symbols and in the pool, she could see the image of her daughter. Nantale Dore had by no means adopted any of her physical characteristics; she did not have the wings of Tiamat or the dark features of the forest maidens. She was a total Galenean and all the river elements added to her beauty; green hair, silver tail and aquamarine eyes. But it was her rebelliousness that mattered when one dared to journey into the unknown and the girl was certainly not faint of heart. Even her own people, the Zerelia would have been amazed by the girl’s tenacity. The Zerelia, known for their accommodating natures, remained one of the most elusive kingdoms in Aalayfa. For they had sprung from the emptiness of the womb and were the ones who witnessed the beginnings of life with all its tremendous mysteries. The eerie Zerelia trees provided a protective home for thousands of silent ravens who were able to dance across dimensions in a blink of an eye. Void of flowers and sunlight, the forest with its large reaching branches like jutting taupe contained only traces of the frozen lava that poured from the tempestuous volcano Sefiteyu. But it was the powerful trees and plants made of the earth’s molten blood that was at the root of the mystery. While the Zerelian home did not attract many to its torrential landscape, Ixapa Eidan sometimes missed the others. The ravens of Zerelia, guardians of Tiamat’s wings had been entrusted with the sacred knowledge of flight and were as old as the Galeneans who ruled the waters. Her people were the keepers of the secret knowledge. Images of her early life among the Zerelia flooded back. In the beginning, the ancestors had lived entirely as ravens. They spent long days silently in those magical bone trees. Until they learned to dream together and how to control those dreams eventually gave them the ability to shift their perception to create new worlds. And finally when they became aware that spirit communicated with them, they danced and prayed and called for one more gift: the chance to explore another side of their polarity. And so they split into the two genders. The males remaining in their original forms forever connected to spirit while the females were granted human form, the ability to reproduce and to absorb the earth secrets. But Spirit had unleashed another even more powerful force they had to contend with and he was known as the trickster. And it was this primal hunter that emerged as the father of the Zerelia and was one of the most ancient and primary archetypes. In her early life thousands of years before, Ixapa Eidan rarely left her world. The magical bone trees provided them with what they needed. But when Timarion began whispering into her dreams, there had been no other option but to leave her home and wander into a new one. Into the unknown. Just as her daughter had now done; an incredible daughter who was an infusion of elements, a collision of desire. The dark puddle shifted into old shadows and memories, and it slowly dissipated so she could see only her reflective eyes staring back at her. Her daughter would soon participate in the Orion festival which would push her into a different aspect of awareness; a decisive game that would force her into the unexpected and bind her forever to the compelling forest. *** The tendrils of the sun were deep and vivid. They stretched over the desert sky and sloped softly over the dunes of the Alak Desert. One moment the spirit of the wind seemed to ebb and then it suddenly flowed like a tenacious sea wave. Then playfully, it grasped Anatat by the waist whispering secrets in her ears. She cast a protective glance at her sleeping baby, slung over Rauva’s torso as she sat comfortably in the litter. They were moving northward as far as Anatat could tell but the sorceress had fallen into one of her deep silences again. Anatat glanced at her. “You have been quieter than usual.” “I have been wondering what to tell the queen.” “What to tell the queen? I had no idea you were worried.” “Who said anything about being worried? I’m thinking of a good story to tell. I have to provide an interesting explanation, don’t I? After all, I’ve kept you wandering through the desert aimlessly for more than a year.” Anatat fell into thoughtful silence for a long moment. “And so what have you come up with?” “Something plausible. We will tell her the truth. That we were pulled under the earth by the Chilala.” “She won’t believe you. Nobody who deals with the Chilala comes out alive.” “Oh she will believe me.” The two companions chuckled up ahead. Deep olive skin saturated with sharp blue markings. Jaws and eyes and hands were painted exquisitely. But though they were nearly identical in appearance, there were definitely some differences. “Then once you are safe at Allirea,” the sorceress continued, “we will return to our world.” “What? You will not stay?” The sorceress looked wholly amused. “Don’t tell me you’ve grown accustomed to us after only one year? So accustomed that you have forgotten your loyalty to the almighty Heliandra.” Anatat paled. “I-I did not expect- well I thought-” “I think we should set up the tents there tonight near that oasis,” Lytai interjected. “You and the baby need to rest.” She glanced at the sorceress. “Rauva and I will set the tent under those trees if you start the fire.” The sorceress studied the surrounding region, ascertaining the direction of the winds. Anatat was always astounded by the speed at which the three women were able to pitch the common tent. Although it never maintained one particular shape, there seemed to always be enough fabric to create a triangular extension. Once Anatat was inside the warm tent with several blankets, the sorceress dragged in some flat stones and went to join her companions outside. Throughout the night, the companions woke Anatat several times to feed the baby. “Go to the sorceress,” Lytai whispered in the early morning. “She waits by the fire.” The night still lingered and the stars glowed vibrantly scattering into a variety of jewelled patterns. Only the wind could be heard cutting sharply through the encompassing isolation. “There is something intense about the desert,” the sorceress said. Anatat followed her gaze. “Intense? What do you mean?” “A desert can clear you of everything. It washes you clean until you are left bare with yourself.” Anatat shivered and sat beside her. “I never thought of it like that.” “It is the perfect place to unload your mind. To throw away your thoughts.” Anatat followed her gaze. “Is it not the same as a quiet temple?” “Perhaps, I suppose, but not everyone can sit and stare at a wall their whole lives. Creativity is the real way to meditate. Here is a chance to throw away your thoughts, to join in with this eternal beauty.” She glanced at Anatat wickedly. “Not everyone has an opportunity like this, to be whisked into the desert, though you were brought here kicking and screaming-” Anatat laughed. “Alright, I admit it hasn’t been all that bad.” She fell silent for a long moment. “Have you finally decided what you’re going to tell the queen?” The sorceress picked up a date, her hair snapping in rhythm with the flames. “Are you worried?” “No. Not really.” She was gazing at her curiously. “Tell me, sorceress, is it true that we have our origins in the stars?” A slow smile. “Who told you that?” “The Ishan priestesses.” “It is partly true, but we are part of this magnificent earth. A part of this being, which is alive and breathing. And at the same time, whatever happens here also reminds us that there are other happenings among the stars too. As above, so below.” The sorceress leaned back on her elbow. “There are much more powerful forces than you can see. But as I said, the more you follow your heart, the more you will escape the prison of the mind which consists of being an utter bore and believing in tradition and hierarchy. It is now time to break free from the old way of being.” “Tell that to Heliandra.” “She has confused you all here in Aalayfa by convincing you that you should worship her. She tells you what you should be and pretends to be interested in freedom while continuing to pass laws that work for her and nobody else.” She sighed. “She has a vested interest in keeping humanity in all its realities enslaved.” The cold north wind swiped at them with a hard paw. “But that is the fun part about her,” the sorceress continued, “she gives us an opportunity for growth, she give us a way to expand our awareness.” “By creating lies and misery?” “It is through the contrast that we experience growth, for the universe is constantly finding ways to move itself into expansion. And the only thing that really matters is the perception of ourselves. It takes a lot of courage to listen to your inner voice,” the sorceress continued. “To move into yourself as you have chosen to do.” The more Anatat stared into her eyes, the more she felt pulled into her spatial vortex. “You have given me a most extraordinary opportunity. I cannot express my feelings. How to tell you that being here with you is an absolute joy. Beyond my wildest dreams.” “As this particular journey together draws to a close and you return to Allirea,” the sorceress interrupted, “I want to remind you that true power lies in the moment.” She glanced at her slyly. “Heliandra only created the Hoods of Aden to establish dominance in this world. Because she is obsessed with control. But here is an opportunity that she has provided for us that is so fantastic. An opportunity for us to resist this old cycle and opt for a way into expansion.” “How so?” “Well, you have been trained. Lied to. And you accepted your limitations to fit into the Heliandra society but by breaking out of that illusion, you will at last be in greater harmony with yourself.” There was deafening silence. “But would it not be easier to change the society we live in? So everyone can be part of a greater freedom?” “No, that is not your task. Your task is to find your own way, to bring your own paradise to earth through your connection to your source. In essence, it is a change of perception. And in a way, that has already happened, hasn’t it?” “I would never have stepped into anything this dangerous without you,” Anatat assured her. “That’s why I keep saying that you should be grateful instead of complaining. What an opportunity for you.” She paused. “I am opening the curtains, pulling back those secret veils.” “Scaring me to death, taking me to the Chilala, making me give up my son. Don’t forget all that.” The sorceress grinned. “What a fabulous story it will make. Anatat uncovers universal secrets about herself and our story will ring throughout the universe. Shudder through the realities.” “To you it might be a story, but this is my life we’re talking about and that of my son.” She suddenly felt the crown of her head vibrating with some strange energy. “What a story of a trek into the unknown,” the sorceress continued laughing, “Anatat meets the love of her life and it is her own self.” “Anatat.” Lytai came out of the tent suddenly. “The baby is crying.” “Bring him then,” Anatat said as she covered herself with a blanket. “That woman says crazy things to me,” Anatat muttered to Rauva. Lytai poked her head out of the tent. “Sorceress, she has returned.” Her eyes darted into the distance where the raven circled, a dark blemish on the horizon. “We are well protected here,” the sorceress reassured them. “But she is coming closer this time,” Anatat murmured, remaining still, her eyes narrowing. Streaks of grey in the sky were slowly drowning out the rays of the sun. Zahrina shifted into her human form and her sharp gold eyes surveyed the length of the desert and the oasis. “I have heard the veils have thinned between worlds,” Anatat told the sorceress. “She senses something.” “She may sense but she cannot really see.” She turned to Lytai. “How about some tea?” “Tea?” Anatat asked incredulously. “Now?” “Why not? Tea is soothing. And bring those millet biscuits too.” They continued staring at the Zerelia who had shifted into her raven form and headed back into the horizon shrieking. “I really don’t know how you make us invisible,” Anatat said with a shake of her head. “You are a mysterious being, sorceress.” The sorceress sighed. “So are you, Anatat.” “I want to take a bath as soon as the sun comes over the horizon. Maybe some sun gazing too.” “That’s a good idea because we are going to head deeper into the desert.” Anatat stared at her. “To leave my son.” “We need no words to understand each other.” “No but words would be nice. I don’t like this one bit.” The sorceress smiled. “I know and one day, you will understand why. You will know and thank the heavens it happened this way.” The companions were dusting the blankets and emptying the sandy containers as they chatted amicably as the winds blew wildly. “You come with me,” Rauva told the baby as she swept him from Anatat. “You keep staring at that horizon,” Anatat told the sorceress as she stood, “do you think she’s going to return?” “No, I don’t think so. I’m thinking which way we should go to find the ones we’re looking for.” “Hmph,” Anatat said, “well I’m going for my bath.” *** Nantale Dore sighed as she carefully wound her fingers around the thread fastening the head of the chrysanthemum to the long necklace. Milkwort, sprouts of dandelion and marigold bounced on the cord happily as she grappled with the flower heads. The other Sabals beside her had overflowing baskets and still they worked diligently through one hoop after another, their hands sticky with pollen. A short distance away, a long wooden plank stretched beneath the Zerelia trees. Women wrapped in linen scurried back and forth carrying chunks of beeswax, fine woven cloth and coloured cords. It seemed that for the past fortnight, the preparations continued for the Orion festival. “Aren’t you supposed to be at the temple with the others?” Nantale Dore asked Elgita as she approached curiously. “I can’t escape from there,” was the snappish reply. “Every time I turn around, there are more chores discovered for me to do.” Nantale Dore laughed. “Everyone is hard at work.” “You seem rather confident about the whole thing,” Elgita said crossing her arms. “Aren’t you afraid?” “Why should I be?” “I have heard that the Orion are frightening. And that every experience is different. It must be true because I have heard a lot about them and to be honest, not all of the stories are pleasant. I don’t know what to think.” Nantale Dore glanced at her. “When it is your time to participate, you will know.” She nodded to the table nearby. “Why don’t you go and help them?” Elgita rolled her eyes and retreated to the table where empty wooden plates and silver goblets were stacked. Mountains of fruits including golden apples, blueberries and black olives; loaves of braided bread sat in thick wicker baskets carefully wrapped in crimson cloth with enormous purple bows. Grapes of every variety decorated the table and deep spicy wine sat in corked jugs. A priestess said something to Elgita who followed her disdainfully toward the temple. She waved at Nantale Dore. “I hope you make it through to the morning.” She contemplated the Zerelia trees and saw how decorative they were, tied with bright ribbons, golden hummingbirds, triangular papyrus lanterns. Through the forest, dancers with coined belts shuffled and priestesses with white dotted eyes scuttling unseen through the heavy foliage of trees. Her thoughts drifted toward Ixapa Eidan whom she hadn’t really seen very much since she arrived, except possibly for the occasional wing glistening flippantly in the treetops. But Nantale Dore observed her during the spring festival where the Sabals congregated to share their ancient stories. Her mother had retained her human form for a long time. Attired with a circlet on her head and a sky blue tunic, she embodied the energy of the sun. After the dances and masterful performances of musicians who pounded on bare skinned drums, Ixapa Eidan spewed forth stories for the young and old alike. Long neck cranes hidden between illicit clouds, spellbound lovers of the wind trekking through unknown worlds, magical serpents nurturing unborn realities, blue women with round buttocks leaping out of the spines of wild sycamore trees. She told stories of Mother Bear and explained the horse constellations. She spoke of raven women who rode bareback on shape shifting wolves. Pythons unleashed from the black hollows of the earth. The hidden world where panthers roamed dangerously, guarding that ancient knowledge. Her voice was unwavering, mesmerizing the listeners: “As for the Orion ritual that some of you will participate in shortly, you should always remember that desire is inherent in women, inspiring men to rise to their full potential. The Orion spirits took one look at the earth and were greatly aroused. Driven by a great fervour to merge with the earth, Spirit fell and spring up as a tree to unite with the mystery that was female. Over time, they evolved and became able to shift their awareness and dream themselves into many forms and as you know, in our particular reality, they take the shape of trees.” She smiled. “During this ritual, we will observe them as we too celebrate this old dance between the male and female.” “They look lovely,” someone said suddenly interrupting her thoughts. “Are you almost finished?” Nantale Dore stared up at the high priestess. “Yes.” The high priestess gathered the cords and linked them over her arms nodding in approval. “These are the prettiest I have seen. You are talented, Nantale Dore. Indeed, quite talented.” She sat beside the maiden. “You are thinking of the Orion.” “Yes.” The high priestess stared into the trees. “Well, it is not a question of fearing or understanding the Orion. It is all about remembering.” Nantale Dore frowned. “What do you mean?” “Rituals help us to recover subconscious memories. Things we do not remember that hide within us.” She paused. “Finding an inner connection begins with facing the mirrors the world presents to us. Everyone’s world is their own reflection. Reflections in a mirror give us insight into ourselves if we are ruthlessly honest.” Nantale Dore listened carefully. “And do you use this sacred ritual to arouse ancient memories? Does it work for everyone?” “Actually it is a very private affair.” She put a hand around her shoulders. “Think of it like this. We attract into our reality what we are. Tonight, you will know more about yourself by perceiving a male counterpart.” The clear opaque eyes glittered like diamonds. “These rituals are like traditions and yet like most primitive repetitions that only keep our views fixed, this is the way we have discovered that allows one to take responsibility for their own self. What you are, is what you attract.” Nantale Dore smiled and nodded. “Come on, I will help you distribute these flowers before the sun dips completely behind the hills.” “Isn’t that the task of the youngest children?” “It usually is, but taking a walk after a spring rain cannot be more relaxing.” She nodded into the forest. “Go into one of those domes and wait for the Orion. You must not leave the dome until the morning. Choose one that does not have a flower chain. Otherwise you will find it occupied.” She stood up. “And may your experience be rewarding.” “Thank you.” Nantale Dore watched the ethereal body drift away carrying the flower basket. Through the temporarily earth domes strung together with thatching, grasses and branches bound together. From the treetops, open lipped jasmine and hyssops and bluebells trembled in the breezes. Badgers, raccoons and meek rats examined the domes curiously from the foliage. Up above in the Zerelia trees, the sagging houses that were usually bustling with life now seemed forlorn and empty. From somewhere women chattered quietly. When she was ready, she drifted into the forest, glancing at the sun already beginning its slow descent. This would be her first time in utter isolation. She gathered her offerings and trekked through the trees and found a dome that was empty. She examined the tree branches bound together by expert hands and then stepped inside and stared at the walls laced with vines and perfumed flowers. She saw a pallet, some blankets and an oil lamp; a small table and countless embroidered pillows. She could feel that she would encounter something unfamiliar. But like anything, it was a journey of discovery. The night was already deepening and the soft curves of the lush moon filled the starlit sky. Silver trickled through the branches of the earthen abodes as the weary sun sunk quickly behind the hills draping the forest. The tinkling wind stirred and each time it did, it carried the odour of old fires and burnt petals. Swooping swallows and jays that had earlier carried conversations now fell quiet. Nantale Dore could hear the occasional movements of tiny grass snakes, or the sudden scampering of four-footed creatures. Usually, wood crickets would hum along with the wind, but now an unnatural quiet fell. She lay back softly on the pillows and listened to her breath. Golden light from the lamp spilled onto her flesh. She piled her offerings at the entrance: crocheted blankets scented with rosemary and lilac. To pass time, she had spent time twisting strands of her hair and brightening her lips with red ochre. A sudden roar of wind rose and fell quickly. She froze and listened to the sound of some creature darting past, the fearful steps acute in the surrounding silence. She stared through the walls and saw the image of a doe in her mind. Moments later, a grunting stag followed in hot pursuit. She imagined the male who roared after her, eager to finish the hunt he had instigated; sexual energy flowed and ebbed into the night like a wave eager to reach the shore. She opened her eyes and glanced up between the tiny slits of the rushes where a distended moon watched coldly. She shivered despite the warmth of the lamp that burned steadily. She waited in the darkness, struggling to stay alert but her eyelids grew heavy. Her body jerked involuntarily and a strange sleep came over her. Uncertain how much time had passed, she was suddenly jolted awake by a harsh sound. The dome seemed different. She glanced at the oil lamp whose light seemed to have melted into the ground creating golden pools. Distant cries seemed shrill, followed by the sudden surge of male laughter. Voices swelled creating streams of conversations accompanying the clinking sound of goblets. Nantale Dore stared at the opening of the dome and held her breath. Nothing stirred but the flutter of the wind. Memories of the familiar watery dunes and the warm sun flew through her mind. She rose shakily from her pallet and edged closer to the wall. Conversations that trickled in were slurred and unintelligible, but the mood was boisterous. A scathing wind rattled the door and she turned around with a gasp. A sudden silence turned her blood ice cold. A noise some distance away roared into her ear. The stag had overpowered the doe. She held her breath and stared at the door expectantly. Someone had crept in on the wind. With a sweep of an arm, he pushed through the entrance bringing with him the smell of fruit, wood and smoke and fire. The sudden pouring of moonlight into her abode revealed a powerful profile. She did not dare to move as she clutched the blanket in terror feeling the eyes on her. Of his strength and prowess there was no doubt; his muscles and skin were tawny gold like tree trunks. He clutched the corded knot she had left outside. His body seemed swarthy but for the leaves that covered his groin and the foliage that lurked in the cropped black hair. Veins and roots of trees pulsed beneath his skin and he exuded odours of moist earth. Although he was not quite human, neither was he a tree, but a mixture of primitive into this divine manifestation. She continued staring at him. His lips twitched humorously as though he knew her thoughts. Then with two powerful strides he hovered over her. Primal, raw sexuality. She thought she was going to faint. “It is our turn,” he murmured. The skin at his temple glistened and his eyes swallowed the flames of the oil lamp. His face, arms and legs glowed with circular symbols, dragons and stars and spiralling dots to emphasize an affinity with the sky. Nantale Dore had a hard time swallowing. Her throat was dry and her body stirred with lust. “Your hair is green,” he said. “Like the leaves of the tree. I have never seen such hair on a woman.” He lifted her and pressed her close and she was instantly aware of his power as wild as the trees in the forest, his intrusive scent. She could see why women could not resist the eerie, majestic Orion. Gazes locked together. Nantale Dore found that her senses had heightened. She could hear shuffling noises in the surrounding forest. He tilted his head back and laughed, lighting the abode with some brilliant luminosity. “You do not speak very much.” She stared at him in fear. “Where are you from?” “Where am I from?” he murmured. “Where are you from?” “From the Galena Dunes.” He led her to the edge of the abode and pulled her out into the forest. The air was suddenly cold and dawn was quivering to life. In the distance, she could see the table in disarray: crushed roses and citrus peels, tipped goblets and half eaten fruits. A wind uttered hungry promises. She was very aware of his possessive energy. “From there,” he said pointing to the sky. “We are from there.” Nantale Dore took a sudden intake of breath. Stars seem to ride bareback through dusty galaxies. The sky was different. She had never seen it like this before. There was a sudden blow on her back and she was struggling to breathe. In place of the man, a tree stood and she found herself tangled in the leafy foliage. The warm sturdy tree shifted. Suddenly she was carried, his essence engulfing her. In a breathless second, Nantale Dore found herself in the abode again. He was standing beside her, veins throbbing vibrantly beneath his skin, dark eyebrows and cheekbones bearing scars. “Look there,” he said with a nod. Nantale Dore followed his gaze. She suppressed as scream as she saw herself slumped over on the ground. “What’s happening?” But he was already turning to her gently. His mouth found hers easily and he pressed against the cool mouth. She was pliant in his hands as he placed her on the pallet. She put her hands on the corded arms and into his spiked hair. Something inexplicable passed between them. Then she woke abruptly but found that he had crept away just before the early morning grey; transformed into starlight and dissipated with the soft tinkling leaves. She saw that her offerings had all disappeared. She went to the entrance and gazed at the trees swaying in the fragrant wind. She turned again to stare at the pallet thoughtfully and wondered at the fine veil that separated them from the Orion. What she felt with him had been indescribably ecstatic, more incredible than she believed was possible. He bestowed upon her vast amounts of energy and she in turn had revitalized him. Whatever else was exchanged remained a great mystery because no matter how much she struggled, she could not remember the night conversations. Had there even been conversation? The sun dropped rays through the earthen house unleashing the raw odour of wood and smoke. Only an obscure feeling remained. Some shift in her inner self that she could not yet understand. **** Chapter 10 There had been conversations in those silences. It was happening more frequently since they emerged from the dark places where the Chilala dwelled. Anatat was finding more reasons to be alone, to listen to her own voice. It was happening all the time and sometimes it happened when she was weaving or bathing or cleaning utensils by the river. Sometimes it happened as she slept or when she trekked through the oasis gathering brushwood for new fires. Lately, she found a new place to listen to those conversations like under the hot pools of the oases where she floated, her ears flooding with slight vibrations from the intrusive desert wind. -walking in death is never easy so if you have a choice, don’t do it. Walk securely and disregard anything I said before, I really mean it. Walk with no awareness. Move like a drone and for goodness sake, do not seduce the infernal universe because you don’t know what might come along. Accept the mediocre and do not reach high. Something might go wrong and you might regret it. Be stifled and accept the way things are. Don’t ask any questions or dig around for knowledge. Live like a dullard and strive for idiotic things. Like this: How to be a star. A celebrity. Certainly there is nothing more idiotic than that. How to bag a woman at work because you’re too damn afraid and lazy to hunt for what you really want. Just slide through life worrying about taxes and mortgages and getting a mundane job to pay the bills. And my favourite is how to get the look. What fucking look? Every time I turn around, your thighs are in. Your hips are in fashion. Which jeans to fucking buy so you can look like everyone else. Those asinine acrylic nails to keep your energy from flowing, how not to be alone so you never hear your inner voice. Keep giving other women envious looks because you can’t be with yourself. Mould yourself to the system so you can be easily depleted and control. And keep dressing up in twenty inch stilettos to go to a nightclub in central London so you can keep the insane system from faltering. Posh is after all another word for making an ass out of yourself so keep that mobile at your ear constantly. Yes, just keep doing that like a bunch of sheep and don’t tempt the universe with any bright ideas. Because should you think for yourself for one minute, love really might come along, that ultimate love that comes in aloneness, and you can never be the same. You’ll be shocked that you are smack in the middle of a fairytale that is your very own. So go on and save yourself from magic. Because when the heart opens, you will cease. Your life will stop and in that moment, all hope for anything else will die. Look at it this way: joy is fleeting, but pain is constant. Because it is what forces you to transform. With pain, you are never the same. Why do you want to be so isolated and in constant torment? Why? Save yourself, I say and remain closed to life and to any kind of passion. Just go along with the crowd. Go through life safely and easily even if it means you miss the greatest love of all. The love of You. Her legs shifted as she found her footing and rose from the water, her body sparkling with crystal drops. Like a bronze goddess twisting out of the earth core, her breasts were heavy with milk and her dark hair wound around her where soft stretch marks gleamed. She looked down at her slight stomach where she had dotted herself with azure patterns. “The baby is crying for food, Anatat,” Lytai said leaning over the bundle. “When you are dressed and he is fed, we can bathe him. The waters over there are fresh and warm.” The small shelter they erected was larger than usual but the oasis was so welcoming that it was impossible not to lose oneself in the tropical beauty. This particular one dipped low like a valley and was surrounded by natural sandstone. “It is places like this that make people wander through the desert landscape.” She looked around. “I can hardly believe we found it so easily.” “It was a matter of seeing,” the sorceress said stepping out of the shelter. “We climbed ladders to the sky, begged the surly winds until they confessed their secrets.” Anatat laughed. “We did no such thing.” But the sorceress looked serious. “That is exactly what we did. You just can’t bring yourself to remember yourself.” Anatat sat beside her son quietly asleep in his basket. He had not fussed during his bathing and she was pleased. Flowers grew unnaturally from the sands; giant blue cornflowers, yellow daffodils and crisp white lilies. Violets and peonies and purple wildflowers sprang beneath exotic fruit trees. Natural ponds sprouted from beneath the surface creating a variety of pools. She latched the baby to her breast and gazed at the horizon. Long tailed emerald birds flitted back and forth among the leafy palms. “And so you were able just to see this oasis?” Anatat asked curiously. “The elements speak to me. I could feel and I can see. You were not raised the proper way and so you wouldn’t see.” Anatat glanced at her. “My mother abandoned me-” The sorceress rested beneath a husky palm tree and rolled her eyes. “You were raised to honour everything but yourself. Lucky for you, I am here to inform you otherwise.” “Honouring ourselves is the most basic thing we learn at Allirea,” Anatat said. A pause. “Well, maybe others learned how to do it, but you did not. You are still hung up on the past.” The sorceress chewed on a long reed like an exotic bird. “It is never easy to look at ourselves. We need mirrors to see our behaviour.” She watched Lytai brushing the sand down from the linens. “Everything in our surrounding universe provides us with an immediate mirror. It is a matter of asking ourselves why that mirror is in our life and going on from there.” “Well, what would happen from there?” The sorceress pulled the reed from her teeth. “Then it is a matter of stalking our behaviour and observing ourselves to uncover our weaknesses. And in that way, we discover more of ourselves.” The baby gurgled as Anatat pushed her finger into his mouth gently and unlatched him. “That is a mighty task, sorceress.” “Well, what was your plan? To snore your whole life away like you’ve been doing?” “If you two are finished arguing,” Lytai said breaking into the conversation, “I think they are coming, for the sands are shifting.” “Who is coming?” Anatat asked urgently glancing between the two. “The ones who will raise your son.” Anatat felt that sorrow from the core of her rise as Lytai took the baby from her. “I will swaddle him.” The sorceress looked at her. “You are going to have to really trust me, Anatat. I explained to you that it is his destiny. Eventually, he will come to know it.” Anatat watched mutely as Rauva finished igniting the fire. She placed a copper kettle on the hot flat stone that was quickly warming up. The sun having shook itself loose from her regal throne now melted into the horizon. “The travellers approach quickly,” the sorceress said stretching her legs to the fire. They sat quietly side by side, watching the moon appear in the sky like a curved dagger. In that silence, unspeakable feelings rushed to the surface and energy seemed to accumulate at her crown again. “Whatever you do,” the sorceress said, “make certain you remain sharp and aware and be ready to dance into anything the universe throws at you. So drop your name and your identity completely. You are not what you see.” Anatat stared at her. “But why drop identity?” “Because it fixes you into one perception,” she said with a shrug. “And that is what we want to get away from. The egoic self can be embraced, even celebrated, but try your best to detach, and at the same time, immerse yourself into this delicious reality. The Other one is doing the same in case you wanted to know.” Anatat was startled. “The Other one? What Other one?” “You know. The one you hear in those silences. Whispering to you.” She paused. “In the labyrinth where the Chilala sleep, you heard her much better.” “You know what she says to me,” Anatat accused. “You have always known. Who is she?” “Don’t you know?” the sorceress said with a smile. “Ah but why spoil the surprise. Both of you are doing the same thing, you know. And both of you are doing so well.” Anatat snorted. “Did you whisk her off into the desert too?” The sorceress laughed and opened her hand suddenly to reveal a large red rose. “She wants to give this to you. She says you are the lady of her heart.” Anatat stared at the rose and felt the tears fill her eyes with a deep knowing. *** The old caravan rumbled toward the oasis at dawn guided by some unseen force as flaps snapped in the occasional wind drift. It moved along flat plains where acacias bloomed, along with black legged tamarisks and thorny pines. Stumbling into the valley, it remained teetering just above the oasis that joined at the seams with the forest. Anatat was already awake and went around into the opposite tent where she found the baby tucked between Lytai and Rauva. Of the sorceress, there was no sign. But she tucked her dagger into her waistband and glanced up to see a nomad plodding down the side of the high dune. A dark countenance and a slender agile body slithered down like a stealthy scorpion and then he stopped, astonished. “You. I have seen you in the flames of the fire. Are you a spirit of the desert?” “No more than you are.” “I am Amaro,” he said as his gaze continued drifting over her. “I have come to gather fresh water. It is not often one comes upon such a magnificent oasis.” He pointed to his caravan. “I have brought offerings for the Chilala.” “I assure you that I am not the guardian of the oasis,” Anatat replied, “we were merely seeking relief from the intense heat.” The nomad kept his gaze level. “Perhaps but a desert spirit always resorts to trickery. Especially in an oasis where they often play.” “Maybe, but I assure you I am not a desert spirit. And as for the Chilala, the sorceress knows how to handle them.” “The sorceress?” “That is me,” a woman said suddenly standing beside Anatat. “And she is correct, we are not Chilala. You saw this woman in the flames, did you not?” “I did. And the flames always mean Chilala.” The sorceress smiled. “Come and share our fire tonight. Bring your woman and her child.” The nomad finally broke his gaze from Anatat and looked at the sorceress. “I accept. But why was I seeing her in the flames?” “It was as you know, an omen.” The nomad assessed her. “Are you the stranger they whisper about in the markets of Baltana?” “Come tonight to our fire for we have much to discuss,” the sorceress said bluntly. He frowned. “And if you are Chilala and swallow us whole?” Anatat stared at him incomprehensibly for a long moment. “Believe me, we would have done it by now,” the sorceress said bluntly. After a slow day, the evening settled over the desert as creatures scuttled from the cold tranquil dunes. The air oozed with the sweet promise of spring. In some invisible distance, Alak horses thundered past raising a trail of dust. Huddled within the oasis, a newly born fire crackled and spread warmth. Lytai and Rauva sliced into the flat bread that they excavated from the hot sands. Mint tea and star cakes with syrup lay on platters. Anatat sat holding her son as she eyed the trio who sat nearby. “You know why you are here,” the sorceress said to the dark-haired woman who sat like a stone pillar. “No,” Amaro said, licking his lips hotly as he gazed at Anatat. The firelight cast long shadows and in the distance, snagged between cool palms, the voices of the two companions were low in conversation. Salauq lifted up a wooden cup of mint tea. “I have seen you in my visions.” She hugged the woven blanket where she clutched at something. “Then you know,” the sorceress said gently, “what you must do.” “I understand.” “You will take Anatat’s son and raise him as your own,” the sorceress said. Amaro’s eyes lit up. “We accept, of course, gracious sorceress.” Salauq gave him a black look. “The child is the son of a Hood and a Mylittan. Will you be responsible if the Mylittans discover him?” He was startled. “The son of a Mylittan?” Anatat remained deathly still. “You will take him,” the sorceress insisted. “There is no other choice. It is his fate.” She looked at Salauq. “You know you have to. The Mylittans will never find him.” The sorceress met her eyes directly. “You who consort with the winds know the secrets of invisibility.” Salauq’s eyes were soft. “Yes.” She put her hands on the blanket to calm the aggressive creature. “Like your own son, his life has also already been decided,” the sorceress explained. Her eyes went to the figure under the blanket. “Who is that?” Anatat asked. “And why do you hide him?” Salauq arched her brows. “I hide him because his father is ashamed.” She removed the blanket. Anatat gasped as it swaggered toward her, glowing gold, his teeth bared. “By the ancient world, what is he?” The sorceress narrowed her eyes. “He is the one who has his fate mingled with that of your son. Wolves run in packs.” Anatat’s eyes widened as the creature slinked toward her like a predator. Half human and half wolf, the limbs seemed malformed. But it was his eyes that were voluminous with gold and fire and a higher intelligence was revealed. Whatever he was, he seemed to move between worlds, leaving strange remnants threading through eternity. He climbed up on Anatat’s lap and looked at her. “What is his name?” “He is Belil,” Salauq replied in a low voice. “Twice born. He who is of the sun.” He suddenly latched onto Anatat’s breast and she gasped. “Do not resist, Anatat,” the sorceress murmured. “Universal forces are at play. There are things hidden behind things. Leave your eyes behind and use your sight.” Then suddenly having had enough, he unlatched and crawled back to his mother. The sorceress looked at Salauq pointedly. “By the early morning, you must leave this place. And when the time comes to let him go, you will also know. Watch for the omens.” Salauq nodded. “I understand.” Grief assailed Anatat again and her eyes watered. The sorceress reached for her. “It is certain that you will see him again. He will search for you too.” Silence fell briefly as Anatat cried into her palm. “What is his name?” Salauq finally asked. Anatat’s tears flowed. “In my dreams, he says he is Kilaron. The one who holds the staff of the serpent.” Sometime later that night, Anatat woke suddenly and knew that he was gone. Something protected her from being engulfed in grief. The sweet odours and warmth that was once her baby now drifted away. Her body abruptly dismissed him. Somehow her breast milk curdled and she felt her sorrow float away on dark wings. Outside of her tent, the morning light was already beaming and the cries of songbirds were already on the wind. *** The Sabal Forest was vibrant as the two strangers moved stealthily like creeping vipers. There were no sounds but for the slight rattle of Pharon’s sabre necklace, the long teeth rattling with his every step. They moved over the thickets, rocks and grass that sprang tall. Above in the sky, eagles balanced softly on the wind. Behind him, Jarxyle made small grunting sounds as he followed his cousin, demonstrating his annoyance. “Be silent!” Pharon hissed. “I have to listen to the wind speaking in the trees.” “Well I don’t hear anything,” Jarxyle snapped. “Besides, the Orion must surely know of our presence by now and are most likely irritated.” Pharon’s eyes swivelled in every direction. “Perhaps,” he murmured, “but the Orion are not known for their violent tendencies. They are lovers of the earth and protectors of the forest.” “I could have stayed on the Mylittan River. But I decided to come along with you.” Pharon only half listened to his cousin. “Yes, but you would never have had this much fun.” His cousin grunted irritably and leaned on his wooden staff, cursing his fate. “I’m tired. We have to rest.” Pharon surveyed the clearing ahead. “I think this is a fine place to make camp for tonight.” “Here?” Jarxyle asked in astonishment. “In the middle of the forest? We have no shelter from the elements or the Orion.” “Relax,” Pharon said shaking his head. “The spirits must first be appeased in the name of Olorun of Dea. Now clear away some of these grasses and start a fire.” “And where do you think you’re going?” “Into the forest, to find something to eat,” Pharon replied. “Don’t look so alarmed, cousin. I will bring something back for you too.” Jarxyle gave him a dark look as he retreated. By the time he finished building the fire, Pharon had returned with some wild berries and a dead hare. “Are you insane? Do you fear nothing for your life? The creatures of this forest belong to the Orion. And you are taking hares to dine upon.” “I will leave an offering of course,” Pharon said coolly. Later that evening, they cooked the carcass and ate heartily. But it was only when they were resting that Pharon pulled a small leather bag from his waist and gave it to his cousin. “Open this and pour it out onto your palm.” Jarxyle stared at him suspiciously. “Where did you find this?” Several stones made of iridescent material glittered in his hand. “The Old World certainly provides a great deal of valuable items. This will surely impress the Orion.” He shook his head in amusement. “You see, my simple cousin, I will offer this as a gift to our brethren. In order to appease the spirits, one must cater to their curiosity.” “We are doomed if this is another of your damn fool ideas.” “No need to fear, dear cousin,” Pharon said as he cast a wide grin and tossed his dagger into the air lazily. “I am rarely ever wrong.” “Don’t you think that it is time to place your offerings near a tree? I feel as though I am being watched.” Pharon stretched out lazily, his eyes half closed. “Well I suppose.” He opened his hand and released his offerings. “Now we go to sleep. If they accept them, we will know by morning.” “And if not?” his cousin asked. “Then we will know that too won’t we?” Pharon replied with a slight curve of his mouth. Jarxyle groaned and lay down beside the fire. “You go lie on the other side. I refuse to look upon you, lest I impale you with a blinding curse.” Pharon chuckled warmly. “I will lie near to protect you lest you require the skill and prowess of a warrior.” “I’ll never sleep now.” It did not take Pharon very long to drift into the realm of dreamless sleep. Never resting entirely, he curled his hand over the handle of his weapon. Steady training among the Mylittans had taught them to balance between the waking world and that of dreams. When Pharon felt a tremor beneath his body, he was instantly on his feet, his weapon drawn. An Orion stood before him, his corded arms flexing, his mouth twitching in amusement. He had the sparkling stones in his palm, his long veined fingers moving delicately. “What do you wish from the Orion?” the spirit hissed. “I offer those stones for the hare I have taken from your forest. I hope you will accept my gesture.” Pharon sheathed his dagger. “I am seeking a green haired maiden from the Galena Dunes. The daughter of King Fiachra.” The Orion eyed him cautiously. “You possess the tail of the dragon?” He revealed the mark. “I do.” “She has already gone through the sacred ritual and has been bound to this forest.” Pharon stared at him. “She is a lover of the Orion?” The Orion’s gaze was positively intrusive. “Return to the river and forget the one with the green hair.” He paused. “She will follow her purpose for her heart has already made the choice.” He glared at Pharon in disgust. “Which is more than I can say for you.” Pharon was taken aback by the blunt words. “You are nothing but a coward. Bribing your way through life. Playing it safe. Never changing your life or your routines.” He opened his palm and let the stones drop to the ground. “What will I do with these?” Pharon was astonished. “You are not pleased?” “Sometimes a death cannot be avoided,” the Orion said slowly, “and sometimes it is the most necessary thing for a man.” “We are initiated,” Pharon said defensively, “if that is what you mean.” “It is not enough,” the Orion snapped. “You are too comfortable.” Silence. The Orion stepped toward him menacingly. “You know what the problem is? You have never loved. That is why your shoulders droop. Saying you are open and alive but always on the defense.” He snickered and his eyes gleamed gold. “You want to know why? Because underneath it all, you really have no respect for women and it is in your vibration.” And with that, he turned sideways, his body shifting slowly into an oak. Branches elongated and twisted like vines until he had transformed entirely. Fleshly leaves. Long spidery veins disappeared into the bark of the tree. Only the iridescent stones sat at the foot of the tree. Pharon woke himself up and stared at the motionless tree. He searched the ground for the stones. “I wish I knew what just happened.” He threaded his hands through his hair thoughtfully and lay back, fully awake until the dawn rose and scattered the starlight. His thoughts were primal and restless as he tried to probe the silences of the other attention, certain the Orion told him much more than he remembered. **** Chapter 11 I am Seshat. I have my being in truth. The woman stared at the sun. At the same time, dark folded clouds floated over the moon like puddles of milk. The sky was suddenly engulfed in plum darkness and then just as quickly, the sun and moon locked in an embrace. One eclipse. Two eclipse. Three eclipse. She was gazing at the images on the cave wall as they danced back and forth through the streams of the universe. That red star roared in the midnight sky, pouring intentions into her cave colouring the characters she had drawn. They spun into existence, taking liquid shape as they leapt through eternity, birthing themselves. A new stream of consciousness. Time to sleep again, to burrow into the crimson womb and create. And dream. Tap, Tap, Tap. Tap the womb. With her brush, she carefully dotted the walls with crimson liquid; a pair of black eyes, a cherry dark mouth and thick plaited hair and invisible containers of desert snakes. Beside the effigy, two seagulls floated protectively. Here is the right side. Action. And here is the left side. Magic. Right brain creativity overrides the left brain rationality. The Soultana of Siduri right in the middle like a geometric shape spiraling outward and connecting universes. Seshat paints a rose. This is the story of you and me, she scratched, and the Other. Then she sings to the wind, weaving silver webs of light with delicate movements. Oh what an absolute joy it is to fragment, only to find yourself again and reunite in some estranged galaxy. **** Chapter 12 The chestnut horse neighed and tossed its head as it plodded along through the woods. It crunched over the grass and wildflowers that sprung from caves and sharp rocks. Anatat felt relieved that they had finally reached the forest. The incessant lashes of sands that rose from the desert had been harsh and the gentle climate of the forest had greatly soothed her. Still, she felt agitated as they edged closer to Allirea. “Don’t you think it’s time to rest?” the sorceress finally asked. “We have not stopped even once since crossing the Mylittan and I do have to relieve myself.” Anatat snapped out of her tumultuous thoughts. Her apprehension had deepened as she thought of Heliandra and her dramatic mood swings. “I’m sorry. I was thinking.” “Well you think too much. I told you that I will handle your fool queen.” She paused. “She is more afraid than you think.” Anatat was startled. “Afraid of me? Why should she feel that way about me?” A slight pause. “Perhaps she senses something about you. Something powerful. Think about it. Besides, it doesn’t take much to threaten that egomaniac.” The sorceress shrugged. “But as I’ve told you, she really is perfect for us.” “So you have said.” “I mean she has been chasing you through time taking various guises. Really, she is a mirror reflection of yourself. An opportunity to see your faults.” The sorceress winked playfully. “What she has not anticipated is encountering me. I am a huge sore spot.” “But she has never met you. How could you be a sore spot?” “I enter this world, steal her favourite Hood, outwit her shadow raven and darken her sight so she cannot see.” She swiveled her head. “I would say that I’ve become a sore spot.” Anatat grinned. “Okay, let’s stop here.” A few days after bartering for their camels and for some supplies, they had crossed the river and made their way to the town of Isha. They had left Lytai and Rauva in the markets and trekked toward Allirea gleaming with immaculate trees. “We are almost there, are we not?” the sorceress asked when she returned to mount her steed. “You have been a great protector, sorceress. You have taught me so much. I cannot believe that you are going to leave.” There was a long silence. Then the sorceress settled a gaze on her. “I know.” “At night in my dreams, I see us you know. Someone speaks to me with love and sends me lovebirds. You have utterly seduced me. Sidled up beside me so eloquently and swept me off my feet.” The sorceress grinned. “Someone had to.” “You have changed me so much. In ways that I could not have imagined.” She nodded ahead. “Allirea is no longer for me. This place is not for me, I do not belong here. This is the truth and what has always been in my heart. I know I have already chosen another path for myself.” “To go onto the path of discovery means breaking away from the world you know.” The sorceress said. “We accumulate routines and beliefs and there comes a time to break out of them. There is not one method to follow, but tuning into your authentic self always leads you in the right direction.” “It should be the easiest thing, though. Why isn’t it?” “Well,” the sorceress said slowly, “because there are many investments in this world to keep slavery going. For example, look at your fool queen. To uphold her tradition, her empire, she needs slaves in order to continue that tradition that offers routine and doesn’t allow for freshness. In essence, your edge has been taken and replaced with complacency.” “I see.” “But forcing you to live with me in the desert,” the sorceress continued, “was a mere strategy so that you can take back your personal power. To get you back in touch with yourself by throwing you back into the rawness of your body.” Trailing fog covered the ground and spread silken scarves across the earth. Anatat pulled on the reins of the horse, forcing him into a slow walk. “Here is an opportunity to become more than you ever imagined.” The sorceress smiled delicately. “To move away from life as you know it. Not bound by Heliandra who is the only one who thinks she is brilliant. She hunts for those she can easily control. For those she can crush. And you are a threat.” “Yes, and she senses it. Always has.” “She tricks you into accepting her ways. She is linked into the hive mind and is not aware of it. But things are already changing, even among the elements.” She seemed amused. “The changes happening in the Old World will affect the entire cosmos. Everything will be affected. Dimensions and realities.” “Not everyone in Aalayfa agrees with her methods.” “I know and that is why change here will be so easy. People are already seeing her for what she is. In this world, structures and identities are quickly undergoing change.” “But wouldn’t that mean that she too would be free?” The sorceress shrugged. “You would think that but there is no accounting for insanity. Control is madness.” *** “I asked you. Where is Anatat?” The question boomed into the room, bounced violently from the walls. Great hyacinths bloomed beside enormous purple bougainvillea that spilled over marble floors. Cherry wood gleamed with vases of wildflowers and columns decorated in large damask roses and sashes bespoke of some grand celebration. “Heliandra. A great pleasure to meet you,” the sorceress said, bowing and making a very dramatic sweeping motion. “Anatat will soon join us as she has gone to the Ishan temple to make offerings. I knew you were most anxious to meet me.” The queen let her long thin fingers run over the length of her robe tunic, embroidered with spider designs. “Sit down-Soultana of Siduri, is it?” “It is, but you will address me as sorceress,” she replied, sitting eloquently. “Why should I? Are you a witch?” The sorceress was taken aback. “A witch? Such an Old World term, my goodness. No, my dear, Heliandra, I am known as the sorceress. And I do thank you for allowing us into Allirea and providing fine-” “You have been in our world for a long time and yet only now you have arrived at my castle,” the queen interrupted. The sorceress picked up her cup. “Very lovely tea.” A cold pause. “I am always interested in those who would enter so surreptitiously through our gates.” “Surreptitiously? I made a lot of commotion. So did your Hood of Aden when she greeted me. That Hood of Aden doesn’t know how to greet visitors.” “Surely there are plausible reasons why you were wandering through the desert with Anatat.” “Ah, but I have yet to explain to you what has happened and I will do so now. You see, Anatat and I were pulled into the underworld by the Chilala. It took us a very long time to emerge.” “But you emerged unscathed?” Heliandra asked in disbelief. “You can control the Chilala?” “I am the sorceress after all.” “A witch,” Heliandra roared, slapping the table top. “I knew it.” The sorceress picked up her teacup delicately again. “Witchcraft is for the novice.” “Not that I believe you, but what happened after you emerged?” “We returned here to Allirea of course. I don’t care if you don’t believe me. Why should I?” She shrugged. “And what reason would I have to wander with Anatat through the desert? She is of no interest to me. She has no power.” Heliandra relaxed slightly. “Well then, why then have you come into our world?” “We are studying the many changes that are affecting the different realities. Surely you are aware of the changes in the Old World.” “And so what of them? They do not affect us here. Those fools in the Old World are not even aware of us. Besides, I will protect this world if the need arises.” She leaned over the table. “Tell me, are you responsible for clouding my visions? For darkening my mirror?” The black eyes gleamed mischievously. “No, that is entirely your own doing. Perhaps there is a part of yourself that you are avoiding.” “Stop playing games with me and tell me more about why you are here. Who sent you?” The sorceress shrugged. “I came into this world to warn you of the coming changes. You sent that crazy Hood of Aden to find me but it doesn’t matter anyway since she will die. “Who will?” Heliandra was startled. “Anatat?” The sorceress sipped her tea casually. “She will meet her death at the Well of Maris. It is so written.” The queen was so astonished by the revelation that she fell silent for a long time. “The Well of Maris?” “It is a perfect place to die,” the sorceress said winking at her in amusement. “And nobody will ever know. Really, I don’t know how you can stand her. I have never met anyone that stupid. She doesn’t stop talking either.” Heliandra remained still. “Are you certain of this?” “Very certain.” The sorceress shrugged. “I don’t care if you believe me or not but I would like to see the world of Tiamat continue to flourish and ensure your traditions are upheld in the name of the goddess.” “And that is certainly what matters,” the queen said flatly. “In Aalayfa we strive to maintain what is good and honourable. And above all else, we desire freedom.” The sorceress held up her teacup and smiled widely. “To freedom for all of Aalayfa. And for the queen of Aalayfa who is wise and noble and true.” *** Heliandra stared thoughtfully out into the thick impenetrable fog. This time of the year, fine white dust from the central parts of the desert swept in from the north. From the open window, cool tendrils drifted through her vast chambers. Her thoughts were in a jumble as the wind cooled her face. She stared thoughtfully into the looming pines and sultry oaks in the vast gardens. It was simply too incredible to be true. Could this be the information she needed to finally be rid of Anatat? Timarion’s daughter had never really been a real threat but was certainly always in the back of her mind. Now the sorceress had given her what she needed to know to finally be rid of the girl. The plan was simple and cunning and would leave not a ripple of suspicion among the Aalayfans. Most importantly, it would ensure the throne was secured. The last thing she wanted was for Aalayfa to end up in the hands of Timarion’s daughter. Heliandra had immediately known when she saw the girl’s hands. She had been in the inner part of Allirea when the initiation for girls had taken place a few months before she invited Anatat to join the Hoods of Aden. But the moment Anatat spun brazenly from between the high columns, Heliandra had known. The intricate movements of the wrists, the way she rolled her hips and that sway of confidence. She had always hated dancers. But this particular dancer, she hated most of all. Marks. Crosses. Dots. Those dark painted eyes. And bracelets, anklets and coins. Snakes climbed up and down her arms igniting something familiar as she spun, her blue veils creating voluminous oceans. She was a problem, for no matter how many ways she had tried to diminish her, she seemed well protected by something greater and more powerful. And now her encounter with the Chilala had made her even more dangerous, for who engaged with the Chilala and lived to tell about it? She turned sharply from the window, strode back to the divan. Questions drummed through her mind as she suddenly saw the shadow taking shape. “Finally. Where have you been?” Zahrina shifted toward her. “Investigating Anatat and the sorceress, of course. Did you have the chance to talk to them?” Heliandra nodded and carefully recounted the exchange with the sorceress. “As far as I am concerned, there is only one thing left to do.” Zahrina stared at her. “You want Anatat to go to the Well of Maris with you?” “Exactly,” she said with a smile. “Think about it. The sorceress has no investment in this world, so why would she lie? She had to be telling the truth. What else would she be doing in the desert for so long? Nothing else makes sense.” “I investigated the desert and found no traces of them. Perhaps they were below the earth.” “And yet the mirror does not reveal a thing.” “Perhaps you will regain your power when you return to the Well of Maris. Your powers always fade out when the time draws closer,” Zahrina suggested. “But I think you are quite right. Taking Anatat with us is a brilliant idea. Did this sorceress say when this death will happen?” But Heliandra shook her head. “No, but this cannot be coincidence. The sorceress appears now just as I prepare to make the journey. It is too much of a perfect plan. Continue with the preparations.” Zahrina inclined her head and exited the room swiftly. Heliandra went to her mirror again and tried to peer into it but it remained black as soot. Suddenly, the figure was there again in the mirror. The hooded figure shifting down the snow-capped mountain steadily, her bow and arrow aimed. “Here in the strange Looking Glass I see a Reverse, Steadily I have Vanished completely from Sight, A shadow Remains of something appalling, And if I knew What it was I would Die of Fright.” “Stop saying that!” And with one swipe of her hand, she knocked the mirror to the ground where it shattered into thousands of jagged pieces. She stared in horror as the fragments danced back to life. An eye appeared in each of the fragments until there were a thousand eyes watching her accusingly. Owl eyes. *** “No, no, no,” Elgita said, shaking her head. “That is not the way it is supposed to be. You cannot knead. You are too rough. It must be carefully kneaded, let me show you.” Nantale Dore was amused. “Elgita, you are becoming a nuisance. Mistress Mornai already told us what to do. Are you not meant to be practicing the movements?” Elgita was offended. “Ever since the night of the festival, you have been different,” she accused. “And for the life of me, I can’t understand why.” “You will understand. One day.” Elgita lifted her nose. “I’m going, Nantale Dore but I will force someone to tell me what goes on during that festival. It is of great interest to me.” Nantale Dore laughed. “Is it?” “Elgita!” The voice of Mistress Mornai cracked like a bolt. “The singing groups have begun and you are dawdling once again. You said you wanted to sing.” The girl straightened abruptly. “I’m going, I’m going.” She darted around over the high marble floors lined with herbal pots and disappeared. “Mistress, I am afraid the crust is not yet ready,” Nantale Dore explained apologetically. “That is not why I seek you, Nantale Dore,” the priestess said softly. She looked down at dough, shaped into a multitude of braids, ties and stars. “The other ishtaritu will assist. You must attend classes this evening.” “Of course.” “I have heard that things went well at the festival.” A secretive smile. “It was a pleasurable experience.” “There is someone who wants to speak to you.” Her eyes flickered to the treetops. “Over there.” Nantale Dore stared at Ixapa Eidan sitting on a bench where violets clustered in yellow pots. “Mother.” Gold locks twisted down over her shoulders. “Come and sit with me, my daughter.” Nantale Dore met her mother’s disconcerting stare. “Are you alright?” The eyes vibrated. “I am pleased that you are adapting well to our ways. You follow whatever the high priestess says and you are very disciplined.” She put a hand on her daughter’s leg. “And you do not complain about all the hard work.” Nantale Dore stared at her. “Why should I complain? I have chosen this path and there is so much to learn.” “Many people would complain. They want to be treated like royalty. But you peel carrots and make soups and clean and sweep and collect firewood.” “Everyone does, my mother,” Nantale Dore said confused. “Mistress Mornai says it is all part of the learning. It is not the task that matters but the way you perform the task, observing yourself.” Her mother stared at her. “You observe yourself?” “With my full attention.” A pause as several priestesses entered, sweeping the loaves brusquely into baskets and carried them to the ovens. “There are things you can do,” Ixapa Eidan said. “Things to attain inner silence. To activate the power of the womb.” She wavered suddenly between the dark and light, her face elongating. “Lie down here and relax your body.” Nantale Dore obeyed her and looked at the overripe crab apples above. She took a deep breath. Streams of energy churned through her as she again felt the lead weight heavy on her womb. “It will take time,” Ixapa Eidan reassured her, “but once you have accessed the womb, you will be able to open the doorway.” Suddenly she slipped into the darkness of the void along with the iridescent raven. They moved together effortlessly into a blue sun with its twin moon and she felt the wind lace its fingers through her hair. Tap the womb. They sailed over jagged crystal mountains, black volcanic rocks, across a gold plateau where fertile fields were strewn with great willows and dogwood trees. Through rainbows and passages of time they spun like weavers creating and dissolving all at once. Images of blood and birth, fleeting life, death and vipers. Cool, lotus ponds. Bronze dragons. Naked dancers around black stones. Fire and blood and yolk. Archaic creations danced on the webs of dark widow spiders. “We are alone in this universe and yet we are not,” the raven murmured. “Navigate into the inner world. You are a dream pioneer.” Nantale Dore took a sudden breath and found herself on the bench sitting up, her eyes gazing on the ornate alabaster of the temple where a small thrush whistled. The raven was gone and a black silken feather lay at her feet. She stared at the purple blue shimmering in the light. An omen. She pressed the feather to her body knowing it carried secrets it would share with her. Murshid, my guide, she thought, opens doorways to the great dream. **** Chapter 13 “Are you listening?” Jarxyle asked his cousin. “I’ve been talking to you for the last hour.” Pharon of Black Axe had a thoughtful frown on his face. “Why can’t you stay quiet a bloody minute?” “It has been two days. I have to rest.” He stumbled behind his cousin crashing through the forest. “You are acting crazy. Did you find the truth disheartening?” “It is not what he said to me that agitates me. It is what he did not say.” “By the sword, what does that mean? You are babbling like an idiot.” Jarxyle shot him a dark look. “Why not wait until we are back on the river? Then you can consult with the elders.” Pharon’s brow darkened. “I have to find out what else he told me. It is buried in the other attention.” He paused. “I have this Orion dust I gathered.” Muscles strained and corded arms rippled as they leapt on. “I will offer it to Fiachra.” “For what? You already know that his daughter is gone. She has mated with the Orion and can no longer return to the dunes.” “My dear cousin, you do not understand. I want the use of his mirror.” Jarxyle was startled. “The sea mirror?” “Is there any other?” When they were finally in sight of the river, they crashed into the coolness dousing the heat of the desert. Golden-tailed seagulls floated between invisible silences. Pharon watched his cousin rolling around in the waves. “You have not been away for centuries, you know.” He scanned the familiar skies. Mylittan ships appeared and disappeared at random, rising to the sky or plunging into the waves that cradled them. The ginger-pink sun sank into the horizon starting a raging pool of fire that began to spread over the surface. “It will be dark soon,” Jarxyle commented, wringing his shirt. “Did you see our ship?” Pharon searched the sky. “We will find the closest ship and board. I’m hungry.” “There’s one coming now.” A ship sailed through the sky like an ancient god and a tail of a dragon had been carved into the dark cherry wood below the sails that billowed in the wind. It settled low and rocked on the wind before it plunged into the waves below. “Come aboard!” a Mylittan shouted, pressing against the railings. “Come on then!” Pharon and Jarxyle hurled themselves onto the deck of the ship and were instantly engulfed by the cloak of invisibility. “A sight for sore eyes,” Jarxyle said shaking his head. “And sore legs and a sore back and everything else.” The Mylittan slapped him on the back. “Well then you must be hungry!” Pharon watched his cousin join a group of Mylittans, laughing and talking, jabbing each other in the ribs. He turned and looked out toward the waters again where lapping waves jabbered fluidly. “Watch for my ship,” he instructed the captain, “I am not sure if it crossed the gates.” The captain came to stand beside him. “You are not hungry? The women have provided us with much and we have made our own ale. Won’t you join us?” “I will,” Pharon said staring into the horizon. “In a while.” Once he was alone, he found himself gazing into the river but all he could remember was the woman he had mated with on the trading ship. That Hood of Aden. It had really been a chance encounter. He had not been able to resist the curve of her body. The poignant scent. He could barely remember their conversation. He frowned and pushed the thought aside irritably. It was only a fleeting encounter really so why was he thinking of it? He turned his thoughts back to the Orion and did not notice night descend. *** Across the plain of the desert, the wind was dusty, hot and unbearable. Gusts of sand repeatedly spiralled up to the sky and then fell. A group of thundering Alak horses stomped in the distance. Despite the dissipating heat of the sun, Amaro huddled in his tent, his eyes lined thickly with desert sand. His fingers weaving sturdy tent cords. In the opposite tent, Salauq and the two children were burrowed. But he didn’t really care. He did not spent much time indoors anymore. His only interest was Kilaron. The other two were inconsequential. And there was also the memory of Anatat who was more beautiful than he imagined. More arousing than even his wildest visions. He had spent long days and nights gazing, thinking of her draped in firelight, her hair spilling over her body. Her ripe nipples aglow like fragrant apricots and her eyes evasive. Amaro blew the smoke from his pipe into the air and glanced outside at the whirlwind of dust. The heavy sands forced him to shelter the flock but the winds were gently settling. It had not been many days since they had stopped in the far town of Didin, northeast of Phyrra and done some very lucrative trading. Milk and grains. Sheep and goats. Camels and a cooking hen. Frequent trading had occupied his time more and more. But it was Kilaron that kept bringing him back. He was growing quickly, his raven black hair and brilliant dark eyes gleamed intelligently, not unlike some old soul biding its time toward some great deviation. There was no doubt that he would be strong and wild. A fierce nomad. And yet there was the mark of his past upon him. A constant reminder of where he came from. Salauq came outside and sat with him. “They are asking for you to go inside.” “Why? So your son can skewer me with my own arrow?” She fell mute for a moment. “You will one day return to your tribe and I will return to mine. Then you will never see me again. But as long as we are here, you will remain, for it is the command of the spirit.” Amaro was bitterly silent. “I do it for the boy.” The winds howled, gathering fistfuls of sand. “Neither of us have a choice, for Kilaron’s life is intertwined with ours. I knew it before the sorceress even spoke it.” She glanced at him. “And you have feelings for the boy as you have for his mother.” Amaro shrugged. “What if I have?” He took his pipe. “You share your pallet with another.” “I share my pallet with the wind because he is my lover.” *** The town of Isha was busy as Anatat crossed the cobblestone street and headed hurriedly toward the temple. Children surrounded the fresh water springs, laid offerings of violets and citrus at the foot of the wells and sang songs to Tiamat and her consort. Enormous drums and haunting flutes rippled through town in preparation for the spring festival. In the smaller temple of Olorun of Dea, smoke from long pipe chimneys streamed into the sky as priests entered in and out. Peddlers, nomads and Galeneans were selling white shells, russet stones and beads with trinkets while Ishan priests and priestesses hung golden lanterns around the perimeters of the square. Songs of desire and passion, bawdy chants, suggestive gestures and whistling drifted through the crowds. Eager traders with their wares and goods trudged through the marketplace. Obsidian utensils, fragrant flower wines. Bloodstone and jade jewels, powdered malachite. Tiny jars filled with pure cinnamon, black salt, paprika, hot chili, peppercorns and hundreds of other spices. At the bottom of the pyramid shaped temple, Anatat glanced up the steps that spiralled up to the shrine protected by hundreds of priestesses with intricate tattoos and silver bracelets. Some were sprawled over the temple columns like ordinate jewels while balancing wooden platters of offerings. Kohl lined eyes darted toward her as she climbed the steps, the wind fluttering at her ankles. Groups of cobra priestesses with plum shaped mouths and sinister smiles slithered down the steps, their hair clicking with tiny beaded shells. At the very top, the powerful dragon clamoured over the walls. Seven priestesses with half-moon shapes upon their foreheads wearing white robes waited at the entrance. “Your presence honours the Lady,” one of them said indicating with her eyes. Anatat stopped suddenly. “What is it?” “You are the second Hood of Aden at the temple today.” They nodded to the inner temple where coils of incense thickened the air. Anatat went inside. A cold shiver rose up her spine as her eyes rested on the figure slumped against the wall. “Mistress Zahrina. How strange to see you here. Have you come to make offerings?” The figure turned. Brilliant gold eyes narrowed and flickered. Her body was half buried in smoke. “I have. And you?” “I enjoy coming to Isha though I prefer not to wear my crimson robes. They seemed to stir a great deal of animosity from the people.” Zahrina’s stare was cold. “The people do not have a choice but to adhere to the laws of the Aalayfan queen.” “That is true.” The elder hood slithered toward her. “So tell me. What really happened in the desert? The sorceress does not speak much of it.” Anatat gave her a serious, thoughtful look. “To tell you the truth, that tyrant blasted through those gates like nothing I have ever seen. Like some weird anomaly.” She shook her head. “She told me she came for the queen of Aalayfa, to reveal something of a great change, but before I was able to ascertain what she really wanted, we were dragged below the earth and I lost consciousness. After that I am ashamed to admit I do not recollect much except that the sorceress insisted on coming with me to Allirea.” The Zerelia’s eyes gleamed. “Most peculiar. But what do you think the sorceress wants here in our world?” “I already told you. I don’t know why you don’t trust me. I am a Hood of Aden after all.” Zahrina turned toward the altar where fresh hyacinths floated in half open shells. “I know you are, my child.” “I’ll tell you this about her though,” Anatat said raising her brows. “She is a little crazy. Believes in a lot of superstitious nonsense. I really think that she spent too much time in the Old World.” Anatat gave her a meaningful look. “A mad woman, if you ask me.” She leaned closer to the Zerelia and lowered her voice. “But truthfully, she is adamant about traditions, so she and the queen have a lot in common.” *** The marketplace outside the temple of Isha was swarming with multitudes of families, travellers and nomads bartering for exotic wares. Ripe, peach-gold fruits from the Zerelian region, green olives, Mylittan apricots, lush juicy Phyrra dates and stone baked flaxseed breads sat in the ovens along the temple walls. The sky was blue except for the occasional cloud of fog that drifted over the town. Children with scuffed faces carrying lovebirds on their shoulders, called out to wanderers while bleating sheep and goats were herded from one temple to another. Blue winged ladybirds and black hooded gulls from the Mylittan coast magically appeared amidst the chaos. “What do you think of this damask, sorceress?” Lytai asked, picking up a cloth from a seller’s stand. Rauva wrinkled her nose. “I am not certain I like that colour.” “What about this one?” the sorceress asked, picking up an orange gauze cloth rich in embroidery. “We can make beautiful tunics.” “That one comes from the town of Umrae, very far from here,” the trader said with a bright smile. “The inhabitants from that town are said to have been given their gifts of cloth from Tiamat herself.” Rauva and Lytai huddled around the sorceress who was closely inspecting the fine cloth. “Umrae is close to the Rhean Mountains,” Lytai explained to the sorceress. The cloth seller nodded vigorously, two bulbous eyes balanced on his nose. “Legend has it that about a century ago, the townspeople of Umrae decided to climb the Rhean Mountains to the other side where Tiamat sleeps.” He turned to barter with a child and then turned back to his attentive audience. “As I was saying, old legends say that the townspeople who were at the time not more than a few dozen proceeded to the foot of the mountain in the bright early morning. They began to climb.” His voice dropped into a whisper. “But Tiamat has great beasts that protect her and before they could make it to the top, a giant falcon with great golden eyes suddenly swooped.” His eyes widened. “And with him, he carried a slanted eyed woman with a staff. The very sight of them together was formidable and inspired great fear.” The three women leaned toward him gripped by the tale and he shook his head gravely. “There was no doubt about it. The ancient Umraens were shocked. This had to be one of the original daughters of the Goddess and she undoubtedly had great powers.” He wiped his brow with a chubby hand. “Well, this original daughter demanded that they turn away from the mountain and leave the mysteries of Tiamat buried. And if they did as they were told, she would honour them by showing them how to weave and spin the finest fabrics in all Aalayfa.” The cloth seller paused. “So out of fear, they agreed and returned to Umrae with the secret. Since then, Umrae prospered and the cloth making secret still remains alive today, buried quietly in the surrounding temples and guarded fiercely by the priests and priestesses.” He shook a finger. “Though many have inquired, myself included, hardly anyone has been able to uncover it.” Lytai gave him a sympathetic smile. “Perhaps when it is time.” The man grinned wickedly. “Some whisper that the townspeople spent hundreds of years dreaming their creations. Extracting divine fabric from the universe. Nobody knows for certain.” “Perhaps one day,” Rauva added, “someone will climb the mountain and find out.” “It is forbidden. Nobody would dare confront Tiamat.” He glanced fearfully into the distance. “If the dragon is there at the top, the scaly body eager to squeeze the blood from some poor soul, nobody wants to take the risk.” He shivered. “I’m not sure I’d like to be roasted alive.” The sorceress grinned and lifted the cloth. “How much do we owe you for this?” “Please take it as a gift. For listening to the story.” “We insist that you take payment,” the sorceress said. “No.” He shook his head vigorously. “I insist.” They bowed their heads in gratitude and retreated into the crowds, pushing through peddlers, herders and waited to fill their water bags at the well. “Go into the crowd and dig up some roots to take with us,” the sorceress told her companions. “We will need medicines and teas. You know where we are going and what we need.” Lytai and Rauva retreated into the crowded market. The sorceress frowned and scanned the crowds vigorously. Energies. Sensations swept through her. Laughing merchants and noisy children, masked entertainers with pigs and monkeys peering behind vegetable stands. Brightly hued lips curved suggestively, eyes fluttered and hands exchanged goods. But there was someone there from another time and place. She could sense him. Tall and slender, he moved smoothly through the crowds. He wore a beige turban over his head that fell slightly over the back of his shoulder. He was swarthy with a straight nose and pelican eyes. He bartered with a vendor over some finely made Aalayfan china before slithering toward another. He clutched small leather containers full of artifacts, fabrics and a variety of apricots and dates. Once he had finished transacting, he turned abruptly into a narrow alley, unfolded a parchment and studied it. He was so convincing in his manners and dress, but she was certain that like her, he was a traveler out of time. Visions moved across her mind and she saw that he had stowed aboard on a Mylittan ship. But she knew he would find his end here. She saw the black energy stalking him. Death approached tentatively. “It is a very good thing,” Lytai said, stepping beside the sorceress, “that roots are easily available here, as are balms and liquids.” She showed the china cups to the sorceress. “Some are already mixed for you.” “Anatat should be back at Allirea by now,” Rauva told the sorceress. “Zahrina delays her,” the sorceress told them with a slight smile. “Those ravens are wonderfully deceptive.” “Yes, but so is Anatat,” Lytai said with a grin. “You have finally shifted her perception.” “And I think she has a new confidence,” Rauva added linking her arm with the sorceress. “Ah, who couldn’t love you?” “Nobody loves me more than Heliandra,” the sorceress said with a laugh. And the three of them burst into giggles. **** Chapter 14 Serenity seeped through the oak trees and clouds drifted past like ancient gods. The twilight was vibrant as the sun left scathing marks on the deep bowels of the earth. “In ancient times, there was communication between humans and animals and we knew each other intimately. The animals taught us about fire and earth and how to contact the spirit.” Mistress Mornai scanned her attentive audience. “And why? So that the soul can evolve into higher levels of awareness. Like the animals, we too have light and shadow qualities. These must be understood so that we find new ways to relate to the world around us.” “But what is the purpose of Panthera’s visit today?” one of the girls asked impatiently. “Tell us about that.” “She will engage in a mock battle with Ixapa Eidan to demonstrate several things. First the importance of body awareness and also the idea of stalking.” Excited chatter fluttered through her audience. Mistress Mornai smiled at them. “Panthera Tigri for those who do not know, is the queen of the inner worlds and resides with her people beneath the earth in a separate layer of existence that is similar to our own.” Nantale Dore studied the other warriors basking in the fine light of the peaceful forest. With her flimsy pale legs and green hair, she wondered if she would ever gain the solidness of the earth women. “Power is gained when we flow, when we surrender to existence and when we understand energy,” Mistress Mornai said stirring the embers of the fire. “If we are to keep our perception fluid, we must allow our feelings to rise and be completely in touch with our intuition.” She paused. “Everything that comes into our life brings us a teaching if only we can open ourselves to a higher vision.” A low growl rippled through the darkness creating an eerie silence. The twilight had brought with it the silver edged night, with all its spirits, mysteries and fading stars. The women and girls huddled together. Nantale Dore felt a tickle at the nape of her neck and she shifted closer to the fire. “Are you frightened?” Elgita whispered. “Have you never met Panthera Tigri before today?” “No. We know very little about them. They bring the teachings of personal power and asserting leadership.” She nodded. “There is Ixapa Eidan.” Like some phantom from the stars, she approached. Gold-dusted hair gleamed like a torch and enigmatic eyes consistently shifted. “Look, there,” Elgita gasped, pointing in the opposite direction. Something approached from the other side of the clearing and was slowly making its way through the trees. The black panther was enormous, her body was black and velvety with sinewy limbs. With relaxed movements she curved around the tree, demonstrating purposeful raw power. In the glittering twilight, she too shuddered between worlds, one moment woman and the next panther. She seemed quite unreal as she crept through the grass, emanating the earth in its most natural form. She was not diminished in the slightest as she shifted into her human form. Breasts and hips were gingerly marked and thick curly hair hung in masses across her entire back. Pronounced buttocks peeked out from beneath a short leathery skirt that fell in panels around her thighs. She assessed them with cunning gold eyes and her red mouth split into a smile. “I just had a thought,” Elgita rasped. “If she eats me, I will never be initiated into the ancient rites.” Nantale Dore stifled a laugh. “If she eats you, she’ll get indigestion.” “It has been a long time,” Panthera Tigri said to Ixapa Eidan. Ixapa Eidan raised a brow. “You have only grown more beautiful sleeping beneath the earth.” “I have emerged at the beckoning of the raven.” They circled each other shifting endlessly from one form to another. Eyes touched secretly, exchanging silent messages. The unfolding twilight bathed them in silk and orange taffeta. “How is Queen Heliandra?” the panther queen asked demurely. “Her usual self? Why have you summoned me?” Ixapa Eidan gave the audience a sharp look to silence them. “You are here today for the demonstration.” “Then let us get on with it. I want to be home for dinner.” Both women shifted easily into their animal forms. In a split second, Panthera Tigri crouched on her haunches, stalked her nemesis as she leapt with a renewed ferocity. But Ixapa Eidan escaped from her claws as the panther bared her teeth and leapt again. A silent pause swept over the onlookers as they held their breath. “Once we understand the nature of the other, we will see their weaknesses and strengths in ourselves. The outer reflection brings us ways in which we can become predators to our own weaknesses.” With a deafening croak, Ixapa Eidan waved her wings in a dramatic display of power and suddenly stormed her opponent. Bodies leapt and tumbled as they raised clouds of earth. Then suddenly two human forms fell into the dust laughing heartily. Mistress Mornai cleared her throat to continue her explanations but the two queens were leaning sideways, holding their bellies as they laughed. Soon they dragged the entire audience into the merriment. As the laughter began to dissipate, Ixapa Eidan stood, regaining her composure. “That will be all for today, Panthera Tigri.” Grinning, the panther retreated, her muscled thighs flexing and her hair swinging and as she shifted and leapt into the foliage vanishing. “Does Heliandra have the panthers as a totem?” Elgita asked the high priestess. “I have heard it said.” Mistress Mornai nodded. “She does indeed as do we all, but some people have more shadow than light in them. Most people have more than one totemm and there are many kinds. The best way to discover yours is to journey into the womb at the time of your menstruation when the veils become thinner. Watching your dreams and visions will also give you an answer.” “What about those who have raven as a totem?” Nantale Dore asked suddenly. “What are the teachings of raven?” “That is a complex totem. Raven brings light out of the darkness and teaches us that each is inside the other. Raven is heavily responsible to spirit so it is never an easy totem to have.” She swung her gaze over her audience. “Whatever animal comes to you might be with you a short time or with you for life. You will have to uncover that for yourself. But there are many here at the temple who can answer any questions for our libraries here are vast.” She moved higher on the temple steps. “Since women are essentially mysteries, pieces of the unknown, they are individually responsible for hunting inwardly to touch their own mystery and gain insights.” She smiled down at them. “Remember that the nature of the feminine divine is diverse and expresses itself in many ways. Each of you is an expression of that uniqueness.” “What about the shadow totems? Tell us more.” Mistress Mornai searched for the speaker. “Jealousy. Control. Manipulation. Disconnection to the self. These are some characteristics of the shadow. But you should never have fear for it is the greatest gift to us from the spirit. It provides a contrast for us, a way to more deeply understand what is the light. Understanding them both is essential to being human. So you can imagine how important discernment is.” *** Pharon of Black Axe stared into the sea and across the Galena Dunes where sand formed tiny islands with leafy palms that arched skyward. He tore off his keffiyeh and waded into the river until he was waist deep. The rays of the sun were so dazzling that he could see nothing beneath the glassy surface. The river was known for its magical qualities, for the light beckoned and yet revealed little. But he had no fear of the waters that he loved his whole life. He took a breath and dove in, shattering the surface into thousands of fragments. The cold water doused his fever and shook him to the marrow of his bones. He propelled himself deeper, feeling for those powerful currents that marked a passage into the oceanic depths. He opened his eyes into the turquoise world. His thoughts emptied suddenly and filled him with unbearable stillness. He was very aware of the sound of his heartbeat as he stroked deeper into the warm drifts. He turned slightly and stared at the enormous octopus with pink tentacles moving toward him instinctively suddenly clutching him in a strangling embrace. Suspended between consciousness and death, his space filled with endless stars and he reached toward them frantically. “Idiot. Why didn’t you just call me from the surface?” Pharon coughed roughly. “It isn’t hard to find the drifts to carry me down. I have done this before if you recall.” “Maybe but you’re not as young as you used to be.” A dazzling light painfully shuddered into his vision. He blinked several times before his eyes adjusted. Warm feminine hands fluttered around him like delicate butterflies. King Fiachra who was sitting a small distance away was not amused. His long, curling tail slapped the high-backed chair irritably. He wore a grim expression. The room was airy and cool. “Now what the bloody hell do you think you are doing? You have news for me?” A soft, invisible mist rose from the ground where seashells lay in thousands of complex, repetitive patterns. The wall motifs were made of natural seaweed frozen into thick braids that curtained the room. Maidens smoothly retreated, hands stifling their giggles. “Nothing that you want to hear. Your daughter is officially part of the forest. I doubt she will ever be able to return.” “I see.” “But she is safe with the Sabals as you are no doubt aware.” He sighed and ran his hand through his hair. “While I was in the forest, I encountered an Orion.” The king arched his brow. “Don’t tell me that they couldn’t be bribed?” “Aside from spewing insults at me, I am certain that he engaged my second attention. And I want to see into the mirror to uncover what he said.” The king was amused. “So what have you brought to bribe me?” Pharon grinned. “You are so suspicious.” “I know you.” “Well, this selenite crystal seems to be their residue.” King Fiachra uncoiled his tail and studied the open palm. “Alright, go down the corridor until you come to the portal. Go through it and the mirror is there. I’ll help you only to be rid of you.” Pharon rose. “Does the mirror eat Mylittans by any chance?” “No, I do that,” the king snapped. Pharon turned toward the green-gold tunnel that linked the icy caverns. He entered with great trepidation into the room. A round patterned table of seaweed and shells pulsed with lime green and aqua blues. The icy mirror seemed cold and still as he plodded toward it. His heart hammered. Dreams and reality slowly blurred into visions. His awareness was flooded with velvet, eggshell white, ginger and bronze. The mirror tugged on him ferociously pulling him into the nuances of another time and place. He was aware suddenly of the Hood of Aden he had encountered on the trading ship so long ago. It had been so long. He could barely remember her. But that curvaceous body. Dark, luminous hair that spiralled around her and the rose dark features of her face. Crimson eyes roared violently. Then suddenly he saw something else. Thoughts roared to the surface. Could it be true? Could she have birthed a Mylittan son? The mirror crashed into blackness leaving him staring into his own eyes. *** The wide courtyard of Allirea Castle was decorated in golden shades as hints of fire rose from the braziers. Patterns of white lights gathered beneath ripping umbrellas and lanterns. Roses hypnotized the revellers who crowded in the open courtyard. Clouds sailed past in the sky while the inhabitants below were lulled into a state of intoxication. Trails of sunlight leapt through the crystal figurines illuminating the entire courtyard. Long wooden tables boasted full platters, strange desert mermaids and jade dragons surrounded by dried tendrils of yellow wildflowers and grain. Rows of ishtaritu from the temple of Tiamat carried offerings for the Festival of the First Fruits celebrated every year. Pomegranates, olive pies, moon cakes, strings of acorns, sea vessels full of wine, figs, dates and barley cakes filled the temple to the brim. A low humdrum of voices and feminine laughter erupted from everywhere as the Hoods of Aden wove through the crowds like tireless phantoms. Merchants, traders, and farmers from Isha and as far away as Baltana also strode in with their offerings, and were lead to the centre of the courtyard where dragon tapestries hung. Anatat gently brought her silver goblet to her lips and let her gaze drift toward Heliandra. She was wearing a silver tunic decorated with gold-green jewels. Her back was marked with white henna and her feet were cradled in a pair of lacy sandals. Her slick dark hair was swept up and fastened in place with a golden sprig. Displayed prominently in the groove of her neck was the power symbol. She met Anatat’s covert gaze and inclined her head, her expression haughty. “You’re so stiff,” the sorceress murmured casually as she stepped beside her. “You look like you should be in the temple of Olorun of Dea, at death’s door with the vulture priests. Here have some of these fine walnut dates. I haven’t had one in a long time.” “Heliandra is giving me vicious looks.” The sorceress slowly chewed the date. “You are a Hood of Aden, remember? She respects that even if I don’t.” Anatat grinned and took a date. “Yes, I remember.” The sorceress poured herself a glass of lemon water. “She is frightened, Anatat. Believe me.” “Of what?” “Someone like that is always afraid. They don’t understand what power is, you see. But you do and so you are not afraid.” Anatat raised her brows. “I’m not?” “Of course not. You have me by your side. And power at your disposal.” “I do?”Anatat took another sip of her wine. She peered again over the rim of the goblet, disguising the surprise in her eyes. “And why do I have all this and she does not?” “Because an element has interfered in your life.” “What element?” The sorceress sighed. “Me, of course.” Anatat nearly choked with laughter. “And I am glad you are here.” She picked up another walnut date. “Here she comes now.” Sandalwood and orange blossoms drifted on the breeze. “My courageous Hood of Aden,” the queen said with a cold smile. “It has been so long.” Anatat bowed her head slightly. “I have done more than you asked, my queen. I have delivered the Soultana of Siduri to you.” A slight pause. “Yes,” Heliandra purred. “So she has said. I am glad you are both well after your mishap with the Chilala.” Anatat gave her a cool smile. “I am just glad that you and the sorceress have come to an understanding.” The queen glanced casually at the sorceress. “Indeed we have. And we are certainly glad you have returned. After all, people were beginning to ask where my Hood of Aden had gone to for so long. They were beginning to think you had left our world. And I cannot think of a more terrible fate.” The sorceress cocked her head. “I’m sure you had no problem adapting to one less Hood of Aden.” “Anatat is unique,” the queen said with an insidious smile. “Her mother has left a stain upon her. She betrayed her queen and caused a rift between the Ishans and Sabals. So I assure you that we are all interested in her whereabouts.” The sorceress listened closely as she chewed another date. “Worried that she might betray you as did her mother?” “Timarion challenged my authority. She forgot that in this world we follow the traditions and laws set out from the beginning.” She looked at Anatat. “Her daughter’s presence here at my castle has not only nullified that stain but has catapulted Anatat into a symbol of allegiance and loyalty.” She smiled. “A willingness to work together for the good of this world.” The sorceress looked positively impressed. She turned to Anatat with raised brows. “I had no idea you were so central to the politics of this world.” She glanced at Heliandra and winked. “Then perhaps you should tell her the good news.” Anatat stared at the sorceress. “What news?” “You will join my retinue for the journey to the Well of Maris,” the queen said. She froze. “What?” The sorceress smiled coquettishly. “It would be an honour for us to join you. When will we leave?” “By the next full moon,” Heliandra said glancing at Zahrina. “You will be ready by then?” Zahrina’s eyes gleamed. “Of course.” The sorceress gazed meaningfully at Heliandra. “For the good of this world.” Heliandra’s eyes shone triumphantly as she raised her goblet. “For Aalayfa.” **** Chapter 15 Amaro worked his fingers expertly over the wooden loom. The tent walls offered little protection from the blistering heat wave hanging over them. And he stitched colourful patterns, murmuring: “Against the will of the Great Horned God, I aimlessly Drift Upon the desert sand, Carrying a woman and Her brood, Who Stifle me With an Invisible hand.” Salauq sat back against the creaking boards of the caravan as she teased out the wool and spun it on a wooden spindle. Next to her, Belil slept next to Kilaron. “They have become inseparable,” Salauq said to break the monotonous drone of the working loom. She fanned herself softly. The heat weighed heavily on them and sometimes she found it hard to breathe. Amaro did not look up. “Kilaron grows brusque and strong. Anatat would be proud.” “You speak her name so tenderly,” Salauq said with a smile. “Your desire remains ardent.” He did not want to admit how obsessed he had become. On his lips, her name hovered, in the dust of his breath, her scent and in the curl of his belly a fire grew continuously. “I admit that she is still in my mind. She follows the silence that the wind leaves behind. And though I know she does not feel the same about me, it does not matter.” He paused. “But I confess there is something about her that frightens me as well.” Salauq went very still. “What?” “I do not know. It is something that eludes me.” Silence. “As I said,” she reminded him, “it will soon be time to return to my tribe and you are free to pursue her.” His gaze snapped toward her but she was already snuggling under a blanket. For a long time he listened to the breathing rhythms of the sleepers until he began to feel a stare reach into him. Planets and galaxies moved into turbulent alignment. Some indefinable mystery reverberated through time and space. He abandoned his work and lay beside Salauq but could not sleep. His gaze shifted to the woman’s shapeless form irritably. “You act in strange ways,” he remembered telling her one night as moonlight spilled vaguely into the fire. “I don’t know what you mean.” “You buried yourself in the earth for three days,” he accused. “You sleep with rocks on your womb.” She had laughed heartily. “It is not me. It is the wind that does such strange things.” “You know well that the wind brings hundreds of diseases,” he said. “I know. He is the most dangerous of all the elements. Treacherous to the end. Going one way and then another.” She paused. “Free, powerful. Uncommitted.” “I cannot even share your pallet,” he protested. She stirred the milk on the fire. “At night he comes. We have conversations.” “You play dangerous games with him. You will pay with your life.” But she had only glanced at him casually. “He brings stars and clasps them into my hair like fine brooches. Who can resist such a charming, devastating lover?” “He brings the stench of death.” She stared at him. “Death is coming for us all. So why not gamble everything for this love affair?” *** Nantale Dore grimaced as she looked down at her legs. They were bleeding. Covered with dirt. She crawled beneath a tree. Her arms were covered in soil and her hands were hard and blistered. Matted and unwashed hair fell in a tangled mess and only the mendhi stripes painted on her body remained sharp. Mistress Mornai had even covered her face including her eyes with dark gold and black. “Are you certain you want to go into the woods alone?” the high priestess asked as she marked her. “I must go,” Nantale Dore murmured. “Panther is my totem.” “But how do you know? If it is not, you may very well be killed.” A pause. “Perhaps you would prefer a more docile animal to emulate?” “You cannot choose your totem. It chooses you. There is no choice. I must go into the forest.” The high priestess dipped the brush into an open vessel. “Turn over.” She turned and looked up at the domed ceiling painted with leaflets of pink and gold. “What lesson do you think the panther will teach me?” “That is something that will happen between you and your totem.” She retouched the lines on her face until the human features disappeared. The very next morning, Nantale Dore entered the forest determined and very much alone. By noon when hunger, thirst and cold settled into her, she regretted her decision and was ready to return to the safety of the Zerelia trees. She struggled with her fear incessantly, especially when the elements ceased cooperating. Cool raindrops splashed between branches. A sharp dagger pressed coldly against her hip. She had already spent the night in terror, with the seething darkness of the forest creeping into her. But the voice of the high priestess remained with her in the silence. “Fear gives you an edge. It forces you to act instinctively. It takes you to the point where you have to trust something that is greater than yourself. Facing a fear is defying the boundaries of your mind.” Nantale Dore prayed the rains would end. She did not want to turn back. But she didn’t want to spend another night freezing either. In the treetops, a wind disturbed the foliage. The fiery sun slipped behind elms, oaks and birch trees as night approached. An enclave or a hollow tree would suit her well. She really did not know what to do. She recalled half-formed caves a small distance away that she had passed earlier. But despite diligently tracing her footsteps back, she was unable to find them. She searched desperately through thickets and crevices, crashing through wild vines and moss coloured rocks. Frustrated, she rubbed her cold arms and pushed back her hair. She was very aware of the last trails of greyish light that were slipping away and with it her last chance of finding shelter. Then she froze. She could feel a presence. An enormous oak eagerly beckoned her. With no thought of what she was doing, she stalked instinctively toward the leafy branches. A large opening on the side was big enough to fit her entirely. Excited by the stroke of luck, she did not realize it was an Orion until there was a sudden shift. She blinked. It was no longer a tree but something more impossible. The entrance was swallowed by the darkness. She stood still feeling her heart racing. But the tree was warm and there were lights coming from somewhere. Silk blankets and pillows lay on a divan. Nearby a wooden platter of bread and fruit lay in a succulently. A row of candles flickered to life, their glow warming her cold stiff limbs. A steaming tub of water surrounded by flowers enticed her. If this was an illusion, it was a good one, she thought. She reasoned that she could not stand around forever staring at the hot water. Slowly she approached, dropped her clothes and slipped in. She ate the ripe berries that had been left and wondered briefly if she had wandered into someone’s abode. But she was so desperate that she didn’t care. She waited until the water turned cool before she crawled out and dried her tail. Then she fell asleep on the divan in the company of tumultuous dreams. She saw herself wandering aimlessly through unknown galaxies, searching dark forests for the elusive panthers. Something woke her up. A man was watching. Familiar green-gold eyes flickered in the darkness. Veins and roots twisted together and pulsed with the moist blood of the earth. She sat up and smiled widely at the familiar presence. “Thank you for this. Aren’t you helping me cheat on my quest?” He sat beside her. “Nobody said there were any rules to follow.” “True,” she said with a laugh. “And the Orion never follow the rules.” “That is very good,” Nantale Dore sighed. “Every woman loves a bandit.” A mischievous wind tossed the rain. Heat rose between them. Intrigued, he ran a hand over the curve of her hip. “We are dedicated to chasing those who chase the universe.” “Then you know I have come in search of my totem.” “I know.” Silence fell as he touched her gently. “Do you hear the conversations among the trees?” he murmured. “No, only the wind whistling.” He touched her cheek. “Maybe you do not know yet.” “Know what? Tell me.” She slumped against him, relaxed but she fell asleep. When she opened her eyes, drops of sunlight trickled through the gaping wound in the tree creating diamond shapes. She dressed and crawled out and dropped to the ground uttering prayers of gratitude to those who kept her warm through the night. The sky was a shade of crystal blue and the wind had ceased agitating the trees. Arguments erupted between jays, woodpeckers and orange crested robins. She turned to examine the giant oak, but there was nothing there. Not even a trace that it had ever existed. She breathed in the crisp air which had come with the morning dawn which swept away any traces of the night’s bewitchment. *** Anatat sat in the mud bath as a temple servant moistened her hair with coconut oil and looped it through circlets. In the nearby stoves, hot liquid honey steamed over a low fire. Rauva swept into the room and dismissed the priestess. She stirred the liquid honey in the clay pot. “Love the mud on the face.” “Where is the sorceress?” Anatat asked. “She arrived from the market a while ago. She said we needed a few more things before we go.” “The Well of Maris is the last place I want to go,” Anatat muttered as she sat up. “And the queen is the least person I want to travel with. We’ve seen her, isn’t it time to say goodbye and be on our way?” “Come out of there and let me scrape the mud off.” “I had a dream last night that six crows came to cut off my head. As I looked down, I saw my head tumble forth into a box. Do you think something will happen?” “The sorceress is always with you. There is nothing to fear.” “Certainly not,” the sorceress said entering suddenly. “We have the invitation we wanted.” Anatat looked at her with one eye open. “I was afraid of that.” “We are leaving tomorrow.” “So soon?” “Add another brick to the fire,” the sorceress told Rauva as she sat casually beside Anatat. “We are joining the queen for dinner this evening.” Anatat rolled her eyes high to the open cylinders in the roof. “Why?” “It is our last supper before we go, aren’t you excited?” “Heliandra looks very pleased with herself and with you,” Anatat said brusquely. “What did you tell her?” “That I am here to help her do the best she can do with this world. That I want to uphold her traditions.” The sorceress slipped her bare feet into the mud. “Mmm, this is wonderful.” Anatat laughed. “But you told me--” “I know what I told you. Now go along with my lead as you’ve been doing.” “Of course.” Anatat shrugged. “I just can’t help but think that the queen is acting too smug, as though she has one up over us.” “What she thinks doesn’t matter. We are making this journey with her.” *** A few hours later, the sorceress and Anatat entered the dining hall where the Hoods of Aden dressed in their crimson cloaks awaiting the queen. Orange blossoms floated in from the open lattice framed windows, drifting through the old oaks and across marble floors. Lit candelabras stood in the deep corners and crystal chandeliers hung from the ceiling. Round pomanders exploded with bright red roses that hung over a table where a clear aquarium sat filled with white koi fish. Sitars, lutes and drums created a subtle rhythm as priestesses floated through carrying knotted lace handkerchiefs and porcelain teacups. From the arched entrance, Heliandra suddenly swept in like a fiery phoenix, her robes floating behind her. Her hands sparkled with ornate red rubies and her arms were darkened with complex mendhi designs. She surveyed her waiting audience and then the fine table. Long necked porcelain tea pots released fragrant steam, spiced yogurt and platters full of cheeses. Roasted herring, exotic ripe fruits and coarse flaxseed breads were accompanied by bowls of olives and bowls of vegetable stew. “Please enjoy before we leave for the Well of Maris,” the queen said sitting down with her Hoods of Aden. “We are grateful for this, dear queen,” the sorceress said. “It is an honour to be here.” “As you know,” the queen said addressing the Hoods of Aden, “the sorceress will soon leave our world but will accompany us to the Well of Maris as I have requested.” She paused. “The sorceress has graciously provided me with the knowledge I will need to ensure the safety and prosperity of Aalayfa.” She lifted her goblet to the sorceress conspiratorially. The Hoods of Aden were thoughtful as they studied the sorceress and then glanced back at their queen. “Is is true that the Old World is not as aligned with us as they used to be?” one Hood of Aden asked abruptly. “It has been so claimed by the Mylittans.” The sorceress stirred the thick stew. “It is true, though it is not my duty to inform you of the changes. It is up to your queen.” Heliandra looked smug. “To explain it simply, the earth is shifting consciousness and all realities are shifting as well. We won’t be spared the monumental changes.” “That which will not change is the ruler of this world,” the sorceress interjected. “Traditions will remain intact in this world according to the laws of Tiamat. Queen Heliandra will rule these lands forever for it has been proclaimed by the spirit of the Asuryan.” Heliandra’s look of triumph was so vast that it eclipsed the entire table. “It is refreshing to hear those words of support from one who is not even of our world. Perhaps now Aalayfans will understand that I uphold the spirit of Tiamat.” She raised her glass to the sorceress. “To the courageous and to those who dare to speak their own truth.” “And to those who are brave enough to discover their own truth even if it means walking into death,” the sorceress laughed. Heliandra laughed and raised her glass again. “Agreed!” Anatat was so astonished at the exchange that she could barely lift her spoon. What in the world were they talking about? Obviously a great deal had been said and agreed upon between them. When the conversation turned more casual, Anatat glanced at the sorceress between mouthfuls of soup. They had lain beneath the stars so many times, by the desert fire where they laughed uproariously, danced like the undulating waves, sung those ancient songs of love. Anatat knew with all her being that she could trust the sorceress. “What are you afraid of? That you will die? You can’t imagine how ridiculous that is,” the sorceress told her one hot afternoon when they were caught in a violent desert gale. They huddled together under the protective flaps of the tent. The sorceress was totally unperturbed by the wild wind. “Why is it ridiculous?” The sorceress’ eyes were bright. “Someone who is already dead worried about death? Besides death has a bad rap.” Anatat was staring at her. “What?” “Death is the gateway we seek. It is not a pathway into an afterlife. It is the path that leads to freedom.” She paused. “It is just always tagged with all kinds of labels. So many projections to make you afraid but it is not like that at all.” In that wind tossed darkness, Anatat saw the gleam of her vibrant eyes very much like her own and knew she meant what she said. She knew what she saw in those eyes: inexplicable love pouring out clear as sunlight. **** Chapter 16 Whispers darted between the shadows of trees, through glossy thickets and wildflowers. The morning sun was crisp and woodland creatures stirred. Scampering feet scraped over mossy grey rocks and gnarled trees. Nantale Dore knew she had wandered far for the landscape had changed dramatically. And still there were no definite omens that she could interpret. She stopped oftentimes in utter frustration. Had she done the wrong thing? Had she entered the forest haphazardly? Was she making a fool out of herself? “The heart often tells us one thing,” Mistress Mornai had once said. “And the mind a different thing altogether. That is why there is such a struggle. It is the reason why over rationalizing often leads to the wrong choice.” She leaned in close. “But what does the whisper of the heart say? Fear is irrelevant.” Nantale Dore listened to the silence. What was it telling her now? She realized suddenly that it was not what she could hear but what she could feel. The wind in the trees. The open sky. The elements reaching into her. Suddenly she felt joy rise. And so she found the strength to ignore the instinctive fear that urged her to return to safety. The cawing of ravens suddenly alerted her. She stopped in front of narrow cliffs with protruding edges that curved in to create rollings hill. Dense tufts of foliage created a row of ragged caves and grainy roots that sprang like long dismal threads. For a long time she stared at the formation. Her body was motionless and her burning eyes pierced the earth. She saw that the raven had settled in the trees above and knew suddenly that it was the definite sign she was looking for. She fell to her knees and searched beneath the dark weeds and spidery foliage. Her hands reached behind the vines and hanging pale gold leaves. Cold dirt, slugs and beetles sprang from the innards but she was undeterred. Something lurked in that uncertainty. She could hear a humming from that crevice: “You have Come Far to Learn How To Dance, To be That Warrior that you have Longed to be, To Wander into the Old way of Learning, You must first Abandon your Perfect Sterility.” “Because you are Constantly Balancing on the Edge, This Invitation is for a Special kind of Being, One who dismisses all Their Old perceptions, And allows for a Different kind of Seeing.” Nantale Dore lowered to her knees as something magnetic pulled her through that tunnel that was both visible and invisible. She resisted at the sight of the insects erupting like a lava flow. Panic suddenly rose from the pit of her stomach. There was a deafening roar and she was consumed by some force; a sudden rush of wind and the elements collided as she was pulled into the malevolent passage. All she could see at first was a cherry red sky and a crystal waterfall. She took a sharp intake of breath. Diamond light blazed. Clear water spouted high and erupted into a spectacular display. Ripe berries and fruit trees with massive white blooms surrounded a marble mosaic. A gentle wind spun synchronous melodies. Above, long tailed eagles mated on the wind. It was not so different from Aalayfa and yet there was something hidden, unassuming about the intense quiet. Suddenly there was a thunderous roar that slashed the silence. An enormous panther leapt out, its body twisting in a powerful display of agility. It landed neatly on all four paws and fixed gold-flecked eyes on the intruder. “What do you want?” The tone was low and it sliced into her. Her heart pounded. “I seek the Pantherans.” “Why?” The whiskers twitched irritably. “Because panther is my totem.” “Is that so?” Even as he spoke, the golden eyes glittered. Fear and tension swept through her but she dismissed them. She would not give into fear. “Yes. I know because of my dreams.” The panther looked at her, cold amusement in his eyes. “You are in male territory.” “Then show me where the females live. Lead me to Panthera Tigri.” “I cannot let you go that easily I’m afraid.” A sudden splash in the pool dissolved the froth and a familiar human form roared to life. Curvy legs straddled a large panther. Breasts were fully encased in a lacy vest that did little to cover the voluptuous figure. Coiled hair wrapped around cool limbs and lips were a fiery red. Her eyes endlessly shifted from wine dark to gold. With one look, she sent the male panther scampering back into the forest and then turned the flagrant gaze upon her. “What do you want?” Nantale Dore simply stared, remembering the last time she observed her in the Sabal forest. In the slippery light, her face seemed to waver between panther and woman as though she was struggling to keep form. Her hair was beaded with crystal drops and intricate green mendhi that created pathways over her shoulders and arms. “I am looking for you.” Panthera returned the stare. “You must be stupid. Either that or you have incredible courage.” “I have spent many days in the forest looking. Surely you won’t turn me away.” The queen eyed the green hair. “Do you think because you are Galenean, a fish from a pond that I will be merciful?” “No.” “Or the fact that you are the daughter of Ixapa Eidan? Do you think that will help you?” “I have only asked to be invited into your realm. To learn from you.” Panthera Tigri suddenly looked amused. “You have taken a dangerous step in coming to our world. Many leave the moment they enter the forest.” “Well they would,” Nantale Dore replied, glancing into the forest. “The forest is ghastly and these male panthers are indeed frightening. I did not get an exceptionally warm welcome.” Panthera Tigri was indifferent. “The path of the panther is one of responsible leadership. But not the kind of power that mortals seemed to be obsessed with. That is the power that is not really power. And that is why we send everyone back to their own worlds.” “Like Queen Heliandra you mean?” The panther queen fell dangerously silent. “What do you know about that?” “To be honest, there is no shortage of gossip when it comes to Heliandra.” The panther queen stared. “Your accusations are rather bold and treasonous.” But Nantale Dore stepped toward her. “You mean my accusations are facts. Now, what I want here is to learn to stalk, to walk with the gait of power. Like you.” “That is what Queen Heliandra wanted as well. And look what happened to her. She became confused and now all of Aalayfa suffers for it.” “I was invited by Spirit.” The queen’s eyes flashed gold. “Once so was she.” Nantale Dore narrowed her eyes. “I am not leaving.” “You’ll be killed.” But the maiden crossed her arms stubbornly. “Then go ahead. My blood will be on your hands.” Panthera Tigri considered her for a long moment. “Alight then,” she said in resignation, “since you’re so stupidly stubborn, climb here behind me and we’ll be on our way.” Nantale Dore arched her brows. “You agreed so fast, I thought it might be a battle to the death.” Once they straddled the panther, they rode through the ancient forest balanced on the power of sun rays. “How did you know I wouldn’t kill you?” Panthera Tigri asked. ”I don’t think so. I have seen you in my dreams welcoming me. And raven was with you, opening the gates of dreaming. You invited me here, and don’t deny it.” *** “I have heard it said among the Ishans that the journey to the Well of Maris is one of the most important rituals that a queen of Aalayfa can undertake,” Lytai said as she rode alongside the sorceress. Anatat and Rauva followed close behind. Their retinue had already crossed the vast terrain that linked desert and forest. They moved through salty flat plains and camped a few times on bank sides and higher valleys populated by herds of gazelle. Occasional vipers and scorpions resurfaced but moved steadily past them like silent dancers. Their journey to the Well of Maris began well before the rise of dawn. Once supplies and horses were ready, the small entourage departed Isha while townspeople waved goodbye and wished them well, waving giant peacock feathers and holding lit candles and red dragon lanterns. Young ishtaritu rode alongside loaded pack horses as they eagerly followed. “Is Heliandra also immune to vipers and pythons, sorceress?” Anatat inquired. “No, that’s why she insisted the ishtaritu ride with us. For they will protect her using magic.” Anatat frowned in disapproval. “These young women are sacred and have come to the temple to follow their own unique path not to become servants.” Lytai laughed. “But Heliandra knows what she’s doing.” “To Heliandra, everyone is a servant,” Rauva muttered as she eyed the queen in the distance. “But that is precisely the best thing about her,” the sorceress murmured. Her head was partly covered with a gold gauze veil woven with shells and beads. “She is so blind and unaware. It is exactly what we want.” “It is?” Anatat asked in surprise. “I find her irritating. You are too accomodating, sorceress.” “When someone is so blind, it can only serve to benefit us.” “What exactly happens at the Well of Maris?” Rauva asked. “It is where the queen will mate with the Asuryan and establish her power over this world,” Anatat replied. “The Asuryan?” Lytai asked. “A spirit that is spun by the earth. A combination of earth elements to manifest the male energy needed to support this world. Because he is pure masculine energy, the Asuyran engages the queen and together they conceive the intent needed to support this world.” “And if the queen does not go? What happens?” Rauva asked. “She will be summoned,” Anatat replied. “One way or the other, she is answerable to the spirit. Sometimes they conceive a child. If that is the case, the Asuryan child returns to the desert and is absorbed. In a few instances in our world, the child retained its awareness and remained among us, but that is rare. Such children if they do live among us, keep to themselves. And I don’t blame them. Who would want that woman as their mother?” She snorted. “And I have wasted my life trying to gain her approval.” “Perhaps,” Lytai said with a grin. “But at night, who sneaked out of the castle to dance at the Ishan temple?” Anatat grinned. “Dancing is the way I consort with the Spirit. I simply took the road less travelled by.” They laughed uproariously. “No, you took the road you always take,” the sorceress corrected. “Lifetime after lifetime, you have danced your way to the beloved.” She paused. “Meeting me at the gates was positively lucky for you.” “I’m glad I went now, meeting you like that was positively magical.” “That’s not what you thought at the time, remember?” The sorceress gazed into the distance. “I think perhaps the problem really has always been you. You have spent your whole life seeking her approval. Giving your power away to someone outside of yourself; someone who makes up rules and regulations to maintain control. And perhaps you have fallen for her nonsense because you have never truly embraced or loved yourself.” She glanced at Anatat. “Sometimes we deceive ourselves without knowing we are deceiving ourselves. Your queen is a perfect example. Though she appears impeccable and righteous, she believes she is the epitome of morality, but what is her spirit really like? Her vibrational essence? That is what you must always understand. Everything is always about energy.” “But how can you accurately assess her like that?” The black eyes brightened. “Well it is a matter of seeing differently. By feeling and discerning certain behavioural patterns. Listening to your inner voice and being introspective.” Anatat’s gaze flickered ahead to where the queen rode confidently. “I see what you mean.” “But everything really begins when you start examining yourself, because everything is a reflection of you. And since you have always catered to Heliandra and her idiotic whims, we can say that you probably felt abandoned by your mother and fell into depreciating self pity.” Anatat glanced up ahead at the rigid queen. “Look,” the sorceress continued, “you lack perspective as usual. So I am going to help. She speaks constantly of union and freedom and maintaining tradition but that is because she is clueless. She has used logic and reasoning and applied them so that the Aalayfans can cater to her and support her throne.” The sorceress made a face as she reached for her water canteen. “All you Aalayfans have to do is stop supporting the one at the top of the pyramid and it will all come crumbling down.” “I know what you are saying is true.” “Well at least we owe her a thank you for spurring you into some real spiritual growth. You should always thank those who are unaware. Those shadows. They are used by spirit like tools to further help us evolve.” “I think we will be stopping soon,” Rauva said. “We are near the banks of the river.” The sorceress nodded in agreement. “A good place for camp.” She glanced at Anatat. “What’s the matter? You look absolutely pale.” “I really have to think about all this.” “To become introspective,” the sorceress finished. “I know. It has always been one of your greatest assets.” “Like directness is one of yours.” The sorceress laughed. “We are becoming more like each other all the time.” She nodded again to the distant figure. “Your queen is full of deception. But the one she deceives most of all is herself. I am full of compassion for her.” “You are?” The sorceress nodded. “Her life is perpetual fear because she thinks she has an empire to lose. And she’ll do anything to keep it. Even if she kills.” She shrugged. “She rides purposefully but it is so laughable.” “But why, sorceress?” “Because power is not something to seek outwardly. It is an inward journey. An understanding. It has nothing to do with a throne.” She raised her hand gently. “She exploits those who are weaker because she believes herself to be some kind of great warrior queen.” “I see.” But the sorceress slowly shook her head in amusement. “No, you are not seeing entirely. If you gazed with the eyes of the seer, then you would understand but that takes energy and some effort. For some people, it never happens.” “And what about you?” Anatat asked slyly. “Are you all that you appear to be?” The sorceress patted her head. “Of course not. But I already have everything I want here. An empire of freedom. No need to go searching for anything. Right here, my beloved, Anatat. In the now. Where the tiger dwells.” *** A dream. A male voice whispered. Just a dream. Anatat was dreaming and she knew it. There in the desert where her hair spilled over the her hips and silver coins reverberated in the wind. Over the dunes of some unknown desert. In the dark shadows, meticulous stars scrambled their patterns and she could see herself. Jewelled belt scarves. Olive green skirts that opened in panels over her thighs. An invisible presence pressed against her. A raw hunter. Fingers along her thighs, threading through her coined anklets. She could hear whispers from nowhere and everywhere. And that incantation gathered a new form and she remembered that ancient song from the temple, trickling into her thoughts. “Last night as I the queen was shining bright, Last night, as I the Queen of Heaven was shining bright, As I was shining bright and dancing, Singing praises of the coming of the night, He met me. My Lord Damuzi met me.” Anatat’s eyes flew open suddenly and she sat up. Her heart thundered as she found herself on the pallet, intensely aware of the silence. The others slept half buried in the low tents on the forest surface. She put a hand on her chest to ease her beating heart. The quarter moon hung in the sky and peered down at her with the sultry eye of a wanton. From the dark place where the sorceress slept, there was an increase hissing from bundles of snakes. Then Anatat saw suddenly that they were everywhere. She remained paralyzed as they slithered over her legs and coiled into her hair. She moved almost automatically, unable to control her limbs as she was carried through the foliage. “This way,” a clear voice reverberated through the leaves of the tree. She was swept through the forest, the trees swaying and bending back grotesquely to form a path. The moonlight trickled lighting her way. Creatures scuffled. Owls moved stealthily. Low rumbling laughter. She halted in the circular clearing listening to the potent rattle of danger slipping between the folds of the wind. The moonlit leaves tinkled like chimes. Across the clearing under a branch, something moved. He leaned casually against a tree. Antlers low on his brow. His tiny gestures secreted an earthly intoxication. A pair of wild green eyes contained universal power, dark, raw secrets. The divine masculine. Lord and master of sexuality. An intense interloper between the gates of ecstasy and death. The hunter and the priest, disturbing existence with his great love of life. “It begins with the possibility of a dream,” he said softly. His voice was deep and lilting like the nectar of blooms. “The possibility?” she whispered. “Then the dream itself.” He moved one hoof forward, his powerful thigh distended. “Desire is the nature of the universe, you must know. That which excites the spirit to manifest.” Anatat resisted the urge to move closer to him. Enormous antler seemed to fill the dark blue sky. “Desire?” “In the void, there is no beginning or end.” His teeth sparkled like diamonds. He inched toward her, his lower body coming into full view. His legs were copper gold and were weighed down by powerful hooves. And he murmured gently: “I am the Guardian of all that is Wild, Seek Me Joyfully in the Darkness bright, The Lord Wanderer of Passion am I, Seek me between the Wings of night.” “I conceal My Nature in a Thousand ways, The Trickster, the Lover, the Consort am I, But truly I am Positive Consciousness, And even this Perception of me is a Lie.” The snakes around Anatat’s limbs rattled threateningly as he moved closer. “You have forgotten yourself,” he murmured. “But we will meet again and again, beloved, for it is the time of the awakening.” Anatat stared at him as images swept into her mind. “In some world, we have met before.” He grasped her wrist, his lips pressed against her ear. “Inclusiveness is the beginning of freedom. But for that to happen, you must hasten along the path of death.” He paused. “Will you go into death to meet me?” She stared at him. “Is that our purpose?” “When you traverse the first gate, your memory will begin to restore itself and you will remember.” The dark mist of the forest circled them, his eyes glowed gold as the wind ruffled the trees. “And you will meet me there, upon the dune. You will know me and yet you will not.” She sat up suddenly on her pallet, her ears buzzing: “You ask me about his Reed Pipe? The wind must play it for him, You ask me about his sweet songs? The wind Must sing them for him.” Had it been a dream or not? The hissing of snakes had subsided. She glanced quickly at the sorceress and the companions and saw they were fast asleep. Cold chills travelled up and down her spine like weaving spiders. Above in the sky, the stars winked brightly. Anatat did not want to sleep, did not want to forget the minute details of that thorough dream. He had awakened something inside of her. Something so torrential that it threatened to sweep her away. How to explain the powerful attraction. The one who knew her most intimate thoughts. Her desires. She wanted to delve back into the dream, to revel in the presence of that which she could not explain. He said that she had forgotten herself. But forgotten what? She tossed and turned, struggling to fall asleep again. Listening to the quiet corners of her mind. Introspecting. So I am writing letters. One. Two. Three. Little hearts. Cards. That autumn when we met. My twin soul lover, S----o, listen. I am trying to tell you. In the beginning there was You and I. **** Chapter 17 From the bow of his ship, Pharon of Black Axe watched the men climbing over the ship rails, falling into the water along smaller wooden boats filled with offerings. “Where did all the offerings come from?” he asked his cousin. “Did they raid the villages?” Jarxyle grinned. “Practically. The women were more than eager to pile them into the carts. Those women are really enthusiastic.” Men were moving in ruthless circles, their arms linked powerfully, their horned heads tipping forward. Some drank barley wine, others smoked tobacco and chattered endlessly. Musicians played drums and pipes, stringed instruments with raw, feverish abandon and tapped their feet rhythmically. Torches burned and flickered, casting light along the surface of the water. “The scowl on your face has become irritating,” Jarxyle muttered to his cousin. “I am perplexed by the mirror’s revelations.” “There must be a good reason that a Hood of Aden has kept a Mylittan.” Pharon shook his head dismissively. “I am not getting the answers I want.” “Have you asked the elders?” “They do not say much.” Jarxyle gave him a grim look. “Likely they want you to drop the matter.” “These are part of our traditions. Our world operates by rules that will keep us from collapsing.” “But what are you going to do? Confront the Hood of Aden?” “The thought has crossed my mind.” Pharon shrugged. “The queen’s entourage is on its way to the Well of Maris. They will be crossing the river. What harm could there be in making a polite enquiry?” Jarxyle stared at him. “Your plan is to ambush the queen on her way to the Well of Maris?” “Ambush is such a harsh word.” He shrugged. “I am curious. Don’t tell me you don’t want to know. This is the best way of finding out. I don’t want to travel all the way to Allirea.” “The elders want you to leave it alone.” “Come on. Let’s join the festivities.” *** Mistress Mornai sat in the forest grass, her legs folded into a lotus, her breathing flowing in and out. Twilight created shades of sunlight that drifted through the trees as crickets sang. Voices of the temple children gently waned as she fell deeper into meditation. A cold wind suddenly crept over her spine and her eyes flew open. A figure wavered. A shapeless form fluttered and the raven appeared like a slash of darkness and shifted into a human form. “You want to know about your daughter,” Mistress Mornai said automatically. “It has been many moon cycles since she left in search of Panthera Tigri.” “She was certain that the panther is one of her totems.” Mistress Mornai shrugged. “She asked me to paint her body to invite power and I did.” She gave her a tiny smile. “She is very courageous.” “Did you encourage her to go?” “I did not. But she will learn from Panthera Tigri. She must have found her by now.” The high priestess shook her head in amusement. “A fish born of a bird that wants to be a feline. Now that is hilarious.” She chuckled. “Why do you look puzzled?” “I am just surprised. Nobody ever goes into death willingly. Nobody ever wants to change. People generally complain about everything and try to take the easy way out. Nobody wants responsibility for their life or their decisions and here she is trekking into the unknown.” Mistress Mornai looked at her in amusement. “I know you too well. You seeped into your daughter’s dreams and stirred her desires. You already knew she would go.” Ixapa Eidan grinned and put an arm around the high priestess. “You never choose your totem. It chooses you. And it is never too late for new kinds of tricks.” *** Smoke and earth mingled intensely. But Nantale Dore had already been among the Pantherans for over two moons and was used to the scents. She observed the luminosity of the surrounding woods glittering with blue mists and dark shapeless plants. Citrus trees and sprightly poplars erupted into the sapphire gleam of twilight. The panthers that strode by lazily carried dark haired humans on their backs. Long limbed women with curly hair and glowing leonine eyes leapt through the trees shifting gracefully in midair from human to panther. And on the periphery of the forest, stalking dangerously close were the males assessing the activity. “Why do the males not enter the clearing?” Nantale Dore asked. “The males are the ultimate hunters and retain their panther forms as much as possible. It is rare to see one in his human form. They enjoy the game of the hunt. Stalking their prey.” “They are terribly frightening.” “They do not enter the women’s camp,” Panthera Tigri assured her. Nantale Dore nodded. “They would prey on their own brood?” “They are lone hunters and very powerful. But their interest is not in us primarily.” “Then what?” She paused. “Their purpose is to store energy.” “And the female?” Panthera Tigri shrugged. “It is the same. The women here are free to mate with whom they please but only because the male panthers are so aware. Any children they have are bound to be an expression of that awareness.” She paused. “Of course, if the panther is in shadow and a female mates with him, against her intuition, she may create an imbalance, so women here choose their mates carefully.” Nantale Dore stared at her. “Then how does the female know?” “She discriminates using her feeling. By tapping her womb. This is the greatest power a woman has. That primal connection with the earth gives her an edge.” The younger woman was thoughtful for a while. “There is something else I want to know. It is your language. Since I arrived, everyone has been speaking Aalayfan. But among yourselves, you speak a different language.” “We speak a very ancient language that all mortals understand. It is a language that began in the blood of rivers, squeezed from the molten lava of our mutual beginnings. It is a language we all once shared.” She shrugged. “The only reason you cannot speak it is because you have not spent enough time in silence.” “What happens in silence?” “You gain clarity.” She fixed her gaze on a distant point. “To learn our language, you must begin listening with your inner ear. That is where our language is hidden. There in the silence, you will dissolve logic and open to magic.” She gazed at her. “Logic has its place, but the universe is made of magic. Nothing comes closer to this truth.” “I have not believed anything less of this universe.” Panthera Tigri laughed. “That’s good because this universe does not believe less of you. As far as it is concern, you are an equal creator and participant.” She made her way to the small thatched yurt with Nantale Dore at her heels. “I have been told that you go into the forest to bath. A river passes behind the yurts which you can use to bathe. Nobody uses it and it may be safer for you to remain close to our dwellings. I had forgotten that you are a fish out of water. Vulnerable indeed. But this river flows perpetually fresh and renews itself.” “But how is that possible? Where does it flow from?” Panthera Tigri fixed her with her gold eyes, her lips twitching. “Filthy thoughts create filthy waters. Higher thoughts create clean waters. It is very simple.” Very suddenly, the queen changed into a panther and roaring, she collided with another panther that leapt down from the trees above. They growled and snapped at each other as they wrestled brutally for dominance. Paws slashed the air, warm saliva dripped into the warm earth until finally the intruder fell back and shifted into his human form. His mouth was curved sensually. “I was just curious,” he muttered. “You know well that she is a guest.” He leered at her. “Tasty.” Panthera Tigri shifted to her human form. “You may become a morsel yourself if you don’t leave.” The man rolled onto his side laughing and shifted back again. He dove into the nearby bushes, his tail twitching arrogantly as the foliage consumed him. Panthera Tigri turned back to the maiden. “In this world, any kind of thought can manifest.” She nodded to the woods. “He senses your desire. Your attention has brought him to us.” Nantale Dore blushed. “Only a little.” “We may be lustful and passionate but our awareness of earth consciousness is sharp. We are part of the inner earth as you have now discovered.” Nantale Dore was still eyeing the foliage where the panther disappeared and Panthera Tigri grinned as she followed her gaze. “You see those raw hunters are not only part of our world but the very creators of it and together, our desire for each other creates this manifestation, this reality.” She nodded toward one of the yurts where delicate smoke was spiralling skyward. “Now why don’t you rest for a while and I’ll see you tonight.” Nantale Dore nodded and went to her home. Living with the panthers was something akin to living on the edge. Not only was Panthera Tigri a surprisingly patient teacher but she helped her form new ties with some of the other panthers. And then there was their mysterious language like crackling firelight. She would hear them in the evening around the fire, when she played with the wild cubs and stroked their white whiskers. “You will get bitten,” Panthera Tigri warned her many times. “Those cubs are unpredictable.” “I have never been so close to such formidable creatures and I’m taking full advantage.” The other panthers in the vicinity cast glances at her but she laughed at the serious expressions. “Stop looking at me like that. Panthers shouldn’t be so serious anyway.” She met their gazes boldly. “Anyone who knew my story would be envious. To live among the panthers, to lie beside them with no fear. It is a dream. And I have no fear even if death does lurk around every corner.” “Perhaps you have been afflicted by madness then?” Panthera Tigri challenged. “Perhaps. But what an affliction.” *** The Mylittan River glittered like sapphire, its waves rippling quietly like a jewelled coat. An ominous wind whispered on the riverbank where Anatat stood. If the Mylittan ships were there, nothing revealed their presence. As masters of disguise, they knew how to create the illusion of invisibility and how to use it to their advantage. Their entourage settled on the edge of the river beneath sheltering oaks and faced westward where peat-covered hills served as barriers from the cold night wind. The sorceress and the companions were particularly careful to set their camp some distance away from the queen and her priestesses. “How did you get her to agree to make separate camps?” Anatat asked the sorceress, glancing at the distant low tents near the water. “She has kept her distance on this whole journey.” “I told her that my servants get sick a lot and vomit and we need to be near the water.” Anatat grinned. “Shameless. But I also think she’s afraid of you.” The sorceress was amused. “Who do you think you’re dealing with, darling Anatat?” “A smooth talking trader, apparently,” Anatat replied. The black eyes danced. “Whatever happens at the Well of Maris, I will always be with you. In those places you least expect.” Anatat stared at her. “Aren’t you coming with us?” The sorceress picked up her hand gently. “I will always be there for you. You should know that by now.” Lytai suddenly crouched between them and lay out some date biscuits. “Courtesy of those fine bakers of Allirea. Have some. More tea is coming.” She put a hand on Anatat’s shoulder. “The queen’s winged creatures will carry us over the waters. We are to leave by dawn.” “What about the Mylittans?” Anatat asked perusing the river. “Will they let us pass?” “You can believe that Heliandra has it all figured out.” Lytai hugged Anatat. “I am going in to rest with Rauva. Why don’t you and the sorceress share the other tent?” Anatat waited for the companions to retreat and turned to the sorceress very deliberately. “Well, what is it?” “What’s what?” “All three of you are acting strange. I have a strange feeling. You’re too quiet.” “I’m always quiet. You induce me to speak.” She scattered some anise seeds into her cup. “Since I saw you at the dunes, I have found myself caught in a whirlwind. Your presence infuses me night and day. You affect my dreams and agitate my heart. I know it sounds strange but sometimes I feel we are the same being.” There was a deep silence as black-tailed gulls shrieked and tumbled through careless drifts of river winds. The sorceress gazed toward the river. “I have come carrying the sword of destruction. To dissolve that which was and create a new kind of perception.” She met her gaze. “As you have wanted to know me, I have also wanted to know you. A face to face meeting was my dream too. This reunion was my greatest desire.” She paused and settled her cup into her palm. “So that one day in some other world, you will ask yourself, what really happened on that dune? What magical memory was lost in obscurity?” Anatat stared. “What do you mean? Have you come to destroy this world?” “No, I only came to destroy your world.” “You’ve been doing that since we met.” Eyes gleamed wickedly. “Maybe one day, you will understand.” She shifted on her pallet. “Sometimes words are not enough. Sometimes the feeling is all that matters.” “What are you doing now?” “I’m going to finish my tea and get ready to sleep of course.” “Out here? Aren’t you going inside?” The sorceress sighed. “Why? It isn’t cold.” Anatat paused. “Do you think that Heliandra will see us?” “No. She doesn’t care anyway. Her only thought is her throne.” Anatat looked for the blankets. “I’ll stay with you. For protection, of course.” “And who’s going to protect me from you?” Anatat giggled as she lay beside her. “I don’t know what you’ve done to me, what spell you have cast upon me.” Later as they lay together, before the low fire, their hands clasped, they searched the vast sky. Occasionally, they could hear the companions shifting in the dark, dragging flat stones out of the fire and into the tent. “Sorceress? Are you awake?” she squeezed her hand gently. “I want you to know that you have excited something inside of me that is beyond comprehension. And the words ‘I love you’ are not enough. Not even the words, ‘I have reached a point beyond ecstasy’.” “I’m asleep, you know.” Anatat hugged her tightly. But the rest of the night she found she was strangely restless and it was only when the dawn arrived that she fell asleep. It was the harsh sun that woke her up and Lytai and Rauva noisily shuffling around a fresh fire. “Don’t you two ever sleep?” Anatat grumbled. “It’s morning and we could ask you the same,” Lytai replied cheerfully. “Now come on and get ready. Soon it will be time to cross.” “Where is the sorceress?” “She was up hours ago. We were waiting for you to get up, lazy.” She indicated to the sky where long thin clouds curled over the horizon. “Heliandra has summoned her messengers.” Rauva gave Anatat some tea and bread. “Finish this.” “I will help you with the tents first,” Anatat insisted. “No,” Lytai said sharply. “The sorceress says they will stay.” “What about the return journey? We will need them again.” She shook her head firmly. “No, the sorceress says we will be carried back. There will be no problem.” When Anatat had washed herself and dressed, she went quickly to the river’s edge where some large scaly winged creature with whiskers waited. “The queen has already gone to the other side. She will be waiting for us in the desert. You will ride with me,” the sorceress explained quickly as they mounted the creature. They moved smoothly through the clouds. The wind grew more intrepid and it roared preciously past their ears whistling deadly tunes and Anatat’s ears filled with her own voice: -I thought that the sea had forsaken me but I was wrong. I wrote all that poetry to the stars-I didn’t know-and I looked in the mirror so many times. How could I not know that I was chasing myself all along- The ships materialized out of the mist positioning themselves strategically around them. They loomed menacingly like ferocious sea dragons swimming through the sky with flaming torches. Anatat frowned. “What in the name of??” “I want answers.” A voice cracked through the silence. A man appeared on the ship, his silver earring gleaming. Anatat could feel the creature below her legs hovering. “Mylittan, let us pass. We are part of the queen’s retinue.” “You have birthed a Mylittan son that you did not return to us. Do not deny it.” Anatat felt her heart leap. “Heliandra will be furious if she finds out you held me back. We are journeying to the Well of Maris.” He gave her a ruthless smile. “I care nothing for that queen of yours. Now answer my question. Why do you hide my Mylittan son?” Anatat was startled by his ferocity. “Where did you get such an idea?” “Do not lie to me, woman,” he snarled. “Had I been Enyama, I would have torn you to shreds by now.” Stunned, Anatat did not know what to say. “Sorceress? What should I tell him?” But there was no answer. She turned slightly and saw that she was not there. “Sorceress?” Anatat’s eyes widened in horror as she twisted frantically. “Sorceress?!” Her voice was a piercing shriek that quieted the Mylittans. Things moved in slow motion as her mind reeled. She found herself staring at the Mylittan but couldn’t understand what happened. Blinking slowly, she saw a bridge appear in the sky. “What’s wrong?” the Mylittan roared impatiently. “Come to your senses, woman!” “The one who rode with me. Where is she?” Her voice sounded hoarse and shaky even to her own ears. “Did she fall below?” The Mylittan stared at her. “There was nobody with you.” Anatat stared into the eerie fog searching. “Sorceress! Sorceress!” In the sky, the bridge glistened poignantly. Perhaps she had crossed that bridge. There was nowhere else to go. She found herself suddenly leaping into the void, surrendering to that catatonic state, drifting in and out of consciousness. An indistinct feeling shuddered through her body. And she floated somehow disembodied, weaving through the intestines of space like a worm. Falling into clustered stars. Drifting around the curve of the sultry moon. She crossed the frosty constellations. Growling bears. Upside down queens. Lynx. Opening those blue portals. Calling herself back to herself. That Voice. Drumming in the cold. **** Chapter 18 Pharon could not believe what was happening. A brief lapse of astonishment swept through him as he grasped the side of the ship and stared down into the darkness. Several more ships joined them. “What happened?” Jaryxle asked. “What did you do to her?” Pharon was mute. Were his eyes deceiving him or had he just seen the Hood of Aden dancing over an invisible bridge? An elder was suddenly beside him, his sweeping tunic flowing darkly. “What is it?” “The Hood of Aden. I think I saw her, there in the fog. I’m really not sure what I saw. She’s vanished now.” The elder tapped his wooden staff on the deck. “You will speak of this to no one. And you will forget the Hood of Aden.” He curled his hand around the rail. “Come with me below deck. Several elders would meet with you.” Still shaken, he followed the elder down into the ship where tobacco smoke filled the small empty room. He met their accusing stares with a shrug. “I was protecting tradition. What would you have me do?” “Mind your own damn business for one thing,” one elder snapped. “That Hood of Aden will not be interfered with. She has already been claimed.” “I am concerned about my son,” Pharon growled. “Not about the woman and you know that well.” Several fragrant cones of myrrh rose into soft coils mingling with the tobacco. A long silence ensued. “Even if there is such a child,” the elders said slowly, you will leave the matter alone.” Pharon looked from one stone set face to another. “But you do not give me a valid reason.” “It has been so decreed. I demand that you not pursue the matter.” The elder studied him. “If he is alive, don’t you think he will want to know his Mylittan heritage? Sooner or later, he will return.” “But it would be too late. He will return uninitiated.” The elders stared at him, their eyes reflecting only empty shadows. Tobacco smoke coiled. “We have spoken.” Pharon crossed his arms. “None of us is fond of Heliandra, so why do you protect her Hood?” “You aren’t fond of her either,” one elder said, “but you mated with her Hood.” Snickers of laughter. Then one elder spoke. “Since you’re being stubborn, let me explain. By allowing Anatat her freedom, we are giving our world a chance to transform. Her transformation will affect us all. And if your son exists, then he will also be instrumental in balancing our world.” He flashed his teeth. “Do you understand now?” Pharon nodded slowly, “I think so. Why didn’t you tell me before?” “The universe works in mysterious ways, Black Axe. Sometimes you have to engage a battle and sometimes you have to let things go. A true hunter knows when to choose his battle and when to shut up and walk away.” *** “We must trust the physical body,” Panthera Tigri explained as she twisted into a panther. “For it is the way we experience our universe, our individual reality. To reject the body is to reject life itself.” Nantale Dore followed her gaze. A nearby hare was frozen, sensing the danger nearby. “Right now we are hunting that hare,” the queen said. “And just as we are hunting it, something is hunting us.” The younger woman was startled as she looked around apprehensively. “What is hunting us?” Panthera Tigri was very still, eyeing the hare. Not a single whisker twitched. “Death, of course. It watches your every move, licking its lips and waiting.” Nantale Dore lost interest in the hare and turned to look fully at her. “Waiting for what?” “It wants to know how you engage with yourself in each moment. One must live in such a way as to be totally in the moment. Death waits in the shadows and watches.” “Life is eternal, so what does it matter?” The panther left her as she stalked toward the hare, quietly, smoothly, striking with expert precision. Instantly, agitated male panthers crawled from the dark foliage, their cunning eyes focusing on the kill. “Come, leave the hare to them,” Panthera said as she walked away, shifting into her human form. “When you live in the moment, you live without resistance and this way of living is truly powerful. Upon releasing resistance, death watching from the shadows is rendered weaker. Living without resistance means that meeting death will become an ecstatic experience. But living without awareness, without examining yourself will mean that you may find yourself in a war between the heart and the mind.” “And what is the end to that war?” Panthera flashed her sharp teeth. “When you begin to listen to your inner being. This will lead you to walk the earth stalking yourself and your behaviours. To find out what makes you act the way you do and discover those repetitive patterns. You will be surprised at what you discover about yourself.” She changed the subject. “But enough for today. How are you progressing with learning our language?” Nantale Dore frowned. “I admit great difficulty but the other panthers say that if I still my inner dialogue enough, I will learn to hear between the silences.” They walked along the vibrant path toward the village. Nantale Dore revelled in the natural beauty of the forest glazed with a dust of gold. “I did not mention this before, my queen, but as of late strange things are happening at night.” “Like what?” “My body buzzes. Energy spins around me and I shake.” Panthera Tigri fell silent. “Perhaps it is your body aligning with the earth. It sounds like renewal, after all, this journey is the equivalent of a shamanic burial. Some of the Aalayfan high priestesses who seek our counsel also find themselves experiencing strange effects.” She paused. “But you have broken the barrier. A Galenean who travels to the depths of Aalayfa. Everyone must be puzzled by your actions.” “Do you think my mother is worried?” “Your mother has relinquished you. You followed your heart and that is exactly the right thing to do. Even if this whole universe condemns you, all that matters is that you follow your passion.” “To be honest, I felt there was no choice. As though some power greater than myself urges me forward.” She glanced at her slyly. “And to think you tried to turn me away when I first arrived.” The queen’s rich laugh filled the forest. “Not everyone is meant for this path, but you have a touch of madness and you are determined to search for power. You have cast the gauntlet with your actions and you have the attention of the universe.” They came upon the village suddenly and noise assailed them from every direction. Female panthers shifted back and forth, from human to panther as they worked diligently, laughing, talking as they carried water and wood. Children hung from their mother’s teats while others sprang on peach blossom trees and leapt into the foliage. Young girls sat among golden peonies, jasmine and herbal gardens tenderly gathering roots. In the dismal shadows just beyond the thickets surrounding the camp, terrifying shadows moved curiously. “Creativity also taps universal consciousness. You opened the gate to something mysterious.” Panthera Tigri walked toward the fire. “To engage creatively with the universe means you invite spirit into your world. And slowly you crumble the gates of rigid perception and engage with existence.” *** “You knew this would happen,” Anatat said flatly, intensely aware that the missing powerful presence left a desolate emptiness inside them all. She moved numbly behind Heliandra’s retinue along with the companions through the golden Alak landscape. Turquoise songbirds followed them in clusters everywhere they went, seeping into nightly dreams. Across the desert, larks and white storks flew toward the river accompanying small herds of antelope. The companions remained silent as Anatat hurled her accusations. “No wonder you were all acting so strange. Even the sorceress. Stranger than usual I mean. But what I can’t fathom is what happened to me. How I ended up on the other side of the river. Will either of you care to explain it?” The companions looked perplexed. “How are we to know if you don’t?” Lytai asked in amusement. Anatat lifted a brow. “Again, I will recount what happened in brief. Somewhere across the river, I lost the sorceress. I saw a bridge materialize and leapt onto it to follow her. After that I cannot remember anything except that I woke up in the desert with the two of you clucking over me like chickens.” Rauva grinned. “Clucking.” “Chickens,” Lytai replied with a gleam in her eye. “And neither of you offers an explanation or seems upset by her disappearance and I believe it is because you know where she is. You were after all so close to her.” Lytai swivelled to look at her directly. “If anyone is close to the sorceress, it is you, Anatat. If anyone knows where she is, it is you.” Anatat stared at her. The camels snorted and spat, their hooves crunching over the sand. “You will see her again, I promise you that,” Lytai said reassuringly. “Don’t make things more difficult by asking questions we can’t answer. Questions that you already know the answers to.” “Heliandra seemed pleased by the whole thing,” Rauva murmured in amusement. Anatat glared at the queen who rode ahead imperiously. “I don’t know how I can stand that woman any longer.” “I thought you liked being a Hood of Aden,” Rauva said in surprise. Anatat narrowed her eyes. “The sorceress must have cast one of her wicked spells on me, I’m afraid.” Lytai touched her arm gently. “She is closer to you than you can imagine, in places that you have not even thought to look.” She raised a finger suddenly. “But don’t ask me. I cannot tell you.” Grumbling under her breath, Anatat turned her attention to the desert sands. To the wind that reflected her sorrow and joy, to the passing clouds and swaying palms. White tailed eagles soared at the apex of the universe. Perplexing memories swarmed her incessantly. Sights. Sounds. Heart memories. One night when she was still in her first trimester, Lytai and Rauva had travelled south to trade for leather goods and salt, leaving her alone with the sorceress. The sound of the odili flute cut through the atmosphere. Anatat watched her narrowly as she gathered more brushwood. The tune was mesmerizing and dreamy like a thread of some ancient story. “What is that song you are playing, sorceress?” The sorceress put the flute down abruptly. “Tonight we will go and gather locusts.” “But there is no moon to guide us. How will we see in the pitch black?” “We will use our inner eyes.” Anatat thought she was teasing her and did not pursue the matter until late that night when the sorceress gave her a lantern. “Leave the small fire burning.” “This is madness. We will not be able to see.” “Come on. The lanterns will attract them. We can roast them tomorrow before the companions return. They do so much for us. We can make a meal for them once in a while. Don’t be so difficult.” It had truly been an eerie experience. Two lanterns floating through the black desert void like fireflies. “At the beginning of the universe, it is like this,” the sorceress told her. Anatat watched her lantern floating by. “Like what?” “Two little lights flickering. Searching for each other in the dark.” Anatat froze and stared into the blinding dark. “And at the end of the universe?” “A sudden light in the dark.” *** “I really cannot fathom why you are so glum, Hood of Aden,” the queen told Anatat who rode with her. “The sorceress said she entered this world to deliver a message to the queen. She has done her task and exited. Who knows where she’s gone to and frankly, I don’t care.” Over a week had passed and finally they had reached the core of the desert, threading through yellow plateaus and over vast sand dunes until the winds became hollow. The sun rays were pliable and managed to create pools of narrow gold mirages. Their eyes were dry and burning and there never seemed to be enough water to ease their incessant thirst. “Are we nearly there?” “Indeed we are. This is the place I never tire of seeing.” The queen squeezed the flanks of her camel. “I really want to tell you that it is an honour that you have come with me to this place. It is a place of great power.” Anatat was no longer listening, for suddenly movement caught her eye. An omen. Watch for those omens, Anatat, the sorceresss had said. The owl was silent and hidden. Watchful. A deception. “-want you to enter the Well of Maris,” the queen was saying, “as a witness.” Anatat was startled. “I had no idea that others were allowed inside the Well of Maris besides the queen.” “I always have a Hood of Aden accompany me.” She nodded brusquely into the distance. “It is here somewhere.” “How do you know?” “I can tell from the way the wind moves over the dunes, from the way the dunes shift. This is not my first time here. I can feel it.” Anatat glanced back toward Lytai and Rauva who rode together silently, their brown limbs hidden under veils. They stopped together near some sparse acacias and waited for the elements. The ground rumbled violently creating tumultuous clouds of dust. Then in a vigorous churning of gold, it rose uniformly from the shrouded intestines of the earth. Like a thousand vacant, cold eyes, caves seemed to interlink creating an enormous bee hive. Anatat stared at the structure in awe, for there was nothing about it that inspired her to approach its deathly hollows. “It is positively ghastly.” “It is a place of passion and power and transformation,” the queen said abruptly. “You would not understand. This is a place for warrior queens. A place for those who understand the language of the ancients.” The wind was persistent, continuing its onslaught with lashes of breath and sand whipping the turbulent clouds that raced across the sky like white horses. Great walls of sand rose and collapsed, tossed by the songs of the Chilala. Then suddenly as quickly as it began, the wind diminished in slovenly drifts, leaving trenches in the sand. “Start unrolling the tents over there,” the queen ordered. “Stay in the shadow of the Well of Maris.” Anatat stared up at the limestone caves slipping illusively from one reality to another. “Set up the tents here?” “If you want shade from the scorching sun otherwise you’ll roast like a boar over a spit.” The queen gave her an irritated look. “Now go help with the night fire. We will create an alcove with a circle of tents to keep the wind out.” Anatat was relieved to rejoin the companions who were already unrolling their tents. “What can I do?” “We need flat stones,” Rauva said. “It will be cold tonight.” Lytai poked her head out from one side of the tent. “Brushwood as well.” By nightfall, they had created a large circle of tents that proved a fortress for the torrential wind storms that came suddenly. “What is wrong, Anatat?” Rauva asked her. “I can’t sleep.” “Are you warm enough?” “Yes.” She lay back and closed her eyes, eager for the immeasurable silence of dreams. She tossed and turned, her body tired, her senses worn from the pounding wind. When the first grey began to slip through the cracks of the tent, she heard someone enter her quarters to replace her flat stones. It was nearly noon when she finally exited the tent. The desert seemed chaotically strewn with branches and plants and yet there was a strange peace. “We thought you would sleep the whole day,” Lytai said. “Where’s the queen?” Anatat asked, glancing uneasily at the far opposite side of the fire. She gave Anatat a cup of mint tea. “She is still in her tent. I guess it was a hard night for all of us.” Rauva picked up her own tea and plunked down beside Anatat. “That wind rattled my bones last night.” Anatat shook her head in disbelief. “It was so loud. I thought the entire desert was shaking. Very strange for the peaceful Alak.” She sipped her tea and ate some dried dates and bread. “So when has the queen decided to go? Have you heard?” “I have heard nothing from the ishtaritu as yet,” Rauva said with a shrug. “From what I know,” Anatat said carefully, “the queen answers the call from the spirit. The lower world needs to be awakened in order to gain access.” She added a honey flake to her tea. “The queen is supposed to perform a secret dance that she previously learned through her inner dreaming.” She narrowed her eyes. “I don’t know what she’s up to, but I believe our queen is not being entirely honest.” The companions looked at her startled. “What makes you say that?” Rauva asked finally, teacup poised in midair. Anatat was watching the queen’s tent. “I saw an owl yesterday morning. A sign of deception. And there is something about her behaviour too.” Lytai stepped around the tent and followed Anatat’s gaze. “Perhaps we should send some dates to her tent, you know, to show our goodwill.” Anatat glanced at her. “I don’t trust her but I will go into the Well of Maris with her since the sorceress told me that I must.” “I will take the dates to her,” Rauva offered rising. Anatat watched her retreat with the dates and glanced briefly at Lytai. “I just can’t shake the bad feeling.” “What is it?” “That owl. As the sorceress once told me, only an idiot would dismiss such an obvious omen.” She sighed. “And she meant me. Heaven knows I miss that woman.” **** Chapter 19 The twilight was eerie as it spread through the woods until only the faintest chirping cricket sounded. The sun stretched, her orange-gold tresses trickling over the sky in crimson and violet hues. Amidst tumultuous shadows, women’s laughter spurted from the enclaves of the forest where the Sabals were engaged in dance. Bare feet pressed into the moist soil. Bodies twisted, inciting energy to rise from the naval. Fingers twisted and beckoned the lewd one from between worlds. Others performed esoteric movements; gathering energy from dead stars, sSending energetic configurations to the heavens. Gathering dispersed energy to strengthen their bodies. Kohl dark eyes and cherry lips were set. Crimson hands moved intricately and precisely: thrusting, pulling and gathering energy. Sunlight trailed through the thick trees to create a wild, welcoming oasis; a cloud of mist rose from waterfalls that poured out of the mountain to create lush rivers where soft-crested water jays searched eagerly for rainbow fish. Feminine ankles splashed playfully at the edge as rose wine was poured into the river. Round pebbles enveloped their feet and riverweeds clung softly to their ankles. Ixapa Eidan led the procession of dancers, her fingers twisting, her young, powerful body moving with the pulse of the earth. “You wanted the sacred Imam, so here I am, Drunk on the wine of one Very Great Desire, This Female form arouses the Consciousness, Of the one who We Know truly as Our Sire.” “Absorbing my Essence will Double Your Strength, Gather divine energy by Entering into Me, But do not Clumsily spill A drop of Your Life, And You will Nicely Store all your vitality.” Sabal women shook their long hair, full of roses and orange blossoms, their loose breasts covered with vibrant green vines. Blood red hands, decorated intricately twisted, beckoning the playful wind. Beside the waterfall above, a tall, mysterious figure emerged from the shadows, playing the pan pipes, his antlers rising into the sky. He sang back: “Remember the Rules of Yin and Yang, Which must be Balanced when they truly meet, The woman’s soft essence Always does flow, But it is the Jade Stem that Can easily Deplete.” “So practice those rules that belong to the Tao, Or allow a Woman to Hasten you to the grave, Learn the Art of suppressing Your Emissions, Or waste Your power and Energy like a Slave.” “Using the Breath to Maintain Total control, Drinking from the Woman is What you Desire, Nourish Yang and absorb Essence of Yin, But waste That Sperm and soon You’ll expire.” “You Won’t be Bored out of Your Mind, If You Mate with a Woman Vibrant and strong, She will provide You with a Power you Desire, No matter Your Age, You will Always Grow long.” Ixapa Eidan leapt into the air, suspended herself over the river as she transformed into her raven form and she flew up to him. “You beckoned,” she murmured. “I did.” His eyes turned into limpid wine, dark pools. “Wanting the essence of you.” *** “Three bolts of your best Umrae cloth,” Salauq said to the merchant. They had been in Baltana for a fortnight, trading, bargaining and haggling for the necessities. She was pleased that Amaro had managed to successfully trade his handmade arrows and livestock while she traded patterned blankets. He had reluctantly loaded the spare caravan and took Kilaron to the temple to make offerings of pine, salt and sandalwood. “And remember you must return,” she warned. “Otherwise someone may discover him. We must return to the desert.” Once he had gone, Salauq wandered with Belil through the open market where barrels flowed with fresh trout, vast amounts of bundled herbs including lavender, bay leaves and sage. Painted clay pots held hundreds of stones including precious tourmaline, agate, onyx and rose quartz. Stark white bones had been meticulously carved and polished into walking staffs, tools and various daggers. Large crowds consisting of Galaneans and nomads, Mylittans and other wayward travellers flocked through the pathways while flocks of green-blue parrots sailed overhead. Maynard ducks honked through the sky eager to reach the edge of the river. Salauq had to keep a constant eye on her son who found it amusing to hide and then lunge at her feet, but in the vast market, few people noticed his erratic behaviour. “Wait,” she called, following him, her newly purchased cloth flying from her arm like a wing. She halted suddenly in front of a man wearing a long tunic. “I told you to stop,” Salauq said, but broke off abruptly as someone lifted her hand. “Do not scold him, mistress,” the man said softly. He had shifty eyes and gazed at her over a prominent nose. He wore a muslin turban over his head that fell slightly over the back of his shoulder. “He is a child, after all.” She looked up and gasped. His eyes sparkled. “You are a seer.” She met his gaze pointedly. “I don’t know what you mean.” “One who can see into the soul. A witch.” Salauq raised her brows. “A witch? What are you doing here? You must be from the Old World.” “I love the Baltanean market.” “Are you from the Old World then?” Her tone had hardened and she gazed at his face where disguises and thoughts played quietly. She flickered her gaze over his corded belt and silver handled dagger. His hands were tattooed. “Does it matter? There are many who wander in and out of this world.” “Yes. It is true.” He stared at her intently. “Then why are you looking at me so fearfully?” She narrowed her eyes. “Because depending on what time period you are from, the Old World has a certain reputation.” “It is your twin world,” he replied, “I thought there would be more enthusiasm for it.” “I wouldn’t say that enthusiasm is the word.” She shook her head. “That world is greatly oppressed. This world is a new kind of reality that we dreamed and we are quite protective of it.” “Just be honest and tell me exactly what is wrong with the Old World?” She crossed her arms. “It is well known for selecting one perception and sticking with it, though at least now it is evolving.” “Then I understand your reluctance in speaking with me.” “We are simply more guarded as we believe that many from the Old World are beginning to influence our perceptions here and changing our reality.” She smiled slightly. “We really don’t want to create a reality that would diminish us, you understand.” He smiled. “I understand.” Salauq inclined her head and took Belil and dragged him away. *** The desert winds were restless as they carried a fusion of images, lifting dust clouds; and between the caramel dark sand, feminine laughter aroused illicit fire. Fragrant tobacco smoke and the aroma of cold desert plants mixed together with trickles of sun, formidable dust of moons, the liquids of tacit dreams. Pedjeshes. Pedjeshes. She stretches the cord. And three women spun around the cauldron where flames crackled, snapping toward the luminous forms. One with lustrous golden hair spun, her crimson robes flowing: “The celestial Maiden dances and grows, Upon her Fingers, the Seeds she sows.” The second had great breasts and wide fertile hips. Her shimmering hair tumbled over her shoulders as she sang: “The fertile Mother gives him shape and form, Birth she gives Upon a churning Storm.” And the third had flowing white hair against a black gown, stomped destructively around the fire where the moon and the sun appeared like icy coins. Brazenly, she sang: “The Crone Brings him to life for a day, With her Blood and Spit she Seals him in clay.” They twirled repeating the chant again and again. Three voices intermingled with the turbulent wind. A mighty claw sent the sprawling words in the sky as the intended chants grew more fierce: “We make a Man, from Earthly sand, We Make a man to Hold Her hand, Round the Fire, we Give him life, So he might Mate with His Queenly wife.” “By the power of the Witches Three, by Tiamat’s Hand we Live for thee, For this great Moment and for this Night, We solely Exist to give You light.” “Come to Life, oh man of Our heart, Awaken, for your queen Comes to call, the Well of Maris she will Pass through, Awaken, awaken, for She Comes to you.” The winds squeezed the essence of feminine power from the trinity and Maiden, Mother and Crone created a spark in the earth womb; a subtle spinning of cobwebs connected light with darkness as the universe shifted dramatically. They fashioned him with gleams of starlight. Cloudy moons and cool wind gathered from the nimble eyes of the night. His eyes were powerful and as deep as the canyons of the earth. His hair was dark like the fragrant forest soil and his essence was like the oceanic waves. Eyes glowed like white lamps and his lips curved intently. With the mingling of menstrual blood and fresh bodily fluids, they shaped his limbs and torso and filled his lungs with the harmonious wind. “The Goddess Three spins him to life, The Mother Creator has chosen his wife.” And beneath the cold glare of the moon, on the trail of a mischievous wind, he was expelled into the Well of Maris like a rootless tree. *** The night was unusually warm and the moon dipped low, leaning dangerously close to the landscape below. “Something is happening tonight,” Anatat told Lytai who was spreading cactus fruit over hardened wheat cakes. Lytai glanced up sharply. “You see something?” Anatat stared at the looming labyrinth glowing against the darkening sky. The group of tents across the fire leaned against each other like giant insects with gangly wings. “Mostly drama.” Rauva, who was cleaning cactus fruits and adding them to a steaming pot, smirked. “Maybe she knows something you don’t.” Anatat watched the queen’s tent circled by ishtaritu, their foreheads marked with half moons, their hands peeked from below blue robes. Some held bone white rattles and someone lightly played a doumbek, a ceremonial drum. “Nobody can enter the well without an invitation. There must be visible signs and I haven’t seen any yet. But they are preparing for something.” She frowned. “There is something about this place, as though I have been here before.” Lytai added more brushwood on the sluggish fire. “Maybe it is time.” Anatat picked up a date cake. “Once long ago, the queens of Aalayfa had to travel alone into the labyrinth.” “What changed?” Rauva asked. “From what I have learned, Heliandra has insisted on making the journey more ritualistic, more structured. She enjoys ceremony. You know what’s she’s like.” “Egotistical?” Lytai interjected with a smile. “A performer of sorts?” “Here comes the spectacle now,” Anatat muttered. Heliandra was dressed in warm vermilion gauze and on her head she wore a rose-colored veil that reached the back of her knees, splitting in two folds. Moon stone medallions hung around her throat and her arms were decorated with clear quartz bracelets. She spoke sharply to the young musicians who drummed vigorously and then she moved to acknowledge the directions. She invoked the winds, her long fingers beckoning the guardian spirits from the invisible towers that sat on the apex of the world. And the looming labyrinth seemed almost alive, blocking the moon from trailing into the unassuming corridors; the dark, limestone caves seemed morbid and watchful. “This new wind moves chaotically,” Anatat murmured. She moved closer to the fire. “This is no ordinary wind,” Rauva replied, “it feels very purposeful.” “Something is happening,” Anatat said suddenly. “Look over there.” Charcoal smoke emerged from the base of the well to create one voluminous cloud. Suddenly Heliandra was shouting to her priestesses who scuttled away; a sullen wind dissolved the embers of the camp fires leaving the entourage in sudden icy darkness. Anatat stared expectantly into the dismal fog suddenly illuminated. “Go back inside,” she told the companions. “Whatever it is, it’s coming this way.” She glanced at Heliandra who was already moving toward the inky cloud and Anatat darted quickly after her. Suddenly the landscape shifted and thousands of silver streaks undulated and rose to the sky like rigid icicles. The wind and fog mingled creating sand clouds that rolled haphazardly like frothy waves. She could no longer see the queen in that smoky grey wind that beat her senseless. The icicles turned into an astonishing spherical procession of black mambas with inky mouths. The wind relentlessly cut away at her joints every time she struggled to rise, entangling her as the black mambas rose upright like gleaming swords capturing the moonlight. Anatat continued to search for the queen but could not see her. She crouched low to the ground, threatened by the wind whistling down her spine. It was when the wind hastened slowly to its demise that Anatat caught sight of the crumpled body on the ground. Long hands glowing with ruby stones were stretched above her head. Anatat knelt beside Heliandra and shook her. “Wake up!” But the form seemed frozen solid. Anatat felt her soft pulse. “Wake up!” She brushed the hair from her face but she was unconscious. They were alone and trapped within the circle of mambas that had stiffened into a solid barrier. She stood up and looked around. She stifled a scream as she saw the enormous sphinx that stood over the circular barrier. The leonine head was square and solid and a pair of emerald eyes were watched her with cold indifference. Anatat stared at the woman, her gown floating gently over cinnamon dark arms. Curvy hips and a round bottom were tightly wrapped in tawny gold. At her bare navel, a looping silver snake formed the knot of Isis. Sapphire shells stood solid against her breasts shielding them. Between her eyes, crystal droplets hung. Her face and shoulders were tattooed with sacred spirals and crescent moons. Long white hair was bejewelled with hundreds of hyacinths and tiny jade stones. “You have stepped into the formless void and must answer the riddle of the sphinx.” “No. You do not understand. I am not the queen.” She knelt by Heliandra and twisted her head slightly to display the symbol. “Here lies the queen of Aalayfa.” “I am Afishetu-Devi, she who dwells within the Well of Maris.” The entity stared with a green cutting gaze. “To gain entry, you must answer the riddle.” “Treading through that River of Stars, Rocking on Argo with a blazing Face, What is that which pursues the Hare, And Guards the Orion in empty space?” Anatat frowned. “You must understand this is impossible.” The moon exposed her scaly neck. “You want your questions answered and I want mine answered.” Anatat stared. “What questions? I don’t have questions.” The entity stared back. “But you do. About Timarion. And what happened so long ago that has remained hidden.” A sickening feeling swept over Anatat. “What do you mean?” “Once you gain access to the labyrinth, you will remember. After all this is not your first time. You don’t have a choice. Answer and gain entry or nobody enters the labyrinth. I ask you again. Answer the riddle that you already know.” “Treading through that River of Stars, Rocking on Argo with a blazing Face, What is that which pursues the Hare And Guards the Orion in empty space?” Anatat thought quickly. Maybe she could bring Heliandra into the Well of Maris with her. Without the blessing of the Asuryan, the lands would surely languish. There was no choice but to reply, but what could she say? “Perhaps Heliandra would know the answer to this riddle but I am afraid I do not.” Anatat turned slightly to her left and was shocked to see the figure standing beside her in that old familiar way. Sorceress. And she smiled and whispered to her over and over again, until they were speaking to each other in unison: “That which Awakens the gods of the air Proclaiming the Rising of the river Nile, Is the Star of Isis and Her celestial Wolf, Watch Sirius Gleam in that Watery style.” Anatat saw the sorceress vanish and the power of their words seemed to crack open the silence. Afishetu-Devi opened her arms widely. “You see that you knew the answer. Welcome my daughter.” From the green watery eye of the sphinx, there was a sudden explosion of amber light and hundreds of impossible visions whirled. Golden apples, tawny earth, fruitful winds carrying florid pink petals into powerful hurricanes as she was swept into tunnels of smoke and across fields of orange blossoms; blue drops of fire wound around her. Then suddenly amidst the visions, something unfathomable spiralled out of the pattern. A moth flew out of the pupil with wings of emerald liquid. It came forward joyously and sat on Anatat’s shoulder, opening and closing its wings. Afishetu-Devi smiled. “This is the moth, a symbol of freedom and transformation. Here is the place you have been so many times before and I welcome you again.” And as her words trailed away, she dissolved along with the sphinx. Only the icy black mambas reverberated like spindly labradorite swords, the last residue of moonlight stripping them of their resonance. Soon they too dissolved, their fluid bodies expelling the last chill of violence. The winds suddenly ceased and Anatat could hear only her own breath. She put her hand at her shoulder but the moth had also vanished. She knelt breathlessly by Heliandra’s frozen body. “Come on, wake up. I have to go into the Well of Maris.” **** Chapter 20 I am Seshat and I live by my Word. The night was deep like heated liquid melting into the perimeter of the fire; nestled within the slanted cave, dry ashes sailed in on an intruding breeze. The desert landscape was cool, illuminated by tawny dust and vivid turquoise skies. Irritated scorpions scuttled to and fro and scrambled into cool corners, unseen by the sun as it sank behind the earth. Seshat did not stir as she lay back against the cold cave wall intently surveying her art. Crimson symbols continued to rise from her subconscious as her fingers eagerly sought her carving tools. But she was so tired. The night was moonless and still she could feel a presence outside. She continued staring at the wall. The Soultana of Siduri was balancing on the thread of here and there. Her eyes haphazardly folding ancient secrets. But she was doing something else. Her fingers like black spindles were weaving. Knitting starlight into her serpentine shawls. The Eye of the Cat. That Howler herding the Big Bear and the Little one too. And Draco in the far distance. That Al-Korsi. Sitting on her Throne. And her beautiful daughter, the one who is shackled. Long and ancient is that water serpent. Ash-Shuja'a the Brave. And Alphard struggles alone. Play on that Lyre and make that summer triangle. Oh look, the footprints of Vishnu, Altair. And Vega weaves her wedding gown. Al-Battiyah. Lift your cup. Here come the floods. Watch for Al-Jadi. The young goat. Half fish. Unable to make up his mind. That Great White Horse. Upside down. Born of Medusa’s blood. And Remus holds hands with Romulus. Twins raised by Chiron. Watch Hamil Ra's Al-Ghul. Algol winks those binary lashes. The Soultana of Siruri weaves. Gingerly. Purposefully. Stretch the cord. Dot. Dash. Dot. Dash. Blue and red. Lastly. A black background. Two red fish. Red. Like the Dogon say. But you have forgotten. Seshat can see the wolf. He is there with his gold flecked eyes settled complacently on her. In that stillness, there is always the dream. Boundaries cross. Realities merge and the song of the ancient stars drowns her veins with memories. You know that star was once red. Seshat smiles. Yes. Hydrogen. Draw one circle. A point. A circle around that. Another point. Balance on the edge of there. The sorceress whispers. Tell me. What is at the end of you and me? At the surface of this reality, a sudden awareness of my own fragment. You at the corner of my eye. Listen. Here I am. Teetering on the edge. **** Chapter 21 Anatat did not even have a chance to glance one last time at Heliandra’s body strewn on the ground. Only a blur of golden shadows remained on the horizon as the sun ascended reaching luminous paws from the dingy earth. She was swept by great icy wafts that emanated from the porous walls into the limestone caves, their gaping mouths unleashing inhuman wails as they hungrily drew in the light of the sun. The tunnels seemed cold and harrowing with dark rodents and scuttling dung beetles. She climbed quickly feeling the strange sudden change in the air. Warm shifting sands rose in dreamy wafts singing through the hollow caves;corridors were voluminous and churned with drifts of sand; jagged quartz crystal formations created strange patterns. She was not certain where she was going but knew that she was definitely trapped within the labyrinth. She moved through hoping that she would somehow be led to the exit and wondered if the queen still lay outside motionless. The sacred dance to fully entice the Asuryan had still not been performed and only the queen knew the secret movements. Suddenly a sweep of turquoise birds swept in great hoards out of one cavern and into another and Anatat leapt into an adjacent cavern. She gasped when she saw the emerald moth perched on a jagged crystal, wings glowing with effervescent pearls. A surge of knowing roared through her belly and penetrated to her bone. Icy coldness rose sporadically, followed by warm breezes. She swept her gaze over the rough walls that seemed at times to illuminate themselves. Above, stretched upward like a long open throat, with jutting grooves was another cavern. A shiver across her shoulders and an inexplicable feeling swept through her. She looked to the centre of the cavern where a black fire had snapped to life. No smoke. Only liquid flames trickled onto the earth mysteriously. Strange jumbled whispers. Images roared out in sequence, recounting events. She stared into the flames as thoughts untangled, and secrets that had once eluded her sprang to the surface of this new reality. The black liquid unravelled itself taking on a new form of a familiar figure. The Soultana of Siduri. It was her and yet it was not. Her silhouette was a spiral and her palms were two lotus blossoms. Fine lapis lazuli shells sprang from her hair and her eyes were bright red lights. And Anatat knew to follow her, mimicking the rolling hips, twisted her wrists and curled her fingers through the dust and wind. Strings of ivory around her bare feet and ankles created rattles of power. Tattooed arms flowed to create the movements of the weaving spider. Mesmerized by the slick tarantula, Anatat followed the shadow until they were one, and their voices rose in unison, chanting as they moved: Anahata Anahata. Open Anahata. “I fall in Step With the Universe when I Dance Like this, When I open Anahata, and Accept the invitation, Trusting the Universe and Surrendering to life, Is Making life implicitly a Total Meditation.” “From the Moment I was Born, I have been crushed, I have been Told how to Be and What to Say, Society and Family successfully deceived me, And I confess that my Spirit Has been in Dismay.” “I did not Realize that I was Raised in Oppression, That I was raised Unconsciously to Know only fear, But Thankfully there is Another power at Play, I did not Expect this Unknown to Suddenly appear.” “I have been Raised to Ignore the Longing of my Heart, Condemned for Dancing My Own Way so Free, So I pretend to Be a dead Corpse Like you, Then You won’t Be Consumed by Jealousy.” “But remember that Perception Becomes Clear, When the Heart’s Gate is Cast open like a Die, Then All these new possibilities Become Real, When you’re Aware of the One Behind your Eye.” “Open Anahata and take that Ultimate risk, But it is certainly not as Easy as It may seem, Engage with Yourself until your heart Opens, And finally escape that Dream within a dream.” “So step out of that Safety and Start the Journey, Step onto the Path where Freedom is strewn, Be the Ultimate Gambler and Step onto that path, Take my Hand and Let us hasten to the Dune.” Anatat heard a sudden crack. The black fire and the sorceress vanished and the cavern was barren with only the sand whirling at her feet. Above in the spiralling labyrinth, shadows seemed to converge as she blinked the bright spots from her eyes. There were low shuffles echoing from above. Scraping. Some fierce animal scratching. A black panther sailed from one ledge to the other. Descending. The shadow leaping gracefully that Anatat knew without a doubt. Heliandra. So she had finally managed to enter the Well of Maris and was likely searching for the Asuryan. Or he would be searching for her. Anatat slipped out of the corridors edging into the honeycomb caverns as she dodged behind crystal formations. The air suddenly became dense as she scuttled the peripheries and jagged edges but the rock formations callously created impenetrable gates. She had most certainly been here before and so here somewhere in the Well of Maris was the chance to find her mother and question what she had seen in the black flames. At first she was astonished, dragged into the complexity of an ancient story that she was not sure was completely her own. But now she was remembering more and more, finally understanding something much more incredible than she imagined. This might be the only chance she had, and as Heliandra mated with the Asuryan, she would seek the answers she was looking for. *** Nantale Dore crouched to the ground. The earth seemed to unleash the scent of poisonous hyacinths and magnolias; the twilight darkened the sky. She stared at her reflection at the edge of the still pond and was startled. Magnetic green eyes blazed back at her, eyes flecked with gold like ancient stars. Nantale Dore shifted slightly, her instincts flaring to life and suddenly she sprang away from the looming shadow that descended on her with a deafening roar. “Well, I see you have learned to follow your instincts,” Panthera Tigri said, her whiskers twitching. “How did you know I was there?” Nantale Dore dusted the grass from her legs and grinned. “It was in the sway of the trees, in the way the wind whispered.” Spits of rainfall dropped into the effervescent darkness. Panthera Tigri shifted into her human form. “So you have become fluent in the language of the panthers. Come this way. I want you to meet someone.” Wildflowers with bobbing heads acknowledged them as they made their way through the foliage, creeping behind groves toward the caves. Entrances were protected by citrus trees that leaned like saucy harridans. A moist sugar palm surrounding a low cave did not seem particularly inviting, but Panthera Tigri trudged through intently. “Your eyes will adjust quickly and then clear.” Nantale Dore stared into the blinding darkness until a soft glow of orange appeared. “I see a tree.” “Yes.” Leafy branches glowed dark caramel while exotic red plums and obsidian opals hung lewdly from the dark tips of branches. Within the sultry branches, a very large white lynx sat very still, her large paws crossed complacently. Yellow white fur was eloquently spotted. “Can you see her?” Panthera Tigri murmured. “Very clearly,” the girl replied. The lynx had a very muscular face and a mane that did nothing to diminish the secretive smile. “So you are the one who came looking for your totem,” the lynx purred. “Everyone is talking about it.” Nantale Dore could not help but stare. “Yes, I’m the one.” “Madness.” The lynx moved very silkily and trembled into a bluish white light. A woman with champagne topaz hair and dark hazel eyes reverberated into existence. Her face shifted only partially, maintaining the cat features. The rabbit bones at her throat rattled. From somewhere, the crackle of fire sounded and light reflected from the surrounding walls. “I am the Lynx, keeper of secrets.” Both the lynx and the panther fell suddenly silent. They were watching her. Nantale Dore raised her brows with a sudden realization. “Oh, I see. My time is finished here.” Panthera Tigri stared. “You have all that you need from us.” “Ixapa Eidan says there is no end to learning. I do not want to go yet.” The lynx woman shifted. “We will plod by your side, giving you what you need as you make the earth journey and learn the ways of power.” She paused. “True power lies only within the self. Acquiescing to the moment as it comes. This is the teaching of the great cats.” “You have been here already so long,” Panthera Tigri explained. “If you stay much longer, you will forget your old life.” “But there is much to learn.” “You will learn with Mistress Mornai at the temple. She has been here and knows our secrets.” “My daughter,” the lynx said gently, “you have made the effort to change by leaving your father, penetrating the magic of the Zerelia and seeking your totem. You are already on the path to freedom. Your intention is enough.” She shifted back into her original form and retreated. “Watch for me in your dreams. I will be with you.” Just outside, the sugar palms rustled, rushing into her consciousness. Nantale Dore was thoughtful. “It is so difficult.” “In order to transform, you must leave,” Panthera Tigri explained. “Dying to the self is never easy. Nobody chooses it voluntarily.” “Because it is painful?” “It spurs you to grow.” “And I thought I had a choice when I chose my path.” Panthera Tigri laughed. “Well, you didn’t. It only appears that way.” *** Many legends abounded about the northern temples of Baltana. And Salauq had heard mostly all of them, especially the origin stories. The nomads who drifted over the breathless dunes swore it was the Chilala who created the temple illusions. Others insisted it was the creations of the high priestesses who learned to emulate Tiamat. And some still insisted that like the pyramids of the Old World, they were dreamed into existence by ancient seers. She looked at the Rhean Mountains, a jagged chain seemingly dusted with that powder of the silken moth. It was twilight and the desert quivered beneath the touch of the seductive sun pressing dark lips on the spine of the horizon. The wind lifted her hair like an eager lover and the sand dunes shifted creating spirals of white and golden cones. She had left Amaro in the market to continue trading while she took the caravan back into the desert. Deep inside, hidden from the brash sun, she could hear the occasional laugh, a bawdy chant. The two boys were growing quickly. Both had their own purposes, desires that she found unfathomable. And yet at the same time, they were essentially different, in fact, almost polar opposites. But it was Kilaron who truly frightened her. There was something fierce in his approach, a sense that if he were unrestrained, he would ravish everything in sight. She stopped and stared. The temple emerged on the landscape, crimson sandstone, shaped meticulously like a dragon. Bloodstone eyes gleamed. A precarious tongue swerved and twisted upon the ground creating a doorway to some inner mystery. Kulmashitu priestesses entered the mouth carrying bundles of reeds, pomegranates surrounded by wild bunches of oregano and chamomile blossoms. Their eyes were painted with vermillion and orange and lips were brushed with ochre. They barely noticed Salauq as she trudged over the sloping dunes toward the entrance. “Stop making noise,” she called to the two boys. “I will not be long.” She clicked her tongue, glancing in resignation at the caravan tipping one way and then the other. “You have your hands full,” one kulmashitu murmured, the gold coins in her hair rattling. “It seems so,” Salauq said with a sigh. “The boys have grown quickly.” She kissed the priestess on her cheeks. “It is good to see you again.” “The high priestess is expecting you.” They entered the dazzling labyrinth of sand and limestone. Ecstatic images of round hipped women, expanding vulvas that spewed forth vast continents and galaxies. The upside down white horse thrashing in the foam gleamed with mighty gems. Salauq was led through the tunnel toward the sacred chambers of the high priestess. Along the entire temple, varieties of altars had been created. Some were loaded with cherry blossoms and myrrh and sea salt. Feathers of the white tailed eagle and rocks of hardened lava from Sefiteyu sat alongside innumerable crystal roses. Trays were chock full of dried figs and pomegranates, oranges and sorghum cakes. The high priestess was cocooned in the slippery darkness. After her eyes adjusted, Salauq could see her outline on the large cushioned divan. Thick horns of fertility were prominent on her forehead, flanking the symbol of the triple moon. Her hands and feet were painted ritualistically with dots and dashes that told stories of journeys through inter-dimensional worlds. “There was a man in the market. From the Old World. Unbidden he has entered our world. There are too many coming.” “I know.” She called a younger priestess who appeared suddenly. “Some tea please for our guest.” She nodded to Salauq. “Come join me here, my daughter.” Salauq stared at her. “Those from the Old World infiltrate our world easier than ever. Should we be worried?” “No.” The high priestess smiled slowly. “Things are changing all over the earth. Many are breaking through their fear and oppression. Those in the underworld are beginning to remember alternate realities. To access them. Time as we know it is collapsing.” A million winged messages fluttered between them. “I see your lover has returned,” the high priestess said gently. “His blemishes are upon you.” Salauq’s eyes lit. “Amaro does not know that Belil is the child of the wind.” There was a long pause as the high priestess studied her. “And now there is the other son.” “A son of a Hood of Aden and a Mylittan. A mysterious being from another reality insisted that I take him.” “Yes, she is the Soultana of Siduri. As powerful as she is mysterious.” The high priestess tilted her chin up. Silver secrets glowed behind her lashes. “Her story has been set in motion. She has set her intent and unfolds her story within this world.” “I am not certain I understand.” “Just as your life is a thread of a bigger story, so the sorceress has entered our world to weave her own tale.” She leaned against her cushion. Her eyes captured the glow of the torch. “We are all a story within a story that never ends.” She filled her teacup. “There are many who are starting to connect with their higher self and the vibrations of this world will change dramatically.” “The wind speaks of it as a change in consciousness.” The high priestess nodded gently. “Sometimes the moon is full of jagged shadows. Dreams and delusions and fantasies. It causes chaos in the mind and creates projections that are not real.” “And our queen is one of those, I think.” “Her shadow aspects are a reflection of us. And we are all on the path to our inner being and on the road to freedom. We are a world that will soon go beyond the fear of survival. But first the old patterns have to be relinquished.” “What must we do?” “It is an individual journey but true knowledge is essential if we are to go beyond our limitations.” “And what of Heliandra and her Hoods?” The high priestess remained motionless. “There are many in our world who are working to eradicate that kind of power but she really has no power unless we believe it to be so. We are multi-dimensional beings who are living the greatest story of all. The story of universal expansion.” “And what about this Hood of Aden, Anatat? What can you tell me about her, priestess?” The high priestess paused. “Anatat is supported from the worlds beyond as she makes her way through the underworld.” “She has left her son with me and it makes no sense.” “It makes no sense to one who doesn’t see the whole picture. But the sorceress has greater vision and knows what is coming. You must protect him as long as he is with you.” “He frightens me at times.” “You do not see the whole picture,” the high priestess repeated. “He is on his own path and you will do as the sorceress has instructed.” Salauq inclined her head respectfully. “I absolutely will.” “I know it, my daughter.” **** Chapter 22 Anatat was astounded by the complexity of the labyrinth. While some entrances were oval-shaped, others were narrow and half filled with sand and others were hollow and contorted. Like a reflection of the inner womb, the blatant wind exploited the silence by expressing itself in a thousand new voices. Some walls were marked with ancient spirals, others blazed with crescents and star-like suns. Some caves opened and closed like hallucinations and looped into each other endlessly. Anatat found that the caves became more ethereal as she drifted deeper. She felt a sense of dread sweep over her as she realized she had somehow lost her sense of direction. Or maybe the walls were deliberately shifting their parameters. Dim light suffused the inner walls that gleamed like polished mirrors as the ruthless wind continued to harass her. She crawled wearily from cave to cave as lethargy began to weigh heavily on her shoulders, reminding her of death’s incessant presence. The wind thrashed her about, invading her ears, beating her senseless until she felt strangely disconnected to her body. But her primal instincts were still honed and to escape the ruthless wind, she crawled desperately from one cave to another and yet the wind seemed to still chase, violating her until she collapsed against the walls. The hungry earth pulled on her limbs, swallowing her with rising oceans of sand. She felt helpless as she started to surrender to the cold grip. “Anatat.” She gasped for air violently, coughed as air suddenly flooded her lungs. Someone was there. Wearily, she wiped her face where sands had forged new trails. “Anatat.” The voice was smooth and gentle and strong arms helped her stand. Her eyes opened and she stared at the woman with the great mane of blond hair. Lips and cheeks were as crimson as the freshest rose and her eyes were blue. “I know you,” Anatat said softly. “Yes.” “My mother, Timarion.” The strange new place was vast and barren like tundra sprouting roots and crooked weeds. “What is this place? Why are we here?” “You are between worlds. Neither of us is really here. We are both dreaming.” Anatat looked at her. “I saw your story in the black flames.” Timarion put her arms around her daughter. “I have longed to see you. I have waited in dreaming. You know well we were never really apart.” Anatat could see visions in her eyes. A frantic doe. A lush forest. Whirls of blue and green and hazel seeped out of her eye creating a new reality. “But where are you? There is nothing here.” Timarion pointed. “Look over there into the horizon and you will feel my world.” For a long time, Anatat stared until she felt a crack at the base of her skull and her mother’s words trickled into her ear: “This is the Underworld where I am Trapped, Where Thoughts of the Lowest Greatly prevail, Where One shouts Dramatically Allahu Akbar, But Beats his Brother to Death in Jail.” “This frightening Place Has a variety of names, Indonesia and Pakistan and Egypt and Sudan, Where you Wipe your Feces with the Left hand, And with Your Right you torture a Man.” “For When There is no Power Within a man, He Uses Religion and scripture for political gain, And Women are sentenced to Be gang raped, Because that is the Pakistan of the utterly Insane.” “So here is the Land of the Free and Irresponsible, And then There are the Tantrums Thrown by Iran, Too much Sexual Repression leads to these Outbursts, Torture is the Way of the Powerless man.” “Because that is the source of our Environmental Woe, Why the Earth is in a Chaotic, Deluded Mess, You are not listening to Your true self or Heart, Every institution Instructs in Being Powerless.” “This Hellish Place is Where we Learn by Rote, Reciting the Torah, the Koran and Bible we are taught, And Secretly we’re In Awe of Some American Dream, Because in our Collective Soul, Freedom is our lot.” “Unfortunately the American Dream is An Illusion, But on the Telly that is what we Believe and See, So Corporations can Continue Exploiting us all, Because Our own Little lives are an Avid misery.” “Here in the Underworld there is no Power for me, But I insist I’m in the Land of the Brave and the Free, So either I am an Idiot Or I am trapped by my Perception, Maybe I don’t Realize that Power begins with Me.” “But in this World we want to Humiliate and Degrade, To have Power over Another is what we Really Desire, Take a Trip into New York, Japan or London, And look at those Hierarchies if you Think I’m a liar.” “That is why We Have That Guantanamo Bay, Where we Torture Secretly and without Remorse, And then show Images in the Controlled Media, That we are Champions against Sadistic force.” “But it is in Britain where things Must change first, Because the Spirit is Rooted and Connected Here, Where Illusion has Cast its Web Real wide, And Created some Nonexistent Threat or Fear.” “Come to the Underworld where Hafiz once tread, See prison Gohardasht where Torture is a Game, To Spiritual India Where they speak Highly of god, But murder Baby girls and Set Brides aflame.” “To poor Bolivia and Mexico and Peru we go, Where the Maturity levels are Frighteningly low, Once these were Great civilizations of Power, But now Are squashed beneath the Eagle’s Toe.” “So Come to Africa where great Madness dwells, And raise your Arms to Allah in worshipful prayer, Admit to Him with Razors you Circumcise girls, And Dump them all Into the Pit of despair.” “Stoning and Gang Raping and Blaming the Woman, Is Acceptable Everywhere in this Underworld, you see, First World to Third World the Performance is the same, Dividing and Conquering is the Shadow’s Strategy.” “So it seems that the Phallus Spins Out of Control, That tool Of creation has become Destructive instead, Cities have Become Cesspools of Irresponsibility, And Media Casts Illusions to mess with Your Head.” “Passive Aggressive Behaviour is What I see, The Male Polarity resides under negative Female Control, And the Female Has No Clue How to Define Herself, So Like any Second Rate Man, she Pursues some Goal.” “Videos, cell phones and Reality Shows, Are tools to keep You Neatly Diverted from Your soul, Perhaps getting That Morbid Chip off your Shoulder, And Loving oneself should be The only Goal.” “All Societies Promote Violence against the Earth, By Disempowered men who Have Closed their hearts, Refusing to accept their role In the Creation of life, Which is Why that Passive Aggressive Behaviour starts.” “You Should see the Underworld as of Late, Where the Norm is to be Out of your Head, And if you are normal and Balanced and well, You are Perceived as the Insane instead.” “You see when Torture and Humiliation are Epidemic, That means that Men need to Grow up Really Fast, They need to Cease Taking Revenge on this earth, And fully Reclaim their Great Hunter past.” Anatat blinked. “You have to come back with me. To Aalayfa.” “You are on that journey,” she said, her eyes twinkling. “And there is that Other one who is with you. There are more secrets to discover.” Anatat stared at her. “You mean the sorceress.” Timarion touched her daughter’s hair. “I had to do what I did.” “You tricked the queen.” She grinned wickedly. “We are separated only by a veil. Not very distant from each other at all.” She glanced into the horizon where dust rose violently. “I have to go back.” Anatat’s eye caught something on the horizon. Images. Drumming. Chants. That twin world. “For when the Mind cannot be still for a moment, You Slowly begin to go Mad and insane, All those Newspapers are Political tools, Leading You deceptively down Crazy lane.” “So abandon those Newspapers of your town, Into the Trash because it’s All They contain, As they create Division, Jealousy and fear, Fixing Your perception and Making you insane.” “The Powerless confer at Downing Street, Hiding a Premature ejaculation Shame, The British Empire has Never really fallen, They just cleverly Changed the Rules of The game.” “This is Trickster Energy that Rules the World over, Where One thing is Said and Another is really Done, So Run Inward and Connect with Your Awareness, In order to Fight a War that does not use A gun.” “Because Gangsters are In the Government you see, And They have Instilled fear into You and Me, Hand in Hand with the Media and Transportation, And Here You have it, a Purely, Lawless Society.” “Because the Elite and the Illuminati Play a Game, To make Us into Fodder is What they desire, Creating Lies, wars, Racism and terrible conflict, So that we Live in a World that is Increasingly dire.” “This is the place then that I find Myself, my daughter, Where Human beings live Completely in delusion, Caught in a web of political, social and economic scams, With Religion at the very head of This illusion.” With a jolt, Anatat came suddenly awake, coughing out coarse sand. She retched as the sand tickled the back of her throat. She rose to her knees but her head was spinning. She desperately needed to find water. She searched for Timarion but could see nothing in the cavern. Images faded from her mind. Her mother’s words had been incomprehensible. A jumbled pile of primitive jargon. But she had felt her pain. That isolation. A tumultuous power moved pervasively closer. Anatat tried to move. Her stomach seemed hollow but at the same time heavy as though she had swallowed the entire desert. At times she could feel a cool energy around her shoulders, guiding her. She blinked slowly. The glistening tunnels all looked the same. Joining endlessly from one end of eternity to the other. The wind whistled eerie rhythms as she fell deeper into fatigue. An unending voracious thirst rattled her to the core. Anatat knew she was dying. Suffocating slowly. Patterns appeared and disappeared like dancing diamonds. Thousands of vibrations sizzled through her blood rousing ancient memories. And then the winds shifted. *** Nantale Dore knew she was being followed. And she also knew that the footsteps belonged to a male panther shuffling behind her in the quivering foliage. She sensed his powerful gait, his steady breath between soft breezes. She knew what he wanted. His energy pulsed magnetically as the earth absorbed the hot rains of summer. Tawny wildflowers clasped tiny dewdrops. She reached into the bush again, collecting berries, very aware of his proximity. Tenuous vibrations stirred the earth. His immense shadow stretched insidiously. But she knew them well enough to know that they ultimately relied on fear. A show of weakness would instantly be an advantage for him. She did not flinch as he roared and landed beside her. A golden gaze. “You are leaving our world.” She was amused. “What if I am?” He sniffed the air gently. “I want to mate.” “There are many others who would mate with you.” “Yes, but I want you and I know you want me too.” His long whiskers flickered arrogantly. He rose elegantly on his hind legs and inched toward her, the scent of smoke and fire and earth mingled together. Black fur dissipated as he took on his human form. Eyes danced with dark desire. Sultry fingers moved over her arms. “I wanted to approach before but you know, Panthera is a menace.” Nantale Dore smiled as he embraced her. Small cups of bluebells heavy with pollen left golden streaks on her body leaving her feeling drowsy and warm. They lay together on the earth. “Your essence is what I want,” he muttered. For a long time, they moved together as they poured power into each other balancing their energies, auras mingling gently. Later she fell asleep, exhausted by him and did not notice when he crept away into the darkness. “Wake up.” She groaned and opened her eyes. “Panthera Tigri.” She hung in the tree above, her legs straddling a tree branch. “You mated with a panther.” “I resisted as long as possible.” She shrugged. “I admit I am powerfully attracted.” “A child between the two of you may not survive in your world. It may have to be relinquished. Aalayfa is dense.” Nantale Dore stared at her. “I will take responsibility for the child, whatever might happen.” Panthera Tigri brushed back her curly hair. “And that is the last lesson of the panthers, my daughter. That is all we ask. That mortals take responsibility for themselves. For their own self-knowledge. To examine themselves very carefully, ruthlessly.” She sat up. “It is not a very large request, is it? We do not want your gold or precious merchandise or even your grains.” “In fact, I speak on behalf of the plant and animal kingdom. We simply want mortals in all dimensions and realities to take bloody responsibility for their actions. We are all being affected by the shadow energy because all realities are essentially connected. When you return to your own world, can you convey this message?” *** Pharon of Black Axe spent hours watching the Mylittan River from the deck of his ship. For days they floated along into the clouds watching the cascading brilliance of dawn. Young boys plunged into the river laughing while the older ones polished decks and frolicked in the morning light. Singing, fighting and debating occurred frequently and occasionally fights would break out and die as quickly, when they saw elders strolling the decks. Warm concoctions of anise and ginger and honey offered by the river maidens were enjoyed alongside sorghum cakes, rose cream puddings and ripe purple plums and mint yogurts with jelly. Tall bronze jugs flowed with different types of wine. Older Mylittans sculpted arrowheads, learned to interpret ancient symbols while drinking cold ales. Others hung precariously down the side of ships, polishing or scraping barnacles. Beneath in the floating libraries, men documented the constellations and drew maps. Breathing techniques, martial arts, and energetic movements were all explored diligently. To the delight of the elders who frequented the ships on the river, the hunter spirit was very much alive, reverberating powerfully at different levels of awareness. More advanced Mylittans moved into meditations, learned to spiral deeper into inner worlds as they travelled through unexplored galaxies and brought back illuminating tales. “What ails you, Pharon of the Black Axe?” an elder asked stepping next to him suddenly. “We are delighted with your ship. You have given these young men access to all kinds of knowledge. A vast library and freedom to explore.” “Freedom is what matters,” Pharon replied, leaning against the rail. “And love?” Pharon laughed. “Maybe.” The elder was serious. “Love of the self. Love of this earth.” But Pharon frowned and shook his head, refusing to continue the conversation. “Word has it that Fiachra is becoming reluctant to allow ships through the gates. Do you know why?” The elder smiled slightly. “Because of the changes. Veils are thinning between our worlds. Some believe Fiachra will sever us from the other reality totally one of these days.” Pharon was startled. “We gain experience from our encounters with the Old World.” “All realities in different dimensions are experiencing shifts. And not everyone wants the changes to happen.” Pharon turned to stare at him curiously. “Is that why there have been so many passing through our gates?” “Indeed,” he said and then broke into a smile. “But if they knew that Heliandra was the queen of this world, they would run the other way. If anyone wants freedom least of all, it is she. That’s why Fiachra doesn’t want anything to do with her. But, don’t worry, a plan is in motion.” “Who’s plan?” “The universal plan, of course. I don’t make things up, you know.” The elder laughed and leaned toward him. “Remember, the earth opens up to a real man. The lover sort. Because you see, the way you stroke a woman is the same way you have to stroke the earth.” He smiled sharply. “You don’t force, strike or violate, you seduce and encourage and eventually, she will surrender her secrets and do so gladly.” Pharon frowned as his gaze skipped over the water. “I’m not sure what you’re trying to tell me.” “I’m just saying that it is our responsibility as well to ensure we are connected to the earth consciousness. To wake up in every reality so we can connect again to the universe.” Pharon glanced at him. “I thought it was the Old World that was the problem.” “It once was but we have also been infiltrated.” He gave the younger man a sideways look and tapped his wooden stick. “Do not look so forlorn. The time has come to overthrow those old patterns. It is happening in all the earth realities.” He lifted a finger. “It is not easy for everyone to abandon their baggage of beliefs and traditions.” “Tell me about it,” Pharon muttered. “What we want ultimately is the whole earth over to be celebrating the idea that we are one with this universe, an extension of it. Not fragments or kingdoms or races. Not divided among ourselves as Heliandra wants.” He shook his head slowly. “Nobody wants war or conflict and even more importantly, nobody wants Heliandra and her Hoods of Aden to centralize the government. That would be the worst thing of all.” Pharon frowned. “Then she would have full control of our lives.” “Which would please her immensely,” he said slowly, “because she is the shadow polarity. The negative consciousness manifesting itself. We must stand strong in our own communities and support each other in this time of change.” He glanced at the younger man. “After all, I really don’t know anyone in our world who wants conflicts and battles.” “Only Heliandra,” Pharon muttered. “Illuminated queen, my bollocks.” **** Chapter 23 “Ummu-Hubur. You who shape and create. You have returned to Tehom, the deep abyss.” The sorceress walked carefully, balancing on the crystal diamonds along the ancient earth lines leading to the lair of the dragon. She had danced across bridges woven with starlight, across ladders that spanned the cosmos; swam through dense clouds where footpaths linked earth to sky. She had ridden on formations that carried her across pink horizons toward the origins of the boundless ocean. Her own luminosity trembled between star constellations and bright moon dust. In the beginning of some unknown creation, in that chaos where the wind blazed, a thousand new fragrances spun out of the silence. The wind raged outside but would not dare enter. The Soultana of Siduri approached fearlessly, around her head, dragons and pythons danced in a display of luminous power. The sorceress replied in low, sinewy tones, those lines from Enuma Elish, -he may have cut through the channels of her blood, and made the North wind bear it away into secret places-With her ribs the vaults of heaven and earth and from her weeping eyes were born the Euphrates and Tigris- The sorceress removed the crystal mantle from her shoulders. “This is for the guardians. For those who revere the earth, for they will be the ones that open the gates of heaven.” Seshat stared at it. “Is it for Anatat?” “For her and the Other. And for us all.” Black piercing eyes flew together in mutual understanding. Between them were endless oceans and flickers of firelight; stardust and azure oceans. “Then I will draw it upon the walls if it what you desire, upon Anatat and yourself and the Other.” “Yes,” the sorceress said staring at the identical faces on the wall. “Draw the crystal mantle upon us. For it is time to link to the living consciousness of the earth.” She saw herself crossing the waterfall. Sleeping under the stars with Anatat. The images on the wall vibrated to life. Anatat leaping after her into the abyss, then into the Well of Maris. I am the One who is Inside of You. Slowly the sorceress turned to Seshat. “Okay, here is the next part of the story. Open the inner chambers of the earth where the serpents dwell. The Old Serpent woman swims out of the earth’s core.” “Anything you say,” Seshat said in perfect understanding. “One goddess comes out of the other. Anatat. Pythia. Dragons birthing winged serpents.” “The earth is shifting in all dimensions and realities. The earth serpent will awaken that light and unite us again to the heart of the Central Sun.” Seshat carved intently as the sorceress hummed her words of power into the darkness: Bite into that silver apple of knowledge. Descend into those underworlds. Open the gateway to the stars. Here I invite you to the inner chambers of the earth. For the primeval Dragon shifts in her lair, She who is the power source of the earth. Open the egg and activate that ancient Blueprint. *** Elgita stared in astonishment at the figure with the green tangled hair creeping toward the Shah temple. Chattering ceased abruptly as women turned to stare. The face was harsher. Streaked with crimson and blue. Muscled legs strode powerfully toward them. The stranger’s eyes gleamed brightly like two lamps. A bunch of black glossy feathers hung from her neck. “Mistress Mornai, come quickly!” The Sabals stood staring in mute astonishment as the high priestess emerged with a full basket of blue hyssops. “Is that you, Nantale Dore?” Elgita asked breathless. Nantale Dore’s gaze found the high priestess, she who had marked the symbols upon her so long ago. “Mistress.” The high priestess scanned her body for a moment. “You have been gone a long time.” Nantale Dore contemplated her. “How long?” “Very long,” Elgita said, scarcely believing her eyes. “Nearly a full twelve cycle. We never thought you’d return.” “We figured that you found the panthers,” the high priestess said. “And that Panthera Tigri had taken a liking to you.” “Or made a meal out of you, she means,” Elgita muttered. The high priestess turned to her sharply. “Take the others and go into the inner gardens. Take my basket and close your mouth.” Nantale Dore opened a rough palm. “I have brought these berries for Tiamat and for the temple.” A group of chattering women drifted into the temple carrying breads and citrus. Mistress Mornai accepted them. “They will be much appreciated.” “How is my mother?” “I will take you to her. This way.” Steam from open cooking fires whirled through the air. The women polished bone arrows and the forest was noisy with girls gathering fragrant herbs. Smoked frankincense and lavender burned through the air, leaving a trailing scent of acidic sweetness. “So how did it go with the panthers?” the high priestess asked. Nantale Dore paused thoughtfully. “I was in awe by their beauty and strength. They have revealed many secrets to me.” “Then you have been blessed.” “I have always thought so.” The high priestess smiled. “And you are with child.” “Yes.” Eyes followed her as she emerged from the forest into the enclave of glittering Zerelia trees. Silence fell like a sharp axe as all activities suddenly ceased. The raven came from nowhere transforming into the illustrious Ixapa Eidan; her eyes were black and gold spirals. Long curls danced over her shoulders. High breasts were rosy and stained with violet. “You have returned, my daughter,” the queen said, as her eyes fell to the black feathers. “Indeed.” She took her mother’s hands and kissed them. “And I have learned much from the wise panthers. But I confess I did not want to return.” “I will see you both tonight for our feast,” the high priestess said as she retreated. But the mother and daughter barely heard her. Their hands were still clasped. Nantale Dore felt a strange surge of power that reached deep into her. “I feel that you have never left me, Murshid, my teacher.” “Why would I? You intrigue me. Leaping so readily into the unknown.” “Not so easily though,” she replied with a laugh. “The Orion assisted me.” Ixapa Eidan smiled. “Accepting assistance is a good thing if it takes you where your heart desires.” Nantale Dore contemplated her for a long moment with narrow eyes. “In the world of the panthers, I had great visions.” “Did you?” “And as you can see, I have found the feathers you left for me. When we dreamed together.” “Indeed?” A long pause as they gazed at each other. The sun was beginning to drag golden claws across the horizon, ceding to the moon that eagerly began to brighten like a translucent gem. Nantale Dore drew her mother close. “It would seem that raven walks with me. So I guess I should expect a life of magic and mystery.” The queen’s eyes turned into black opaque pools. “You know that having Raven as a totem is to be heavily responsible to spirit. It is not an easy totem to have.” Nantale Dore put an arm around her mother’s shoulders. “Maybe not, Murshid, but the gifts given to me by the universe have been so many. And I want to give something back to show my gratitude.” She led her mother toward the tree homes. “I do not demand anything from this universe, for it is my greatest love affair.” “You send love notes and the universe responds. You push your luck so don’t complain when the unexpected arrives.” Nantale Dore grinned slowly. “And what should I expect at the end of such an erotic encounter?” The winds blew suddenly from the north whispering: Come. Fly into my soul. *** A new energy scurried through the tunnels like a slippery water eel. Her flesh felt hard and leathery and her heart palpitations grew stronger. Tremors rippled through the caves and echoed and she found it hard to form coherent thoughts. A thousand visions flitted behind her eyes. The vanishing sorceress. The queen, the irritating Mylittan with his stupid questions. The temple columns around pits of fire and then there was Timarion. Where had she gone? Trapped in some intolerable underworld. Bodies of sand came upon her, breathing fire into her and then suddenly she was bathed again in those familiar red roses that filled the entire cavern. A sweet fragrance exploded under her nostrils and she heard her own voice, the voice of the Other: “I am the Qanitat, who guards the unseen, Opening your Inner Eye so You can see, Climbing through the Pillar of white Light, Filling All my Spaces with that Ecstasy.” “-So I Send Myself Red Roses in that Parallel World, And delve into the Chakras that Link to the sky-” The petals moved like sea waves, rippling at the surface until they seemed like a liquid stream of fire. And then the voice broke in: This week I had another dream: that we will remain separated a lot longer. Well what does that fucking mean? A day, a month, a year, a fucking lifetime. I try to convince myself that without pain there is no love or joy or passion. That the darkness arouses the light. I try to talk myself out of the pain. I try to dance myself out of the pain. To write myself out of the pain. Wanting to lose myself. Dreaming of him all the time. The soul doesn’t care. It wants what it wants and moves independently from me. The universe drops hints but I don’t want to hear. Twin soul union, it keeps saying but stay with your husband. Okay universe, but you can’t stop me at night as I fly to his open arms. The one who is totally for me. The Me that is Me. Don’t worry, the twin soul book says, you will never be apart because you are the same soul. But I don’t care, I want him now. An inner struggle forces me to the edge. I step into my dreams fully and abandon reality. Who gives a fuck anymore? I close myself off from the world around me. It is like a movie running by itself and this character has moved completely out of herself. I withdraw into myself where death penetrates me like a virus. I walk like a corpse, imitating the movements of everyone around me. Look at me pretending to care about everyday things, but I don’t anymore, my entire being is reeling internally and you can’t see a thing. Suddenly she felt a sweeping into the cavern. Moisture and darkness mingled together into something tangible. He appeared from nowhere. Elemental, primal, and heady with lashes that framed eager black pools of ice. Unable to move or create coherent thoughts, she surrendered to the cyclonic wave of sand. The Asuryan. Illusive. Seductive. Cloaked between those shadows of sand and wind. Dark, leathery limbs pressed upon her. He reverberated here and there. A predatory magician with long silky movements crafted by an impetuous wind. Confident, cool with hideous intentions. He touched her with invisible limbs. Hungrily, he poured power into her until she was cold and suffused. An involuntary groan erupted from her. He was murmuring in a tone thick with sunlight and wind and fire, assaulting her until thoughts congealed; until reality and illusion were inseparable. She fell as the wind howled, sweeping blankets of roses over her and still she could hear the Other: In that agony, all you think about is running for your life. You don’t think about spiritual things. About doing what is right or wrong. In the world of illusion when you are trapped by your own self-imposed beliefs, you cannot escape so easily. Believe me, I tried. Even now I think of ways to dodge the bullet. Sneaky ways. But the universe knows about my underhanded endeavours. I laugh when people talk about shamanism. Or being a shamanic healer. You cannot learn how to be a shaman. You are because the universe chooses. Any other way is delusional, another title for those who are hungry for power. Shaman means run the other bloody way as fast as you can. Faster than the gingerbread man, because that is exactly what you’ll want to do. Run bloody fast out of that pain that never stops flowing. Out of isolation. Out of loneliness. You never really ever fit in anywhere. Always on the edge of society. Here I am then, screaming inside with every cell of my being. Because when it means union with the divine male spirit, with the universe itself, then it is a whole other story. So I am screaming that whole Other story. Anatat felt something stirring in her womb; a butterfly emerging from her pangs. A sharp pain behind her head. Fire weaves in and out. In and out. Etching shocks of pain through her meridians. Her eyes widened in shock, her hands clawing at the sand as she stares indifferently at the rising bubble of roses, as something devastating pushes through. A hand. A ring on it. Neat pink nails. Lady of my Heart, here hold my hand, the Other says. Anatat reached for the warm hand with her last vestiges of strength and listened: Stay very still and do not move an inch. Watch how the heart transforms into a solid mass. A brick. This is what happens at the point of death. When you are pushed to the edge of utter exhaustion and pain. Pushed unfairly into living with the smell of death on you for so many years. Wrenched emotionally until you are physically distraught. It is happening secretly, under the surface and nobody can see anything so I am forced to pretend. Be smooth. Charming. Blend with the crowd. Build fortitude while under the surface, flames are already crackling into my wooden bones. All because of those green eyes in the mirror. Across the dinner table, the sexy Coyote, talking about credit card fraud. The Fraud is talking about fraud. And guess what? He has my face. I’m not sure whether to laugh or to be insulted but what I know is that it is me and that you cannot know it unless you experience it. Here I made some pasta, he says with a wink to his dull wife, Eva. I check her Mayan symbol and she represents death. I thought I was in the underworld, but there I am, a full grown man surrounded in every direction and death converges. This is my daughter, he says. Stay with us here. Council houses. At night he comes to the bathroom and opens the door slightly and I become breathless . His teeth gleam in the darkness. Coyote, I recognize you. Screaming to be in your arms. Screaming in celebration. My husband in the next room sleeping. Your wife in the other. So many regulations in this society. Who gives a shit about the fucking rules? I am crazy about your soul. I accept you the way you are. The man of my dreams right before my eyes and how I remember you from another place and time. So come on and commit adultery with existence. Play Russian Roulette with yourself. Gamble yourself the way you gambled away your house and fortunes. This meeting of soul to soul. Beneath my steady surface, entire galaxies are collapsing. That astonishing discovery that You are Me. *** Heliandra saw that familiar cyclone she had seen many times before; that vortex of violent energy, spurred incomprehensibly by the forging of winds. Moss and grains and earth had mixed with herb concoctions. His flesh was leathery and smooth as the sands. Temporary, cyclical and yet undeniably sublime, his male essence was sudden and forceful and unstoppable. But just as she relaxed and waited for him to sweep over her, he began to lose his form, dispersing as the magical winds that formed him scattered into their secret directions. For a long moment, she could not think. Her stomach twisted and her eyes were wide. Sunlight streaming from the windows glittered on the riotous pile of settling sand. She stared at the play of jutting shadows in an adjacent cavern. “Anatat?” A hooded dark figure was there and before her on the ground were shards of a silvery mirrored path. Owl eyes blinked at her incessantly. Heliandra froze in horror as she listened to the shadowy figure mocking in whispers: “Look, oh look there Has Been a reverse, Someone has Fallen but who can it Be? Anatat has already Mated with the Asuryan, For Tiamat has Already made the Decree.” Heliandra felt her body turn cold as she stared at the shadow. Like a wild winged bird, she turned sharply and exited into the corridor. The words of that blasted shadow fell around her ears like thunder. What happened? What in the name of Apophis happened? Lengthy arms of sunlight swept through the spiralling caves, churning like icy waves as they broke against the wall. Rage rose uncontrollably and her body seemed to collide with the walls creating silent intonations. She prowled carelessly, tumbling into one cavern and then another. The wind shuttered glibly through the empty corridors as she scurried from one edge to another urgently. Her head jerked back suddenly as she realized that the structure was teetering and threatening to descend. Where was that treasonous girl? That wretch. Had she already exited? Unable to reason, she stalked down the corridor furiously, her dagger unsheathed. The ground rumbled ominously as the Well of Maris already began to sink. Portions were beginning to unfasten, the oval honeycombs coming apart at the seams like cloaks and dissolving. Suddenly Heliandra saw her. Slumped between the rocks, her cloak torn into shreds, the powerful crystal dragon gleamed brilliantly at her neck. Moments passed like eternities as she stared at the symbol. The power of Tiamat bestowed upon this fool? Rage welled through her blood and she let out a scream until hordes of locusts tore out of her mouth violently. But the Well of Maris would not wait even for her and took even deadlier steps into descent. The dark earth grasped the corners of the brackish sands and sank sadistically. Enraged, she lifted her dagger to strike. “Wretch!” But in midair her body shuddered and her stomach twisted in disbelief. What in the name of heavens was that? Anatat was clasping a third hand that had somehow made its way through the sands. Three hands? The Well of Maris rocked violently and she fell back dropping the dagger. The pyramid of honeycombs collapsed and she knew there was no more time; she had to exit now before she too was pulled into a morbid grave. Suddenly she saw that blasted shadow from the mirror, watching from the vanishing caverns. Time to flee. Heliandra rushed toward the light of the desert, brushing away the mocking laugh of the shadow. Owl eyes followed her into the corners of her being, piercing her flesh until they found her bones. Eyes that followed her out into the light, saying: Light for the Fallen One.

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