Thursday, December 31, 2009

What's up, Anne?

So I'm talking to myself now, is that it?

Well anyway, in the next posts, I'm just collecting everything I've already posted on www.voicesnet.com

Here's...

The Unbeliever of Renn (August, 2009)

The people in my old town said that my father was a Pilgrim, but not once in my life had I met him, so I was uncertain whether or not I should believe them. It was unlikely for an upright Pilgrim to have relations with anyone with the term ‘Unbeliever’ attached to them like a blood-sucking leech. Perhaps he was a Pilgrim, or else he would not have left me and my mother. Renn and the other towns and cities of Unbelievers had long been hostile to the Pilgrims, and the same was true the other way around. Anyway, that was not important now. My present concern was my new life in my new home here in the town of Renn.

With my wings bound-up and all, it was bad enough that I was a slave in this town. I had been rendered flightless when I was captured in the slave raid, but what I really hated was that people looked down on me because I was a Land-born. The nobility of Renn, the Roths and the High-Roth himself, they were all centuries-old Sky-borns who believed they had been chosen to rule over us ‘lesser’ kinds just because we were not of the Clouds of Birth.

The Clouds were magical. I admit they were. They would sire angels from fire and dust and nothingness. But what difference did it make? We were all angels anyway.

I swore that one day, I would change things, change that stupid tradition.

Today, I was roused by the loud cawing of some unknown birds that had perched outside, on the windowsills of Master Salo’s house. My master was a very kind woman. Like me, she was also Land-born, but she was better than me for she was a Meru, a warrior of Renn. There were only three kinds of people in this town: Roths, Merus, and slaves.

I grudgingly shook off the remnants of my sweet slumber and, taking a wooden stick in my hands, almost jumped outside to scare off the blasted birds that had disturbed my rest. It was barely dawn, Spheria’s numerous moons were still scattered all over the sky like dots of emeralds, pearls, rubies, and sapphires. But those birds were making so much noise already! I came out prepared to strike down the first bird I laid eyes upon, but nothing could have prepared me for what I saw next. It was not birds that had disturbed my sleep; it was just one giant bird. I stared at it in disbelief, that huge, blue-feathered thing on the windowsill that looked at me with piercing yellow eyes. If my eyes were not playing tricks on me, I could have sworn that an uncanny glow, a nimbus of sorts, had enveloped the bird’s entire body. It opened its long and dangerous-looking curved beak to let forth an earsplitting cacophony of screeches and shrieks that made me fall back, trembling in fear. Oddly enough, the bird seemed satisfied with that so it ruffled its white and red tail feathers before spreading out the great span of its wings and disappearing into the darkness, moments before first light broke.

There was no way I could go back to sleep after seeing that frightening creature, so I just decided to gather my hunting things to forage in the nearby forest. I never spoke a word to anyone about the mysterious bird on the windowsill.

But I hoped I would never see it again.

Later in the afternoon, while I was tilling Meru Salo’s small field, the loud and beastly sound of a horn unexpectedly shattered my silent reverie. It echoed once, so I looked up and wiped the sweat from my brow. Then it echoed again, this time with more urgency to it, and now I was certain that it was High-Roth Alam’s horn, the official summons for the warriors of Renn.

There was going to be another slave raid.

“Sheba!” called Meru Salo, half-frazzled and half-disoriented by the abrupt summons. I was half as frazzled as she was by the time I got to her. Her otherwise comely face had been overshadowed by an unpleasant expression, perhaps a mix of fatigue and desperation. I could not tell what it was, but I could have sworn that was the same look that the other Meru had whenever Alam announced another raid.

“Stay here. I won’t be out long…usually we are given a day or two to prepare,” she said hopefully and tried to look stoic. I knew she did not believe that, but I had to pretend that I was oblivious to the anxiety that marked every word she spoke. It was not supposed to be my business.

Salo left for the town center without further delay for the High-Roth was a man whose patience was nonexistent. I watched her fly off, spurring a gust of wind in the wake of her flight, and right away I found myself feeling envious of her. She may not have been a Roth, and as a warrior she may have had no choice but to put up with Alam’s turbulent character, but at least her wings weren’t bound up like mine. It had been so long since I last used those things that I had practically forgotten how to fly!

It was tiring to be like this. What if I just went to the assembly?

I shook my head and felt like beating myself up for thinking that. I knew I would get myself into more trouble if I disobeyed orders.

But it couldn’t possibly hurt to just take a short peek, could it?

After debating the matter over with myself, I finally decided to give it a chance, ran as fast and stealthily as I could until I was within earshot of the assembly, panting like a dog yet exhilarated nevertheless. I searched for a nice spot where I could eavesdrop without being seen for it was impossible for an angel with wing bindings to disappear in a crowd of free people. Then, by a stroke of luck, I caught sight of this hefty tree whose twisted aerial roots wrapped in and out of a crumbling wall. There was my perfect spot, so I rushed over to the tree at once.

Alam’s horn moaned again, a lot louder now that I was nearer. Through the cracks in the wall I saw a pompous-looking man, Alam’s official aide, blowing the huge summoning horn from an elevated stage rimmed by artfully carved stone pillars. The Meru surrounded the stage in a half-circle along with Roths who were, of course, standing infront of the entire herd, waiting restlessly for what Alam had to say.

“Silence, all you who gather before the great and powerful Alam, High-Roth of Renn, successor of former High-Roth Dalo, who succeeded—” and so went the list of the town’s past rulers. The aide soon finished with all the boring formalities and Alam appeared at last. His extravagant garb cascaded about his muscular form as his golden hair danced in the slight wind. The gold trimmings at the hems of his robes made him look like a real king. He was unchanged, the same old, haughty Alam I first saw when the Roth who had caught me presented me to him. Back then I thought that Alam was a kind man for everything about his smooth and gentle features told me so, but once he had spoken, I realized how appearances can be really deceiving.

“The stench of these Land-borns offends me,” he had once said, indicating me to my captor. “If it were just me, I would get rid of all these lesser kinds, but then again, they have been such good use for our economy, do you not agree?”

I was seething with so much rage that it had taken all that I had to stop myself from gauging Alam’s eyes right out of his head. But I was defenseless; they had previously disarmed me and put a slave collar around my neck, that gruesome metal thing that had protruding spikes directed at my neck so that if I tried anything suspicious, all that my captor had to do was press a certain button and I would instantly be dead.

As I felt around my now-collarless neck, I could still feel the clammy metal, its cold touch, the touch of death. How relieved I was that they had removed it upon binding my wings.

By the time I realized that I had gotten distracted, had already missed some of the things Alam had announced to the assembly.

The lord’s deep voice rose out imposingly so that everyone listened to his words. “My advisers have informed me of a very wealthy, promising place in the north, a town that goes by the name Kaldel. I have decided that tonight, we shall raid Kaldel!” Even from where I squatted, I could see clearly how the High-Roth’s face contorted with greed and want.

The crowd agitated upon hearing the name of the new target and the fact that the attack was going to be tonight already. Even the Roths who were supposed to be the brave raid leaders turned shifty and began to murmur amongst themselves.

“And what is this commotion? If there is anyone who protests, speak up now, you cowardly rats!”

A noble reluctantly came up to the stage, bowed, and hurriedly said his piece. “My Lord, Kaldel is a town under the protection and tutelage of the Pil—”

“Pilgrims, yes,” Alam cut him short with a wave. “You need not tell me that. Do you take me for a fool that you should shamelessly lecture me infront of my entire assembly?”

“No, it isn’t that, my Lord…but we mustn’t forget that the Pilgrims are dangerous and fierce warriors. Many of them have existed for millennia and wield powers beyond anyone’s imagination. Some have even been claimed to…”

Alam suddenly laughed derisively. “Are you telling me that all of us here are cowards unlike the Pilgrims whom you say are ‘fierce warriors’? Did you all hear what this man said?” The leader was still laughing as he looked about to get his people’s support, but no one was even smiling.

Another noble presented himself. “High-Roth, I believe it is too perilous for us to raid Kaldel.”

“How disappointing. I expected more from you Sky-borns. If there is anyone to fear in the world, it is us, the true children of Heaven. Now, tell me, what powers can these Pilgrims possibly possess that we Sky-borns do not?”

“But, Lord, the legends say…”

“Enough of this! Would you rather listen to those foolish myths than to your own lord? By the stars of Spheria, is it not I who should have the final word?” The Lord of Renn was fuming and gesticulating vigorously with his hands. “People of Renn, heed me! Don’t let yourselves be fooled by stupid legends. When have you ever lost a war under my leadership?”

The congregation shouted “Never” half-heartedly, and Alam was thoroughly disgusted by this. “Have I been breeding a bunch of spineless insects under my wing? I know for certain that these Pilgrims have simply woven these tall tales to scare away enemies. But since I am not stupid to take chances either, I have deliberately planned our raid for tonight for my spies have confirmed that the new Pilgrims are to set out for their first pilgrimage at dusk. Kaldel will be left vulnerable once the stronger warriors leave town. We have until tomorrow morning before the new Pilgrims’ masters return after sending off their pupils…But of course, by the time they return, we would have finished plundering their village, and they will never know what had hit them.”

The congregation wasn’t silenced with that. The anxious voices of the warriors and nobles soared to an incoherent buzz until it came to the point I could no longer make out anything that was being discussed in the assembly. Alam’s face was flushing with anger and his hand rested dangerously on the hilt of his sword. He certainly looked like he was about to explode so I just gave up and decided to head back to home as fast as I could.

It was a wise decision on my part because not long after I had arrived, Meru Salo swooped into her house like a bird of prey. She nearly ripped off her robes in her haste to change into her armor. I assumed that Alam must have had an outburst again. If he said they were going to raid Kaldel tonight, then that was what was going to happen. There was no arguing with the tyrant.

I wrapped Salo’s body with thin bandage before slipping on her leather surcoat. It was then that I accidentally noticed how my sun-browned skin looked so different next to her fairness. As I was about to help her don her light metal breastplate, she suddenly stopped me.

“Sheba,” my name sounded strange when she uttered it in that weary voice of hers. “Tonight, I want you to leave this town. You should be free.”

I was taken aback. “I-I don’t understand…why are you telling me this all of a sudden?” Did she know that I had snuck away earlier?

“This might be the last raid this town will ever have. If ever we do survive this night, I don’t know how long the Pilgrims will let us be. They are vindictive and will definitely track us down to exact their vengeance.”

I tried to mask the sigh of relief that I was releasing. “If you’re certain of this, then why does the High-Roth act so recklessly?”

“Because he is a fool! He has forgotten his people’s past. Renn was barely spared in a past war with the Pilgrims. They only let us live on the condition that we leave their territory alone.”

“I’ve never heard of this before.”

“That is because it happened long before Alam became High-Roth, and even longer before you were brought here. Alam is so proud that he has dismissed the legends as mere myths. But now, because of his foolishness, we shall all be dead within a few days. That will be the Pilgrims’ punishment—they will completely annihilate us.”

I imagined fierce angels wielding deadly, flaming double-edged swords, and I felt afraid. Just how powerful could these Pilgrims be?

Salo walked to a makeshift altar she had erected even before I was sent to her to bid my time. As though swearing allegiance to the old tapestry that hung on the opposite wall, she placed a hand atop the tiny rectangular table that was the altar. I had often seen her perform this ritual before a raid, and she would always stare at that tapestry with the vague silhouette of a bird.

This time I dared ask, “Who is this spirit that you pray to?”

“It doesn’t have a name, but we have known it ever since we can remember; it as our protector and guide, so tonight I pray the spirit will change Alam’s mind.”

“Does Alam pray to the nameless spirit?”

“I don’t know, but he should.”

She briefly finished her prayer, and when she faced me, Salo’s demeanor seemed to have changed. She held my gaze with eyes of fire, the eyes of a warrior, the eyes of one who was prepared for anything, even death. “Come now, Sheba. Let me remove your wing bindings,” she said while unsheathing her gleaming dagger.

I shivered with delight at the prospect of becoming free again. My thoughts rushed over to memories of my old self when I used to explore the vast skies, testing myself to see how far above I could soar and hoping to reach the fiery mouth of the Clouds of Birth (which was, of course, impossible…at least for me).

But I didn’t know what came over me all of a sudden. “No, Master Salo. It is unlawful and shameful…I can’t allow this! Once they find out that I’ve escaped, you’ll be punished severely. Everyone knows that without the ability to fly, no one can get too far in these regions.”

“But I am giving you freedom. I am letting you go! Why do you refuse? Do you want to remain a slave forever?”

“No one wishes to be a slave, but the Sky-borns look down on us Land-borns already, so I think it wise not to break the laws and be called criminals among all the other names they call us. This is my decision.”

There was sadness in Salo’s eyes, but I had already decided and she knew she had to respect that. She hid her blade and said to me that once the raid was over, she will, once more, ask Alam to free me. But we both knew I had just signed my own permanent contract to slavery.

It was dark by the time we finished with the raid preparations and Salo departed for the town center, the place where the warriors were to assemble before leaving for Kaldel. How I hoped she would come back safely and that all our fears about the Pilgrims weren’t real.

I was left alone again with nothing to do really but sit idly, watch the changing moons, and hate myself forever for throwing away my freedom just like that. In the twinkling of an eye, I had lost the chance of a lifetime, and now I felt like the biggest fool ever to walk the face of Spheria!

“You’re so stupid, Sheba. You could have gone home, or travelled the world…but no, you just had to open your big mouth…” I chastised myself bitterly. What did it matter if the Sky-borns debased us any more than they were doing now? At least I would be free by then, free from the fools of this town. “Oh, but I’m the fool here. I’m a slave forever now and it’s all my fault, too! But who knows, maybe the Pilgrims will come and kill us all. That will end my misery…”

I angrily hurled a rock at a tree that was right across me, chipping off a large chunk of bark. I imagined that it was the despicable Alam that I had hit.

“Sheba, why are you so miserable?”

I nearly rolled on the ground upon hearing that ghost-like whisper. The chills that ran up my spine pulled me straight up so that I was back on my feet before I even knew it. “Who’s there?!” left and right I turned as my heart skipped beats, but no one was there save for the shadows. I stared at the tree that I had thrown the rock at and wondered, had it suddenly spoken?

“I am here, child.”

I reeled to find the giant blue bird with the white and red tail feathers perched on top of the windowsill again. It had that eerie glow all about it. Closer now, I noticed its frightful talons and the thick scale-like skin that wrapped its strong legs.

“Do not fear, I will not harm you,” its hushed voice seemed to mingle with the breeze.

My mouth dropped wide open. This was incredible, the bird was speaking to me! “W-who are you? Are you a spirit?”

It preened its blue pinions calmly. “I am the guardian of Renn.”

“Then you must be the nameless spirit, the one they pray to! Why have you come to a slave like me?”

“Child, I have chosen you to do my bidding. Tonight, the moment that the warriors return from battle, go to Alam and tell him that the spirit commands him to release the prisoners from Kaldel immediately. Tell him he will be punished with death if he refuses.”

“Ch-chosen? But the High-Roth hates Land-borns like me. He will never grant me an audience. You must choose someone else!”

The spirit completely ignored my protests. “I have given you my charge, Sheba. The lives of my people are now in your hands. You must not fail me.” It departed in a flurry of wings and feathers, leaping into the air to ascend into the star-strewn heavens.

“No, please wait! Don’t leave, nameless one! I—” but it was gone. How could it choose me? I was an outsider; I didn't even know who it was!

Yet it had given me an order, and if an order came from the mouth (or beak) of the spirit of Renn itself, then Alam should hear me out for I was now the spirit’s charge.

I took heart and deserted Salo’s house for the town since that was where the warriors would return. The length of the night drew on anxiously. Sleeplessly, I waited out the hours while examining the movement of the shadows like a madman. Light was sparse, only the stars, moons, and the few lamps provided illumination. When the warriors finally arrived, I fidgeted and watched absently from behind a pillar as they descended, one by one, alongside fresh captives who were bound with slave collars. The new slaves looked so young that I felt really sorry for them.

Then, with a flourish, Alam landed on the center stage, just a few feet from where I stood. He shook his white wings proudly so everyone could see how all the feathers were intact even after the battle.

I did a most reckless thing after that. Impulsively, I ran to Alam yelling “High-Roth! High-Roth!” and it was only my good fortune that he didn’t have his guards with him or else they would have skewered me to death with their blades.

“Stop! what do you want, slave?” Alam was appalled by the mere sight of me.

“My lord, I have an important message. You must hear me out!”

He looked curious. “And what is this message?”

“It is….” Apparently, the Meru and the Roths had heard me shouting, so they were all gathering around the stage to listen. Of a sudden, the awkwardness of the situation gripped me, and I shrank back inspite of myself.

“The message, slave. I doubt that you need a private audience for what you have to say.”

“The message is from the guardian spirit of Renn. It has commanded that you free the prisoners you have taken from Kaldel.” I tried to be as matter-of-factly as I could.

There was mild amusement in Alam’s eyes. “The spirit commanded me? Is that so?”

“Yes, and it also said that if you refuse to obey, you will be punished with death.”

“Death you say! You sound as if you believe what you are saying.”

“My lord, you must believe me. The nameless spirit sent me as its emissary.”

He ran a big hand through his long tresses. “Oh, but I don’t know this ‘nameless’ spirit of yours.” He wore a mocking smile that hopelessly crushed my resolve.

The frustration I felt was overwhelming. I should have expected that Alam wouldn’t listen to me or the spirit. I looked behind me, at the worried faces of both the warriors and the Kaldelean slaves who had heard everything. Salo was nowhere to be seen. I had never felt so alone in my life.

“Well, are you done?”

I faced him, totally humiliated.

“Now then, warriors of Renn! Incarcerate the captives for now. We have won a good battle and deserve a good night’s rest. Present the booty tomorrow morning.”

The High-Roth left first for his residence; in the meantime, the warriors brought the slaves to their temporary quarters, the small, nearby prison.

When I thought that everyone had gone, I was overcome by the strong urge to cry. I didn’t notice Meru Salo approach and place a comforting hand on my shoulder. “Let us go home, Sheba. It has been a long day.”

*

We had gone halfway already when I changed my mind.

“I have to go back and free the prisoners!” I exclaimed. I planned to sneak into the jail while the guards were still exhausted from the raid. I had told Meru Salo everything about my meeting with the guardian spirit of Renn, and she believed me. She told me of the rumors about other angels who claimed to have seen the spirit, so it appeared that I wasn’t the first to encounter the huge, talking bird.

“Sheba, what if they aren’t asleep as you expect? The prison isn’t far from Alam’s home. Certainly, you will be killed!”

But I was stubborn, my resolve set like iron castings, so despite Salo’s warnings, I went ahead. At the back of my mind, the voice of the nameless spirit urged me on, you must not fail me! I heard it again and again, with mounting urgency and exhortation. If Alam was not going to free the prisoners, then I was.

My anxious steps brought me back to the heart of the town even though I was scared, unprotected, flightless, and my big toe was bleeding from an angled rock that had pierced through my sandals. Beyond the assembly stage, the ominous-looking black walls of the prison greeted me. A lone sentry guarded the entrance, nodding off to sleep as expected, so I slithered in without incident. I tiptoed across the dimly-lit single hall that led to the prisoners, and soon enough I was upon them. There was no watch.

The Kaldeleans immediately came alert upon sensing my presence. They were puzzled although they recognized me as “the impudent girl” who had come to Alam earlier on impetus.

“Hush now, we are going to escape.” I fumbled with the sturdy metal lock and hastily began to burn it with angel fire. The white flames burst forth in my palms, engulfing the lock which refused to budge. Minutes later, it obstinately remained in place. I started to doubt if I was even strong enough to manage this feat.

“We have tried that. The catch must be made of a special metal,” remarked a disheartened prisoner.

“…But I’m sure it isn’t unbreakable.” After groping on the floor like a mouse and chancing upon a sizeable wedge of marble lying around in a darkened corner, I scurried back to the troublesome lock and heaved the slab overhead to attack. Then I heard a sudden gasp from inside the prison before a set of powerful hands violently grabbed the rock from my hands and hoisted me up by the arms….

*

The taste and smell of my own blood nauseated me. I lay on my tummy agonizing within the confines of the very prison I had tried to break into. They had not even cleaned me up after cutting off my wings as if I were a piece of poultry. I was supposed to be beheaded for treachery, but Alam thought it better to have my wings chopped off because decapitation would be to “let me off easily.”

He had made an example out of me on the stage and declared to everyone that this was to be the new punishment for traitors like me. There wasn’t much that I could remember after that event, not even the faces of those who had been watching, there had just been this sharp, searing pain that rushed through my whole body when the axe sliced through feather, skin, muscle, and bone. I then awoke in this dirty cell with this intermittent pain that numbed everything else that I felt, as though I had been drugged…but I knew by instinct that I was dying, dying a very slow and excruciating death with no hope for salvation.

Bits and pieces of my life jumped at me as I lifelessly stared at the grimy walls. I could hardly make sense of my memories, they felt alien and disconnected. Was this how it was to die? I had imagined it differently. I thought maybe I would die in battle with my comrades, or something like that. But not like this, not alone with my demented thoughts.

I suddenly remembered the nameless spirit and realized how I had utterly failed it. I didn’t mind losing my life for a spirit I hardly knew, at least my life had a purpose, at least I was doing something special, but I had failed even in the simple task of delivering a message. What was going to happen now?

The sound of a person’s sobbing resonated from somewhere close by. “Lady, why are they so cruel to you?”

It must have been one of the Kaldeleans. I didn’t know that they were still imprisoned here, and in the opposite cell, too. How long had I been lying in here? I wanted to say something to the crying angel, but my mouth would only produce weird animalistic sounds as my tongue moved about in knots. I swallowed against the dryness as I plopped my head to the other side so that I faced the small, barred window from which a feeble streak of orange light trickled into the room. From the looks of things, it appeared that day was quickly slipping into nightfall again. I caught murmurs from outside, terrified voices of townsfolk, and the lengthy boom of a horn, not the summoning horn, but one that signaled the coming of impending danger.

By the time darkness had chased away the final traces of sunlight, screams exploded from all sides, further confusing my already-muddled senses. There were sounds of armed battle, of clashing metal weaponry and armor, of breaking bones and people grunting in their last moments. There was a heave, a puff, and then a hiss, like the labored exhale of fiery dragon, and before I knew it, I smelled smoke, it seeped through the metal bars, creating a pale screen that shown gray in the light of a blaze that must have spread throughout the entire town. I felt the heat of the flames as the town was razed by unseen enemies, perhaps raiders from a different town, or perhaps the Pilgrims of Kaldel who had come in reprisal for Renn’s insolent attack. Thick black clouds of smoke and tongues of fire now poured into my cell and threatened to choke me to death. I heard the Kaldeleans in the other cell coughing and shouting for help, but their voices were hopelessly lost to the chaos of the battle without.

I closed my eyes with a calm that surprised even myself. This was my end, and I accepted it without resistance or fear. I even thought that maybe I deserved this for failing the nameless spirit. Was the destruction of Renn what it had meant when it said that the lives of its people depended on me? God forbid! I never willed this on anyone, not even Alam.

“Alam is no more, Sheba,” the familiar, ghostlike voice unexpectedly came to me again, a relief in the midst of my deathly loneliness. My eyes fluttered open but I was dazed and could see only the burning yellow eyes and the shade of the nameless spirit outlined as if by fire. It seemed larger than before, filling up the entire cell which could barely contain its gargantuan form. “Alam denounced my will, and now he has received what he deserves. The Pilgrims have come for revenge and to take back that which is theirs.”

Because I couldn’t talk, I just let my thoughts speak for me. “Nameless spirit, why have you come to me again? I have failed you, and now I am dying. There is nothing more I can do for you, nothing I can do for anyone.”

“Sheba, I have chosen you to be the new lord of Renn. Come now, free the prisoners so that the Pilgrims may be appeased.”

I suddenly found myself angry and bitter at hearing the spirit’s ridiculous suggestion. “How do you expect me to do any of this? My wings have been cut off and I will be dead in a few more moments!”

“If you accept, from now on I will be your wings. Through you, I will rule this town so that tyrants like Alam will never find their way to power ever again.”

I stared at the mirage-like visage of the nameless spirit. I couldn’t begin to fathom what it was offering me…the power of a god? How unbelievable, yet here it was being offered to me. I bit my tongue to check if I was dreaming. I wasn’t .

“Child, do you accept?”

The Kaldelean prisoners cried and coughed spasmodically, outside, the people of Renn screamed in fear and agony, the fires blazed forth, smoke poured in, and at last, I made the decision that would change my life forever, “Yes, make me lord of Renn. Give me your strength!”

The black clouds of smoke were pushed back by a powerful force released by the spirit. In an exhilarating rush, light, fire and darkness raged in a whirlwind that enveloped my entire body and braided themselves into new bone, sinew, skin and feather that were grafted into the bloody stump that was left of my old wings. I became one with the spirit, its power and knowledge of centuries. I was filled with inexplicable resolve to rise up, free the prisoners, and drive the Pilgrims away to save my people. They were now my people. I was no longer a slave of Renn, I was its lord.

When I stood up, the metal bars that trapped me and the Kaldeleans melted as the walls of the prison gave way as easily as sand blown away by wind. I beckoned the prisoners, who were shaking like leaves now, to come to me. “Do not fear, it is I, the impudent girl from yesterday.”

They followed me cautiously, eyes wide in fear and amazement, just like the angels of Renn who seemed to forget their injuries upon seeing me emerge like a phoenix from the ashes of the prison. I must have looked different or even terrifying, but I was beyond self-consciousness now. My mind was set on other things.

I saw Alam’s lifeless body sprawled on what was left of one of the pillars that encircled the assembly stage. He had died with his eyes open, his heart burned by a Pilgrim who must have run him through with a sword that was swathed in angel fire. Scorched rubble lay scattered all over the place, wounded Meru and Roths crawled on the ground, and many homes were still ablaze against the dark of night.

The Pilgrims, the six of them that I had identified all in one glance as I took in the rampage they had unleashed on the town, were immediately aware of my presence. Radiant angels they were, with wings that shimmered like multifaceted diamonds. I knew they were dangerous. Unlike the fledglings Alam had captured in Kaldel, these were seasoned fighters, expert in the use of the flaming sword and hardened by long years of journeying all over Spheria in their Holy Pilgrimages. Put together, they could have been a match even for me

“Pilgrims of Kaldel! I have come with those whom you seek,” I announced, showing them the thirty or so captives huddled behind me in a clump. “They are unharmed. I see that you have destroyed much of our town already. You have even killed our High-Roth.”

The Pilgrims gathered together warily, recognizing the danger I posed. One of them who looked wise and dignified spoke then, “Renn has contravened a past agreement, so you must pay the price. Certainly, you must know this.”

“Yes, but if you would look around, you would agree with me that the price has been more than paid. I don’t wish to fight. I simply want my people safe, just as these angels behind me have been kept safe. But if you insist on continuing this rampage, I will be forced to stop you.” My voice was level but the threat in it was evident. I lifted my hands and the Kaldeleans’ slave collars instantly turned to ashes. The youngest of the freed slaves quickly ran to the wise-looking Pilgrim and hugged him tight, sobbing like a child.

“Let’s leave now, Master Virael, please,” said the youth, pulling at the man’s robes. The other Kaldeleans hurried over to the six Pilgrims as well.

Virael looked up, unsure of what to do. He faced me squarely, and I returned his gaze with unshakeable strength of mind.

He exhaled finally, “Very well, for returning our young ones, we will leave this town as you have asked.” He gestured to the others, and they nodded, lifting themselves off the ground and taking to the air. The youngest beamed at me through his tears before returning to Kaldel with his companions.

“Lord of Renn, what is your name?” asked Virael, who now decided to acknowledge me as Renn’s new High-Roth.

“They call me Sheba, Master Virael.”

He studied me more closely, a smile creeping up his care-worn face. For a moment, from the look on his face, I thought that maybe he was proud of me, as if he had known me all along and was happy about what I had become. I had felt as much although I couldn’t understand why. “We shall see each other again, Lord Sheba,” said he mysteriously before departing Renn without another word.

Still puzzled, I watched him leave until the shadows swallowed him up completely. Then I shook my head, brushing away the enigma that was Virael. I looked back at the ruins of my home, the injured and confused angels who were trying to regain their composure, the fiery structures, and everything else that once defined the great town of Renn.

With a smile, I thought out loud, “From now on, things will be different around here.”


“THE END”

ah yes, my angel craze.......


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