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|Chapter 1: Exothermia|
January 6, 2014
Chapter 1: Exothermia (1/4)
The bark was cutting into my fingers. It was a symptom of fear. Not fear of the distance to the ground, the empty drop beyond the veil of the shadowy leaves - we'd grown up in trees. I wasn't fearful of slipping. I had secure footing and handholds, and my boots only slid on mud and wet moss. I wasn't worried about the dark, either. We were beings of the air. No nighttime predator could catch us. It was a fear of the anticipation of what was to come, a mental, imagined fear, and so it could be conquered. I breathed, calming myself, then flexed and relaxed the small muscles in my limbs, using one of the meditation techniques we learned from Monk Pyatoc. The others had wondered why I had had them practice the techniques in such strenuous poses, but I knew they'd be useful.
I was in a stable position, but I had to ease my grip. The branch was pressing up through the bottoms of my boots, squeezing the blood from the pads of my feet. I just had to calm myself, calm my heart. Lessen the flow of blood. Keep a relaxed facial composure, and keep my muscles from shaking and skin from tingling. Our activities, combined with the frosty night air, had us right between going numb at the fingers and sweating, which would ruin the charcoal. I looked around the treetops, widening my eyes in the dim moonlight. The round shapes of the heads in our group were visible against the backdrop of the stars, but were half concealed in tree leaves.
We were fairly spread out. Duon was furthest, then Jorran, Gyano, Tainju, Pachii, and Bosang, all dotted around this area of the forest in their own trees. I knew they were watching me, even if I couldn't see the moonlight reflecting off their eyes from this angle. We were motionless, just parts of the trees, extensions of the branches. Deadly fruit.
I looked down and focused on my blackened hands gripping the branch. I bent my head forward and closed my eyes, focusing my hearing. I was waiting for their footsteps, listening for their hushed mutters.
The wind was soft and flowed over my bare head, reminding me that it was on our side. I could feel its presence, its power, ready to be pulled and funneled into a mighty blast at a moment's notice. I was immersed in it. I shrugged my shoulders and willed the air into my clothing to cool myself, the clothing we'd spent days gathering pitch and earth to dye in the likeness of shadows. I remembered boiling the clothes, out of sight from the elders, away from their disapproval, and pulling them from the black froth and smiling inwardly as I examined them. The elders didn't like my ideas, but these steps had to be taken. They'd frowned at me, but I'd thought about this for long enough. We can no longer sit passively by while our enemies took advantage of us, why couldn't Monk Pyatoc understand? It was for the survival of our people!
I heard the whistle of a nightbird and opened my eyes. It was a near-perfect imitation: Duon had always been skilled at mimicking our animal cousins. I looked up at the heads, silhouetted against the dark sky beyond the shadowy treetops, and watched them slowly shift around as their arms moved to summon the wind. I looked back across the forest toward Duon's position, and saw it: a small, orange light, filtering up through the tree leaves. Fire-tossers.
They came, slowly, moving almost in a straight line toward our camp. Those thieves, those sickening cowards, stealing from those of us who were barely clinging to life! I had to let them do it, though. I had to be certain it was them, or the elder monks would never forgive us. We might even be banished, and what chance did our people have then, if the most able-bodied members were sent away? They'd be even more defenseless.
We had to let them do it. This one last time. The others knew it too, and didn't make a move to attack as the group walked below us. They continued building the wind, just as I had instructed. I stared down at the thieves through the branches, at the flicker of their hand-flames, and my brow furrowed in hatred. I gripped the bark. It only looked like there were four or five of them. It would be so easy to drop down, to take them by surprise. It was difficult to hold myself back, but I had to let them pass. I let them find their footing in the tree roots, to continue toward our people without interruption, muttering to one another and quietly snickering about how weak my people were. I had to stick to my plan.
I watched their glow get closer to our camp and quickly fade out. Right now, they were sneaking amongst my people. Creeping, right outside the tents of mothers and the gently sleeping babies, right past the so-called wise elders, stepping over the rocky ground a mere armslength away from little Yola. The thought was enough to make me want to yell in rage and leap across the treetops and blast them out, throw them into the sky and away from my people. I imagined them, hunched over, hands grabbing and looking through our boxes and bags for our food and supplies. I squeezed the sharp bark. They weren't men, they were rats. Invading the area we'd thought was hidden enough, was far enough out of the way. The wind around me began to rush, rocking the branches of my tree and ripping leaves off into the air. I noticed some of the heads look my way. I had to calm down. I breathed, in and out. Relax.
If they expected any resistance, that's where they would have thought it'd be. But the elders wouldn't fight back, probably not even if they were awake and aware of what was happening, nor the younger monks that lived by their teachings. It was so frustrating - couldn't they see how it was effecting the people? Couldn't they see the shapes of the rib and cheek bones under the skin of the women and children? It was not right for us to have hunger and bruises as constant companions. We can't just keep ignoring our losses and moving on. The little ones who had once sung and chased each other as we walked now clung, silently, to the hands of their care givers. I missed the smile on Yola's face. No, if there were to be a battle, it would have to be away from them.
The wind was getting stronger. I looked around at the others, noticing how their movements had increased to match the sway of the branches. They were pulling the air away from the camp, through the trunks of the trees below, toward the cliff face. The air was our ally, our tool. It carried the sounds of our enemies and kept our scent from their shirshus and ostrich-horses. It was our defense, our method of evasion. And our weapon.
The wind began to batter my clothes, making them ripple and tug over my limbs, but I kept my body motionless. My skeleton was an extension of the branch. Then, I heard it again: whispers, carried by the breeze. They were returning. Suddenly, a glow appeared at the base of a tree. They were speaking louder, as if they had become emboldened by the atrocity they had committed. Their victory will be short-lived.
I watched their light approach. Before long I could see their figures down on the ground, moving below the leaves and branches. My heartbeat began to increase. They were right below us, carrying the baskets we had weaved, full of the berries and fruits we'd picked. Talking over the rush of wind. They were directly below me, and I could see every detail of their bodies. Their oily hair. Their dirty fingers gripping our supplies. Their old, sweaty clothing, cut from the brown and red skin of animals. I wrinkled my nose in disgust.
Duon was waiting for my signal. I watched the thieves continue around the base of my tree, heads turned away from the wind. Their flames were thrashing around in their hands as if the air was tearing them apart. With a sudden gust, all of them flickered out simultaneously - the thieves resummoned their fire immediately, of course, but that was good enough of a sign for me. I stood, and Duon gave a nightbird whistle in response.
I looked around at the others. I could see the shadows of their bodies against the sky. They had stood, following my lead, and continued to move their arms as they pulled the air. We were ready. We were fast. We had the complete advantage.
I turned toward the direction the thieves were going, carefully balancing on the branch. Time to jump. I stepped forward across the branch and swept my arms up, using a powerful blast of wind under my feet to launch me into the night. The dark shapes of leaves sped by below me, air rushed across my ears, but I kept my eyes narrowed and concentrated on their glow. I pulled the wind in behind me, as if I were the front of a wave. My blackened shawl opened like a parachute and I grabbed the trunk of the tree, landing as soft as a ferret with the help of the air. The others came in behind me, landing in nearby trees, bringing the wind with them, and the thieves below began to shout at the weather. The air was buffeting them. We sent the wind down to rush between the trunks. They held their arms in front of their faces, their heads turned away from the wind, and they began to walk off-course. They walked with the wind behind them so it didn't blow in their faces. We were pushing them. Steering them. And they had no idea.
Look at them, walking down on the ground, away from our camp with our things. They had our food, our fabrics, items we'd spent time making! I jumped after them, pulling the air with me, and when I landed in the top of the next tree I threw a burst down after them, knocking one of them forward into an other. I wanted to do so much more, but I had to hold off or they would realize they were being attacked and would start defending themselves. They shouted, increasing their pace, as if they thought the air was something they could run away from. They still had no idea they were being chased. They moved with haste, without looking where they were going. We leaped after them, running and jumping off tree limbs, soaring up into the night, then parachuting back down and catching ourselves in the branches, all while the wind masked our sounds.
I took a moment to look up from the trees. We were nearing a massive wall at the forests edge: the cliff face. Someone shouted below - one of the them had noticed the trees were beginning to thin out and they were reaching the clearing at the base of the cliff. They all stumbled toward it around the tree trunks, lowering their heads over our baskets, probably thinking it'd be easier to travel once out of the forest. Perfect.
The thieves rushed out into the open while we all landed into our chosen trees, grabbing onto the trunks and securing our footing. I mimicked the movement of the tree branches with my arms and continued to direct the air down toward them. The thieves shuffled into a huddle to talk to one another, probably trying to figure out their bearings. They were disoriented. This couldn't be going any better. I felt the wind slacken a bit, probably from the others looking to me for a signal. I continued to move my arms, but looked over at the tree to my right and tried to connect eyes with Duon. He noticed my look, and I lowered my arms. The wind began to lessen as the others followed my lead, then stopped entirely. I looked out at the little huddle of thieves. They were looking around at the sudden drop in the wind. Five of them, seven of us. Here we go.
I lifted my arms, pulling the air up through the leaves and branches of the tree, then pushed off the branch and shot out into the open. The air carried me. I heard the rushing sounds and snapping of twigs and leaves behind me as the others followed. I bent my head forward and rolled in the air, over their little huddle, then twisted and dropped onto the ground. Their shocked faces turned toward me, and I stood into a fighting position.
One of them had one of our baskets clutched to his chest with an arm. He pointed to me and shouted in surprise: "Where did -? He's a wind-walker!"
Duon came down to my left, followed by the others. We enclosed them in a circle, dropping down like wolfbats, and got into our fighting poses. The thieves tightened their huddle, each facing outward. I looked around at the others. We were ready.
The man who had spoken laughed. He seemed to be the leader. "Relax, men, we've heard about these wind-walkers and their peaceful ways. They're probably only here to kindly ask us to return their food, or to meditate, or something!" He tried to laugh again, but it died when the other men didn't make a sound. Good. We had intimidated them.
He had addressed one of my concerns, though - the others had expressed hesitation to using the air in a violent manner. It was against everything the elder monks had tried to teach us as we grew up. I knew that in order to encourage them to fight, I'd have to make the first move. We had to get our things back and show them that we weren't being taken advantage of anymore. It was time for me to speak. I directed it to the group, ignoring their supposed leader to make him know how little I thought of him. "Give us back our possessions."
"Or what, breeze-dancer?" He said, laughing. "You'll hurt us?"
I turned my attention to him, hiding a smirk. "No. We're going to do that anyways."
His brow furrowed. He dropped the basket to move himself into a fighting stance, but he was too slow. The first tiny flames had only barely begun to appear between his fingers and I had already hurled myself forward. I swung my legs up behind and over me as I spun, building and compressing the air, then smashed it down at him. He was blasted through the huddle of his men and out of our circle, flying all the way back over the grass and straight toward the forest, where he collided into a trunk and sunk to the ground.
His four other companions all dropped our items to the ground, spilling their contents, then assumed defensive stances and blossomed flames in their hands. Was it anger or fear that made them grimace? "You're - you're gonna pay for that, wind-walkers!" One of them stuttered. He punched out flames, sending small bursts toward me, but I easily stepped around them. I turned and watch the little flame balls evaporate in the air behind me, then looked back to him.
I moved my arm up and swung the air down in a horizontal slice, snuffing out the flames in their hands. Some of them gasped, then resummoned their flames and threw their fire at us. They were so slow. We stepped from side to side, letting their flames fly past us and die in the air. The thieves increased their intensity, punching out fire at us, but we had grown up practicing evasion. It was the only form of combat the monks had ever taught us.
As I moved around their fireballs, I looked at the blackened faces of my team, jumping from side to side, as the thieves punched out their little projectiles all around us. I'd shown them what to do, now it was time for one of them to follow. They were looking around at each other, too, not wanting to be the first. One of them had to do it. I made eye contact with Duon.
One of the thieves shouted, "Hold still! What are you doing? Why aren't you fighting back?" He'd spoken my words for me.
It was like he moved in slow motion. Duon landed from a jump, closing his eyes and exhaling, as if he didn't want to see what he was about to do. He brought his fist forward, compressing the air in front of him, then swept it up from the ground in a concentrated blast. The thief directly before him took the impact and flew off his feet, through his companions, then crashed down on his back, slamming his head against the ground - however, a second later, he jumped back up and shot a fire blast out of his feet. Duon stepped aside, letting it sail past harmlessly.
The thief rejoined his group, shooting out fireballs. Suddenly, there was another air blast, from the opposite side of the circle that knocked one of the thieves forward onto his hands. Another member of our team had decided to attack! Finally. The thieves continued to try to blast at us with their fire, but their efforts were in vain. We moved, circling them, sending out blasts of air. Their eyes widened in fear. They knew they couldn't hit us.
"Grab the stuff!" One of them shouted. "Let's get out of here!"
They squatted down and scooped up our things, then sprinted toward the forest and threw fire out to clear the way. "Stop them!" I shouted, but they'd already broken through and were heading for the trees.
I began to start after them, but it looked like each of them were already covered by a member of my team. We were faster and there were more of us - there was no way they could make it all the way back to their camp with our things. I slowed and watched them disappear into the tree line, seeing small flashes deep between the trunks from their weak attempts at attack. The rest of the team could handle them.
Suddenly, I saw movement. It was the man from earlier that I had knocked out of our circle. He was trying to push himself off the ground. I started toward him, stepping over the applenuts that had spilled from the basket he had dropped. The applenuts the children had spent all day gathering. I stepped toward the forest edge, watching him prop himself up against a tree. His arm swung limply by his side, and he cried out in pain. It looked dislocated.
"You - you'll pay for this!" He grunted, leaning against the tree. "You and the rest of your cowardly people!"
That was too much. He had no idea what his actions were doing. The faces of my people flashed through my memory. Women, their cheeks sunken and eyes sad. Children that hadn't laughed or smiled in weeks, that looked like the life had been taken right out of them. "You are the cowards!" I shouted, punching a small blast of air at him, which slammed him into the tree. "You are thieves! You steal from us in the middle of the night, from peaceful people just trying to get by!" My fists shook in anger. These disgusting rats, these thieves! Our starvation was all their doing. They were killing us without any remorse.
He laughed and tilted his head toward me, making eye contact. "And you've just let it happen! None of you have even raised a finger to stop us!" The wind was rushing behind me. I had to calm down. "You've all been living on luck," he said. "The strong are the survivors of this world, and weak are nothing but prey. Nothing you do tonight will change that. You'll see, we'll be back. And who knows? You all might even be dead before the month's over."
My brows were furrowed in rage and my heart was beating in my ears. It was time for the last part of the plan, and I couldn't be more ready. Time to send them a message. I took a deep breath, regained composure, then stepped toward him and stretched out my hand. He looked at me, grimacing from the pain in his arm. I felt the air in between my fingers, sensed it, felt it being sucked in and pushed out from his mouth as he breathed. I closed my fist, drawing my fingers in and clenching the air. I pulled it out from his very lungs, and I held it.
His eyes widened. He brought his hand up to his throat, silent. He was desperately trying to inhale, moving his mouth like a fish, but I wasn't letting the air back in. His face began to redden and he dropped to the ground, landing on his arm. His expression twisted in pain, but he couldn't even scream. He was shaking, grabbing onto the grass, tears were leaking from his eyes. Silently. What would it be like to take a life? My own heart rate increased as blood pumped through me. My eyes narrowed. Look at him, squirming on the ground, face turning purple. I had complete decision over weather he lived or died.
Suddenly, I felt a hand on my shoulder - it was Duon. He hadn't followed the others into the forest. His eyes were wide and scared, and shone out from his charcoal-blackened face. He spoke. "Messio." He was telling me to stop.
He was right. I relaxed my hand and released the air, sending the man at my feet into a coughing fit as he took in a deep inhale. He filled his lungs, then coughed it out, and sucked it back in again, taking deep, raspy breaths. He cried in agony at the pain in his arm and lungs and curled into a ball. I can't kill. Not like this, not when he was at my complete mercy. I would never be forgiven.
I looked up at Duon, then noticed the other members of our group had returned with our items. They were all looking at me, just as wide-eyed. I didn't want the respect I'd gathered to turn into fear.
I bent down and grabbed the man's shirt, then hauled him up off of his feet and shoved him against the tree. His eyes were shut, still streaming tears, and he was continuing to breath hard. I knew he was listening, though. "Go," I said, through clenched teeth. "You've seen what we can do. You know that you can't hit us, and we can hit you hard." I shoved him again, shaking his limp arm. He growled in pain. "Tell your people to stop stealing from us."
I let him go, and he slumped, but was able to keep himself up. He leaned forward and took small steps, turning around into the trees to follow the path of his men back to their camp. He held onto his arm to stop it from swinging by his side as he walked. I watched him for a moment, then turned to face Duon and the rest.
Their eyes were still wide, uncertain about my actions. I had to say something. "Look at the baskets of food, the bundles of clothing and the tools that you're holding. These are things that we've worked for, things we've spent time crafting and weaving and that we need to survive. Not just us here, but those back at the camp too. This is for our people, for the starving women, the bone-thin children who won't have a chance to grow up if we don't protect them." I paused. "We have the ability to defend ourselves. We can't just allow the things that we need in order to live to be constantly taken away from us. What we did was tell them to stop," I said, pointing at where they'd disappeared into the forest, "that we will not stand by while they send us to death and starvation. We are strong, we are fast, we are powerful, and we will protect the lives of the people we love. That's what we showed them."
They were silent, but it looked like they understood. I stepped past them toward the basket of applenuts, and they followed me. I bent down and gathered up the fruit into the basket. I looked from one set of eyes to the other and at Duon. "The children gathered these, but they would have never gotten to eat them. They're starving, you've all noticed how quiet they've become." I stood, pulling the basket up from the ground. "We've always been taught that life is the most precious thing, and we can't let it be stopped at the hands of men like them. Monk Pyatoc and the others say that violence is an awful, terrible thing, and they're right - but we can no longer afford to not use it. If we keep letting ourselves be attacked and stolen from, we will not survive. None of us. The monks, the women, the babies. Our entire culture, our history, will end with us. We have to protect our people." They nodded, any fear in their eyes fading away with the return of trust. They understood the necessity of their actions. "Okay. Let's get back to camp before the sun comes up."
I led the way back into the trees. I was powerful, and I felt it. People followed me and trusted my decisions. All the other communities we'd come across lived in chaos, but we had structure. We had order. We had the ability to survive. I looked at Duon, who walked by my side. He was just a quiet, weird kid that could imitate animals, but now he was one of the strongest and most confident fighters in our group. I could turn people's lives around. I could pull us back from starvation and death. There was a drive inside of me that other people recognized and followed, that pushed me to help my people find a life without fear and to find happiness again. It was an inner light, a crazy brightness that filled me with energy and confidence.
I could change our world.
- 1. Exothermia: Part 1 4
- 2. The Nomad
- 4. Sky Blossoms
- 5. Cryoablation
- 6. The Nomad's Offer
- 7. Arid Spirit
For the collective works of the author, go here.