Continuous sunlight over three days had burned away the expansive pool of black corrupted ooze, but a ragged depression was still eaten into the earth. The hunters skirted this with their mounts as they set off.
Tall grasses laden with dew brushed Alden’s legs as he rode. He and his band settled into an easy travel rhythm, and each found their place. Grath led the way up front and Alden rode just a little behind him. Braden switched between riding beside Alden, joking with Jincra trying to provoke a smile, and harassing his twin sister.
Alden noticed that Lalaine always strode to ride even with Jincra, though not immodestly close. Alden fell back to eavesdrop on their conversation and found the two discussing Jincra’s favorite topic: spirit lore. Lalaine listened with rapt attention, and Alden envied her focus. Jincra’s routine history lectures usually put Alden to sleep.
With the spare time, Alden slid open his spirit menu and reviewed his skills. “I wonder what my next battle will unlock.” He spent the rest of the afternoon daydreaming about learning legendary skills from his village’s ancestral stories.
After a full day of riding through the tall grasses, dark treetops were just visible over the tops of the swaying grasses as the pastel colors of dusk painted the sky.
“The Southern Forest,” said Grath. “Dangers lurk in its shadows. We should halt here.”
“Agreed,” said Alden.
The group made camp for the night.
Alden and Braden beat down a circle of grass to make a large nest for the band and their birds, while Jincra and Lalaine dug a fire pit. Grath tied the kinvalos’ reins to anchors which he drove into the ground. Chirping and purring, the five birds nestled down into their soft grass beds.
Grath worked at building up a lasting fire. The four youths sat around the camp teasing each other and preparing for dinner. Their mothers had packed cold meat and boiled vegetables. Alden diced the meat into bite-sized chunks which he skewered on sharp sticks between vegetable pieces.
“I’m glad you’re along, Alden,” Braden said, his mischievous eyes fixed on the dripping skewers suspended over the campfire.
Alden said nothing as he focused on sprinkling green herb dust over the heated meat.
“I am pleased as well,” Jincra agreed. “Alden is rapidly becoming the best cook in the village. The food, at least, will be a pleasure to anticipate.”
“Savor it while it lasts,” Alden said. “This is the last of the wedding meat. From here on out, it will be nothing but dried meat and dried fruit until we reach Ceralahn City.”
The meat continued to sizzle as Alden removed the skewers from the fire. He pulled off the food and portioned it into each hunter’s clay bowl. Alden, Grath, Jincra, and Braden tore into the meal with savage enthusiasm. Even Lalaine’s impeccable manners slipped just a bit as she took larger bites than usual and hummed in appreciation of Alden’s savory cooking.
Alden savored the dish he’d made. The herb dust he’d tossed in gave the food a sharp bite. He washed it down with swigs from a large bowl of drinking water filled from the heavy skins on his saddle. Each hunter carried similar skins, and Alden contemplated how long they’d last before needing to be refilled.
After the meal, Grath sat poking the fire with a long stick he’d found. The Aibeck had kept silent most of the day, but Alden hadn’t been sure how to approach his older teacher. The black-haired youth stood up from his cluster of friends, took his bowl of food, and sat down beside the Aibeck hunter.
Grath greeted him with a grunt but didn’t take his eyes from the fire.
“Have you ever seen the capital, Grath?” Alden asked.
Grath shook his head. “Humans conduct a lot of rituals there, Alden. I don’t mind your kind, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to seek out places where you work your magic.”
Alden set down his food bowl and clasped his hands in his lap. “You’ve lived with us for several winters, Grath, and you trained each of us in the ways of hunting. No one else could do it because none of our parents or grandparents were spirit-blessed, but you stepped forward to teach us. I’m still sore from the last several days of training. We’ve spent so much time together. Are you still not comfortable with us?”
Firelight danced in his amber eyes as Grath lowered his head. “It’s not your tribe which bothers me, Alden. It’s human magic. My tribe still tells stories about the Scourge and the disasters it’s caused. Some Aibeck curse humans for every injury and indignity we suffer.”
Jincra broke off from listening in on Braden teasing Lalaine to join Alden and Grath. The studious young man scooted closer to them as he spoke. “Indeed, they may be right to do so. Even our own stories do not absolve our human ancestors for splitting the spirit world from the flesh world.”
Grath nodded. “Aibeck legends teach that the Swollen Mother, who continuously births all the world, had given her spirit children the right to play in the flesh world, but inhabiting flesh was for the animal bodies and their weaker spirits. Stronger spirits were supposed to stay above it and not interfere with her world. Our home was the Valley of the Flowers, in the cradle created for us by the Swollen Mother. We lived within sight of her at all times.
“Greedy spirits hungered to know more and to see the world through eyes made of flesh. They abandoned the Swollen Mother’s care and ventured forth. These reckless spirits invented magic rituals to fashion bodies and forced their spirits to inhabit the flesh. In doing so, they cracked the world. The Swollen Mother was forced to mend the crack to keep the world together.”
Alden listened intently. He’d never heard the Aibeck version of the story and wondered how it would differ.
“This mending of the crack created the Divide between spirit and flesh,” Grath continued. “Swollen Mother pushed half of her children across the Divide to watch over her now human children. These unfortunate spirits were shoved across and forced to create flesh for themselves as their siblings had done. This second wave of children included the first Aibeck, the primal half-animal Naital, the delicate and winged Avyh, and the secretive, wooden Kryf.
“One group of spirits, those who clung most tightly to the Swollen Mother, begged not to be sent away. She pushed them through as the Divide finished hardening, and they were stuck halfway, composed mostly of flesh but still able to touch the Swollen Mother. These children became the Ishal.”
Grath concluded: “And so all the first children cursed their siblings, the humans, for bringing this calamity upon them. But the situation became worse when the extent of the damage was fully revealed. In separating themselves from the Swollen Mother and causing the Divide, and causing harm to their siblings through reckless desire, the humans had brought the stain of selfishness and the first existence of evil into the world. Evil manifested as a poisoning plant which attached to spirits and tainted them into twisted, hateful versions of themselves. This became known as the First Corruption, the birth of the Scourge. All races have had to fight against periodic floods of the Scourge ever since, and each time, the other races curse humans all the more.”
Jincra had been nodding along with intense focus as he listened to Grath’s story. “Our version includes the same series of events, though we specify the first humans were curious and not greedy.”
Grath snorted. “Whatever their intent, the outcome remains the same.” The Aibeck returned to staring silently at the fire.
Nearby, Braden continued to annoy his twin sister.
“I can’t wait to get to the big city! I’m looking forward to the food. What about you, Lala?”
“Don’t call me Lala. I’m also interested in sampling the food.”
“Yeah, I believe that. You’ve always had a sweet tooth, Lala.”
Lalaine splashed Braden with water from her bowl. He squawked in surprise.
Alden spoke up. “Grath, I understand why other races might begrudge humans, but why do our rituals bother you personally? Even Felka’s wedding made you uncomfortable.”
Grath finally turned from the fire to glare at Alden. “Humans invented magic rituals to bind their own spirits. In doing so, they doomed us all. Women channel the Swollen Mother’s creative power as they birth new spirits bonded to flesh, and we are trapped in the flesh all our lives. We hope death sends us back across the Divide to be with the Swollen Mother again, but we don’t know. No hunter can hear the spirits’ voices, so they cannot tell us what happens to us when we die.
“The humans also invented the ritual which bonds hunters to unattached spirits to give us our power. For some reason, the spirits pick a few people to bond with. Without them, we would struggle to survive against the predators in our world. But what happens to the spirits when they bond with us? We don’t know. Do they suffer? Do they regret their choice?”
“Prevailing tradition teaches that the spirits dissolve into their bonded hosts,” Jincra said.
Grath snorted. “Based on mystical guesswork at best. Human rituals continue to shape the world around us, and we don’t understand their full effects. Altering the spirit world, through selfishness or curiosity, is dangerous. And yet humans continue to experiment and expand their mystical knowledge. The other races do so as well, but only as a check on the humans’ power.”
Is that a convenient cover for their ambition, Alden wondered, or are they really that afraid of us?
“So yes, young hunters,” Grath concluded, “I am uncomfortable around human rituals. I don’t know what could go wrong, and that worries me. It should worry you, too.” He let out a deep sigh. “But I also care for all of you. I trained you and helped raise you. I don’t wish you any ill. I don’t hate humans. Just don’t ask me to participate in your magic.”
With that, the camp fell silent. The hunters finished their meals and washed their bowls. Rhythmic snoring drifted from the kinvalo nest.
Lalaine set her sleeping roll apart from the men. Braden put his sleeping fur between her and the others in order to maintain Sacram propriety. The human hunters crawled into their furs to sleep under the stars.
Grath remained standing. He’d volunteered for first watch, and on his first circuit of the camp he passed the spot where Alden lay. “I’ll wake you for second watch,” the Aibeck said.
Alden carried the words with him into his dreams.
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