A goddess’ morning

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Elaheh sat at the table, pouring over the morning paper. Beside her, Theia and Reuel argued loudly over whose turn it was to cook breakfast. “Will you two stop? I’m trying to read here,” she said testily.”

“There’s nothing interesting there, Ela,” Theia said. “It’s all gossip these days, mostly about how Zeus can’t keep it in his pants and who Hera’s cursed this time.”

Reuel snickered. “There’s nothing new about that. It’s been going on since before the dawn of the current Age.”

“It’s been going on since before time began as far as I can tell,” Theia said.

“Zeus and his siblings didn’t bother involving themselves with anyone – god or mortal – until 800 B.C.E., by the mortals’ calendar,” Elaheh said. “So unless he was diddling his sisters, then he wasn’t chasing anyone.”

The younger immortals rolled their eyes. “Ela, you’re so old-fashioned,” Theia said. “You need to get with the times.”

“You could at least get one of the tablets we have,” Reuel said.

Elaheh shook her head. “I prefer my physical manifestations, thank you very much.” She reached down to pick up her coffee and gasped. “How beautiful.”

The other two gathered around her and peered into the cup. “That’s gorgeous,” Theia said breathlessly.

Elaheh picked up her spoon and stirred it gently. The clouds spread out like steam and the golden sunlight that gleamed up from the formerly dark liquid shone through. Tiny birds flew from the cup and faded from view once they passed out of reach of the light.

“A beautiful dawn on Earth,” Reuel said.

“It’s going to be a splendid day,” Elaheh said.

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The dead do not lie

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Yun stood next to the river, her lantern in her hands. Her cousin Min stood next to her. “Yun, you do yourself more harm than good in this,” Min said.

“You are wrong, Min,” Yun said. “The lanterns carry messages to the dead. He will hear me and come.”

Min shook her head. She didn’t know if the lantern festival came from Old Earth or not, but her cousin clung to the hope that her deceased husband would return to speak to her. He’d died without telling her where their son was and Yun was desperate to find him.

There was a deep tone. Yun knelt beside the detha nadi and set the rose tinted lantern on the surface of the water. It was a moonless night and the many lanterns floating along were the brightest lights against the black. Min stood with her cousin until the last of the shimmering silk and paper creations drifted past.

“It is time to return to the house, Yun,” Min said, putting her hand on Yun’s shoulder.

“Yes, that is where Heng will come,” Yun said, rising to her feet. “We must hurry. He can only remain in the world of the living until dawn.”

The two women hurried along the glowing path back to Yun’s silver and turquoise home. As they walked in, they were greeted by the smell of rotting flesh. Min gagged but Yun clasped her hands in front of her chest.

“By the gods, what is that stench?” Min asked, covering her nose and mouth with her sleeve.

“It is Heng,” Yun said, pointing to her husband’s favorite chair.

Min looked and nearly fainted. There, sitting in his usual spot, was Yun’s dead husband. He looked exactly as he had in life, though he glowed a sickly green and you could see the pattern of the fabric on the chair through his body.

“You called me, Yun. What do you want?” Heng asked, his voice hollow and irritated.

“Heng, where is our son? Where is Jingyi?” Yun asked.

“You called me here for that? Jingyi is dead, foolish woman,” Heng said. “I drowned him in the river. Why else do you think I was executed? Someone saw me do it. Were you absent at my trial?”

Yun wailed and ran from the room. Min faced the man. “Why did you do it?” she asked.

“I was tired of having to support a useless mouth,” Heng said. “Jingyi would never be a productive member of society. He was unable to work in the fields, his hands were too weak to use tools, and his inability to speak made him worthless as an Elder. So I ended his life.”

Min nodded. “A pity the Elders and Yun see it as murder. I see it differently.”

Heng looked surprised. “You agree with what I did?”

Min glanced around, making sure Yun was well out of hearing range and that no one was listening outside the doors and windows. “I do. Yun refused to listen when I told her that the gods cursed Jingyi. He was helpless, with no capability to care for himself or others. There was no need for her to drain herself to the point of death caring for both you and him. There was a reason I stopped coming over for several months, Heng. She forbade me from visiting until I took back what I said. I refused.”

Heng nodded. “It is good to know that there is one person in this world who understands what I did.” He glanced outside. “I am grateful the ceremony took place so late tonight. The sun is rising and I am free to go.”

“Farewell, Heng,” Min said. “May the gods not prolong your punishment.”

“Thank you, Min. Care for Yun, and may she forgive me one day,” Heng said. He faded away as the first light of dawn entered the room. With his disappearance the smell vanished. Min sighed and went in search of her cousin.

Nature is magical

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Eldan stared up at the apartment tower. It stretched so high into the air that the ever present smog obscured the top. “This has to stop,” he muttered.

“Yeah, and what are you going to do about it? You’re an apprentice mage with no talent.” the sneering voice behind him came from his long time rival, a journeyman mage named Cerridwyn. She was loud, brash, and took great joy in reminding him that she’d only been a part of the Guild for two years and already outranked him while he’d been there for five and was still struggling to do something to gain the notice of the Masters.

“I wasn’t talking to you,” he snapped. He fingered the tiny seeds in his pouch. He’d spent the better part of the last month hunting for them. They were rare and hard to find, and he’d gotten into trouble for using his free time on “frivolous pursuits” rather than practicing his magic on more than one occasion.

Slowly he drew them out. He held them in his cupped hands and began whispering the words of the incantation he’d created just for this moment. A breeze began to blow around him, stirring up dust and debris. The scarf over his mouth and the sunglasses that wrapped around his regular glasses kept everything out of his eyes. Behind him he heard Cerridwyn cough as she got a face full of the junk from the sidewalk.

He waited as he felt the power building. When it reached its crescendo he tossed the seeds into the air, speaking the last few words of the spell out loud. The tiny specks began to glow and adhered themselves to every floor of the apartments, carrying themselves up to the smog covered layers as well. For a moment nothing happened.

“Ha, useless as ever,” Cerridwyn said, her voice rough from all the coughing.

Eldan’s heart fell. Had he truly failed?

Then he saw  it. A glimmer of green against the pale wall. Slowly more of the same living color appeared. Plants wrapped around balconies, clung to cracks in the surface of the building, and spread out. They didn’t overgrow the areas they landed in, looking like someone had purposefully planted them rather than some random creation of nature.

He glanced up towards the top. The smog was already thinner as the ones at the top did their job and sucked in the polluted air. Eldan smiled. It was working.

“Well done, Eldan,” a gravelly voice said. He looked over his shoulder to see Master Eadric Browne standing there, along with a handful of others. “We felt the magic and came to investigate. It seems you were not wasting your time after all.”

“You said when I found my passion the magic would find me,” Eldan said. He gestured to the plants. “Nature is what I love. Seeing things grow, finding ways of fixing what mankind has done to our planet, that is what I prefer doing.”

“Then that is what we will focus on for you from now on,” Eadric said, smiling. “You have earned your journeyman status, and will now begin your more in depth training with one of the Nature mages. As soon as we can coax one into the city to claim you.” There were a few chuckles at that as Eldan was led past a spluttering Cerridwyn towards the squat warehouse looking structure that housed the Mage Guild.

A pact to both save a life and create one

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The mist rose up the cliff. Dionne and Rionne watched it come. “Do you think they’ll return?” Rionne asked, his violet eyes full of fear.

“They always do,” Dionne said, clinging to her twin brother’s hand.

“Why are we doing this?” Rionne asked.

“We can’t let Suvi die,” Dionne said. “Ailin would be crushed and quite possibly kill himself. His children can’t be left to the care of his parents. You know the village council won’t give them to us.”

Rionne nodded. The village council, along with many of the villagers, believed that the twins lived an incestuous lifestyle because of how close they were. The truth was they were what was known as a tampti – a single soul split into two bodies. They simply couldn’t exist without the other close by.

Of course, the current village they lived in didn’t believe in that sort of thing. So few places did anymore. The twins’ condition was so rare that they would probably be forced into a temple soon just to survive.

The mist reached the top of the cliffs. A few minutes later, vague humanoid shapes appeared. “You are brave mortals, to confront us as we come to your land,” a soft voice said. It was neither male nor female, and the twins couldn’t tell what direction it was coming from. “What do you wish of us?”

“Our friend Suvi is dying and she must survive,” Dionne said. “The well-being of her children requires it.”

“Does she not have a husband? Will he not fulfill his responsibility to them?” the voice asked.

“He is too close to his lifemate. He will follow her in death,” Rionne said. “Those who would take in the children are cruel and violent. If the children survive, they would become twisted in their image.”

“Can you not accept the children into your home?” the voice asked. Before the twins could answer, it spoke again. “No, we see what you are. Your kind has never been looked favorably upon.” There was silence for a moment. “We will do as you ask on one condition.”

“What is it?” Rionne asked.

“The female part of you must choose a male not of this village, and not her twin, to father children. It cannot be a lifemate, for that is a bonding that will jeopardize yours,” the voice said. “A set of twins like you will be born. That is our price, that you perpetuate your kind.”

“I will do that,” Dionne said.

“Then we will grant your wish.” The sense of the presence was gone.

“How do you propose to do that?” Rionne asked.

“We’ll go to a big city,” Dionne said. “There are brothels there that cater to women. I’ll just keep sleeping with various men until I get pregnant. We’ll go from there.”

“Okay, if you think you can handle this,” Rionne said. “You do realize this is just going to perpetuate the myth that we’re incestuous.”

“Not if we play it right,” Dionne said. “Here, yes. But in a city? We can play off that my lifemate died and you’re helping me until I find a new one. We just keep a low profile until I do get pregnant. Maybe live in separate apartments in a tenement building.”

“I don’t know if I can do that,” Rionne said, a hint of panic in his voice.

“We may have to in order to survive, Rionne,” Dionne said. “Others of our kind have done the same thing. We can do it too.” She took her twin’s hand and pulled him into a walk. They headed back towards the village.

A land unknown

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Jordan guided the drone over the valley. He marveled at the images the camera was sending back. “This is amazing,” he said, glancing over at his business partner.

Braedon just grunted. “How is this going to make us money?”

Jordan rolled his eyes. “Virtual tourism is the new big thing, Braedon. You know travel is just too damned expensive these days.”

“It wouldn’t be if there wasn’t the ban on fossil fuels,” Braedon said.

“Airlines and ships can still use them,” Jordan said. “You know that.”

“Yes, and they get to set their own prices,” Braedon said. “The cost for them is astronomical so that gets passed along to customers.”

“True, but you notice that doesn’t stop people from traveling. Why do you think the new infrastructure projects have been put on high priority? The president is determined to make life in America better for all of us,” Jordan said.

Braedon grunted again. Jordan shook his head. President Samantha Harrison was an amazing woman. She was one of those rare politicians who made moderate promises and managed to keep most of them. Jordan was a realist. He knew there were things she wouldn’t be able to do because of circumstances beyond her control, but still she was doing a very good job.

Braedon jabbed the screen. “What’s that?”

Jordan frowned. “I’m not sure.” He guided the drone down closer to the treeline as another flash of red and gold too large to be an animal moved into view.

A young woman dressed in a bizarre costume stepped into the light. She was followed by several other young men and women. Jordan was astonished by how tall they all seemed to be as he compared them to the trees behind them. They moved with the grace of dancers. “Who are they? I thought this place was supposed to be undiscovered,” Braedon said.

“It is, and I have no idea,” Jordan said. He moved the drone a little closer.

He was now able to see more details of their appearance. Jordan couldn’t help but stare. They were the most attractive people he’d ever encountered. They were slender, with the build of the dancers they moved like. Their faces were perfect ovals. They had almond shaped eyes that were the deepest blue he had ever seen. Long hair was pulled back and he could swear they had pointed ears.

“Bloody cosplayers,” Braedon groaned. “They think they’re elves.”

“I don’t know that they aren’t,” Jordan said. Unlike his partner, Jordan still believed in magic. He’d always held out hope he would see a faerie, an elf, or a dragon. Braedon was far more down to earth than he was, which was why they made good business partners, but his lack of imagination sometimes dragged them down.

“You’re insane,” Braedon said. “Elves don’t exist.”

“Braedon, look at their hands,” Jordan said.

They watched as something sparked around their fingers. They went to the pool beneath the massive waterfall and knelt beside it. The elves – Jordan couldn’t think of them as anything else now – dipped their hands into the water. Light erupted from the pool, spreading up the waterfall and into the ground surrounding them.

The waterfall split and a gate opened. A beautiful land filled with wonders Jordan couldn’t identify appeared. The elves lifted their hands from the water. The light remained. They walked across the water as if it was a hard surface and one by one filed through the opening. The first woman to enter the valley paused and looked back. She fixed her gaze on the drone. She frowned and made a gesture. There was a burst of static and then the words “no signal” appeared on the screen.

“What the hell was that?” Braedon asked, his voice full of confusion.

“That, Braedon, was an alternate dimension,” Jordan said. “Those were elves. And that woman destroyed our drone with magic.” He turned to face his partner. “I think we’ll leave this valley as undiscovered.”

“I agree,” Braedon said. “Not because I think those were elves, but because there is definitely something dangerous there.”

“I’ll go set up the next drone,” Jordan said. He stood and walked off into his garage where the spare drones were sitting on a shelf, his mind still on the elves.

A broken past

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Issana walked slowly through the field, her oxygen mask secure over her face. The radiation suit creaked and hissed as she moved, the mutated plants brushing against the reinforced fibers. She constantly checked her scanner. “Sani, anything?” The voice over the communicator in her ear was her partner Noran.

“No, Noran. There’s nothing yet. Just like five minutes ago. Will you please stop pestering me and wait for me to check in on my own?” Issana asked, her tone carrying her exasperation.

“You don’t check in regularly so I have to make you,” Noran said with his usual logic.

“I report every thirty minutes, as is required by regulations. Just because you get impatient is no reason for you to claim I don’t follow orders,” Issana said.

Noran sighed. “Sani, the radiation levels are really high today. That last storm really did a number on the atmosphere. The projection is it’ll take a month before it’s back to normal levels. We’re all worried about you so I’m going to check in with you as often as I feel is necessary.”

Issana sighed. “Fine. But if you startle me and I get hurt please realize it’ll be your fault.”

“I’ll keep that in mind.” Noran fell silent.

Issana continued forward, sweeping her scanner in front of her. A loud beep made her stop and orient the device on the reading. “The scanner picked something up ten meters to the east of my current position. The terrain is flat so I’m going to go check it out.”

“Copy that,” Noran said.

Issana headed cautiously forward, watching the ground for hidden dangers. The sound from her scanner got louder. When it became one solid tone she cleared the readout and stopped. She frowned. “I’m sending you a holo. I have no clue what this is supposed to be. It looks like some kind of barrier though.” She snapped a picture and sent it back to the base.

While she waited for Noran’s response, she examined the metal thing in front of her. It was a long metal pipe set on a pile of eroded stones. There were smaller metal pipes set at angles to help brace the thing. She didn’t touch it, fearing to either contaminate her suit further or tear it on the jagged, rusting surface. She took a few more holos, though she kept those on her camera rather than sending them back.

“You’re right. The Director says it’s a barrier. You’re probably standing on some kind of ancient road. That was used to prevent people from going beyond a certain point, possibly because that was some kind of animal refuge or large private property,” Noran said. She heard a faint conversation. “Sani, you need to get back here. Meteorology just reported another storm coming through. You’ve got forty five minutes, so hurry your ass up.”

“Got it. I’m on my way,” Issana said. She turned off her equipment and started back towards the base. Radiation storms were deadly, even with the suits, and she had no desire to be another casualty of this particular human stupidity. There were other, more interesting and less painful, ways to die.

Esprit du matin

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Neal and Eugenie watched the waves as the sky turned pink with the first light of the sun. “I’m glad you talked me into this, babe,” Neal said.

Eugenie smiled. “I’m glad you came with me. This is one of my favorite zen moments. It can help set the mood for the rest of the day.”

Neal wrapped an arm around her shoulders. He rested his cheek against the top of her head. His pretty little French fiancee was forever bringing joy into his life. They’d known each other for seven years. She’d finally accepted his marriage proposal after two years of intermittent asking the previous spring. Their wedding date was the next year, on the second anniversary of the date she’d said yes.

“Hey babe, what’s that?” Neal said, frowning as he saw a flickering white light.

Eugenie gasped. “It is the esprit du matin. I see it sometimes. I have no idea where it comes from, or what it truly is. But it is here and then it is gone. I have found no one else who sees it.”

Esprit du matin – morning spirit. Whatever it was, the name fit it as well as any. He watched as the tiny spot of light drew closer. It danced and spiraled through the air. It drew nearer to the couple.

As it got closer, Neal swore he could hear music. “Babe? Do you hear that?”

Eugenie nodded. “Every time I hear it. It’s beautiful.”

Neal agreed. They stood transfixed as the light sang and danced. It circled them several times before suddenly changing course to speed into Eugenie. She gasped and curled in on herself.

“Babe, you okay?” Neal asked, grabbing hold of her.

Eugenie gasped for breath for a moment, but soon her breathing settled. “Yes. It was very warm, and for a minute I felt as if there was another mind inside of mine.”

“Weird.” Neal looked around. “I don’t see it anymore.”

“Me either,” Eugenie said, casting her gaze over her shoulder. She rubbed her temples. “I have a headache all of a sudden. Can we go home?”

“Sure thing.” Neal put his arm around her shoulders. He frowned. Something had just happened, but suddenly he couldn’t remember what it was. “Hey babe, what just happened?”

“What do you mean?” Eugenie asked.

“There was something,” Neal said. “I think we saw something. Do you know what it was?”

“I think you’re imagining things,” Eugenie said. “We’ve just been watching the sun rise. I must have stared too long at the sun for this headache to come on all of a sudden.”

Neal felt uneasy but shrugged it off as being concerned about his wife-to-be. “Come on, Shorty. Let’s get you home. A hot cup of green tea and some incense should help you feel better.” Eugenie punched him in the side as they walked back towards the car.

A dark wedding day

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She scattered flowers into the warm pool. Behind her she heard the soft music as musicians relaxed the princess before her ordeal. Hui breathed in the scent of fresh flowers mingling with the spice the princess preferred in her bathwater.

This wasn’t an ordinary bath. It was the night before the princess’ wedding, and she must be purified before presenting herself both to her husband-to-be and the gods in the morning.

Hui glanced over her shoulder. No one was watching her. She reached into her sleeve and pulled out a vial of amber colored liquid. She uncorked the vial and poured the contents into the steaming water. The water bubbled for a moment before returning to normal.

She wiped the vial with a tiny piece of black silk embroidered with strange runes before pressing it into the soft, dark soil of the flowering bush that surrounded the purification pool. It vanished beneath the dirt.

“Hui, is the bath ready?” Elna, the head servant, called.

“Yes Elna.” Hui disliked the older woman intensely, though she was careful not to show it.

“Then go help Asura prepare Her Highness’ dress for tomorrow,” Elna said.

“Yes Elna.” Hui hurried to join the other woman.

Hui heard the princess enter the water. She listened as Elna droned on about the responsibilities of the wife of a future king. The young maidservant tried not to show her disdain. Kings and queens bored her, not to mention the kind of damage they wreaked on the land.

She glanced over her shoulder. Whereas the next day she’d be clad in white, the princess was dressed in a black silk gown. Her long black hair flowed freely around her. Her arms floated beside her and she stared up into the night sky. The roof over the purification pool was open to the sky, closed by the sages only when the weather was foul.

The princess floated until just past midnight, when she was finally helped out and dressed in a satin nightgown. She was led to the bed in a tiny antechamber, alone for the last time, and tucked in. Asura and Hui finished the dress while Elna and two others drained the purification pool.

“I hope Her Highness sleeps well,” one of those helping Elna said.

 

“Her Highness has been drugged so her nerves don’t keep her awake,” Elna said. “This way she doesn’t embarrass herself and her parents by doing anything so crude as yawning or falling asleep at her own wedding.”

“That would be a bad omen, especially given that this is an alliance marriage,” the second woman said.

Hui found herself yawning. She’d been up since before dawn, and would have to be up at the same time to help the princess into her gown, if what she’d poured into the bathwater didn’t do its job.

“Hui, Asura, Soma, Khea, go to bed. You will be helping me with Her Highness’ preparations in the morning,” Elna said. The four chosen women headed to bed. Hui drifted off to sleep immediately.

Elna’s voice roused her. She was screaming. Hui, along with the rest of the maidservants, ran to the older woman. The princess lay on her bed, her eyes wide open. Her pupils were mere pinpricks and her lips were blue. Amber foam gathered at the corners of the princess’s mouth and an amber stain ran up her fingers and toes.

“Gods, what is this curse?” Soma asked, her voice hushed.

“Poison,” someone whispered. The word spread like wildfire. As the maidservants scattered to inform the king and queen, rouse the guards, and let the other servants in the palace know, Hui shifted form and slipped out. The job was well done. Her master would be well pleased.

A Goddess’ wrath

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Ora emerged from the cave, stretching and scratching her head. The heat was oppressive even this early in the morning. She sighed and headed down to the river to gather the soaproot that she could bathe the children once they woke up.

She went to the usual spot where it grew in abundance, but found none. She frowned. That was very odd. She poked around along the river several meters in both directions. Still nothing.

It was then that the smell reached her. She gagged as a scent reminiscent of the rotten eggs Kor brought home that one time crossed with carrion reached her nose. She turned and hurried back to the cave.

Kor and Arn were standing outside. “Ora, what is it?” Kor asked. “There is something disturbing the Wise One.”

Ora told them about the missing soaproot and the smell. “It is foul, Kor, and I have no idea what’s causing it. I didn’t wish to range too far, but with as strong as it is it has to be nearby.”

Her two mates stared at each other. “Should we send someone out to search for what’s causing this?” Arn asked.

“Who could go? The Wise One is too old, the children too young. Nur, Sen, Dak, and Lon are the only other warriors in the family. If something is coming we need them here to defend us,” Ora said.

“I could go,” Arn said.

“It’s not allowed,” Kor said, gesturing to Ora.

Ora shook her head. “There are exceptions to the laws, Kor. This is time for one of them.” She turned to her younger mate. “Arn, do not range far. We can’t help you if you go beyond our border. If you don’t see anything before you reach the cairns, return immediately. The last thing we need is feuding with any of the other families.”

“Yes Ora.” Arn gripped his spear and headed down the path.

Mun, the eldest of Ora’s children, poked her nose out. “Mother, Asa and Hui are sick.”

Ora hurried inside. Her youngest, a pair of twin girls, who were Kor’s joys, were huddled near their sleeping mats. It was obvious that they were vomiting, as the smell lingered in the medium sized cavern. They were pale and glassy eyed.

Ora put her hands on their foreheads. “They aren’t fevered,” she muttered. She pressed on their stomachs. Neither of her daughters responded as if they were in pain. She tilted their faces up. Even when she looked deep into the brown and green depths of their eyes, they didn’t make any motion that they even saw her. She snapped her fingers in front of their noses. Nothing.

“Ora, what’s wrong with them?” Kor asked.

“I don’t know,” Ora said. “Where is the Wise One? She may know.”

“The Wise One does not answer when we try to rouse her,” Nur, Ora’s youngest sister, said. “She fell into a stupor not long after sending Kor and Arn to find you.”

Ora went to the old wise woman. She was pale, and there was the faint smell of bile near her. The younger woman touched the old one’s arm. The other woman was stiff and cold. Ora placed her ear to the Wise One’s chest. “She is in no stupor. She is dead.”

“She foresaw her death many years from now,” Dak, Arn’s cousin, said. “How is it that she has died now?”

“I don’t know,” Ora said. “There is so much this morning that is wrong.” Arn appeared, ashen faced and shaking. His spear was missing and there were burns on his legs. “Arn, what happened?”

“The Earth Goddess is furious with us,” Arn said. “Her angry breaths pierce the ground and scald flesh. The scent is her bile. It seeps up through new cracks in the stone and dirt.”

“Mother, Tai is getting dizzy,” Mun said, rubbing her forehead. “And I have a headache.”

“Everyone leave the cave. Now,” Ora said. “If the Earth Goddess is angry, she will be trying to kill us here in our home. We must go now.” The family grabbed food and clothes and ran out of the cave.

The scent of rot and bile grew stronger. The children gagged and the adults scooped them up into their arms, sheltering their faces against their fur clad shoulders. Ora took the lead and hurried her family away from the cursed lands. Burning mists erupted from the ground, scalding them.

The earth cracked, opening a wide chasm beneath their feet. Screams filled the air as the mist surged up and against their tender flesh. The ground shook and the fissure expanded. As Ora’s feet slipped out from under her into the nothingness of thin air, she wailed, begging the Earth Goddess to forgive her even as she and her family were swallowed by the flaming darkness.

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