Tuesday, March 14, 2017
The Seaglass Stair by Ash Gray
Romance & Fantasy
The Seaglass Stair:
A Romance that Transcends Time
by Ash Gray
Wareska is wizenblood, a woman born with magic powers that will, over the course of a thousand years, render her into a shriveled, elf-like creature. When Wareska’s teacher dies, she finds herself wandering the wilds with her companion, a horse which can speak with her telepathically. She and the horse live in peace for a time, until a strange, dark sickness sweeps over the land, sapping it of life and color and leaving it gray. Rivers run dry and animals shrivel away, as if the very life has been sucked from them. Wareska soon discovers the means to stop the land-sickness and sets off on an adventure to do so, facing down scary unicorns (seriously), evil spirits, ice-breathing serpents, and traveling through the shadowlands of the dead.
About the Author
Ash Gray is actually a dragon, writing her stories on a minuscule laptop in the murky dark of a silent, wet, cold, comfortable cave. Having quite large claws, she goes through laptops like tissue paper within the span of a week, but it is worth the effort, time, and money to share her stories with an audience as in-love with fiction as she.
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That night, Wareska and Shadowmane traveled far from the land-sickness before making camp. As the horse lay nearby and watched, Wareska built a fire. Wolves would be drawn to the flames, she knew, so before setting out to hunt, she whispered a spell, and a light closed over the camp in a brilliant dome that sparkled momentarily before fading into an invisible shield. It would protect Shadowmane and the earth surrounding him until Wareska’s return.
Wareska could tell the horse wanted to stop her going out to hunt. He wanted her to sit by the fire and talk about what had happened, but she didn’t want to talk. She wanted to venture out into the darkness in the quick, cunning shape of a black fox and hunt the coiling snakes that burrowed in the earth of the endless plain. She wanted that meditative silence, where only the sound of her heartbeat could be heard, like the wet darkness before birth. Shadowmane, sensing her need for solitude, said not a word when she changed shape and set forth.
Wareska hunted, swift and silent, for something warm and wriggling, something that wouldn’t speak too much. She knew she must be quick, for those who stayed in beast form for extended periods of time were vulnerable to keeping the form permanently. They would lose their minds due to having defied nature itself by taking on an unnatural form. Such wizen wandered the wild without reason, unable to speak, even to other animals.
Wareska searched with narrow eyes, her belly bubbling and purring with hunger as she sniffed and snort sharp scents through her wet fox’s nose. With the lands dying and fading away, its living creatures were scarce. She couldn’t recall the last time she’d seen a wolf or an acdella roaming in the highlands. So it was that she found herself surprised and delighted when she stumbled upon a snake burrow. She peered with keen fox eyes into that thick darkness and saw one eye peer back at her, bright as a flame, the pupil narrowed. A hiss, and then a voice whispered from the hole, :You are hungry, wizzzzzen, but I have just eaten my fill of the little mordak 7 that roam Lorlassss Ru. Can you not content yourself with one of them?:
Wareska would have made a face of disgust had her fox form allowed it. :I would sooner eat my own tail,: she answered, and the snake chuckled, a dark and hissing laugh.
:Then I would offer a sssssecret in exchange for my life,: the snake answered.
Wareska snorted through her black fox nostrils. :What boon could you give me, serpent-child? I am wizen. I crave none of a snake’s secrets, for my secrets are far greater.: Her long ears pricked forward when she heard the snake’s slick body winding in the dust. She tensed, believing it might strike.
:Do not be ssssso arrogant as to presume what I know,: the snake answered. :All creatures, no matter their sssize, no matter their ssshort lives, have wisdom that a wizen could make use of. Or have you forgotten your first lesson, wizenblood? That the world holds you in its palm, not the other way around?:
Wareska blinked irritably. :Fine, snake. Speak your secrets and I will turn from here. I will stay my hunger.:
The snake’s unseen body shifted in the darkness once more. :I have lived a long time in Lorlassss Ru. I knew your teacher, Hemfra, when she was young. Like you, she took the form of fox and she, too, attempted to devour me. It was a long and bloody battle, one in which I had almost eaten her. She walked away with her tail in tact, if not her pride. I believe I lost one of my teeth in her backside.:
Wareska snorted derisively. :What is the point of this?:
:Your teacher esssscaped alive because of the great lesson she learned that day.:
Wareska waited, half inclined to turn her back on the snake’s nonsense.
:The wheel of time,: whispered the snake after a pause, :is but a snake that eatsss its own tail.:
:Is that it? I should eat you on principle.:
:Do not be so quick to dismisssss my secrets, Ravenhawk of the West. They might serve you well . . : the snake’s eye disappeared as it slithered back in the darkness, :. . . some distant day.:
Dismally resigned to the fate of hunting smelly mordak, Wareska ate her fill of the rodents, glad once more for the calm of crickets chirruping beneath a starry sky. She traveled in silence through the naked branches of underbrush and returned to her camp, and there within the safety of her own shield of protecting light, she changed back into a woman.
Shadowmane was sitting with curled legs beside the fire, and Wareska had left her clothing neatly folded beside him: brown hide shoes, brown hide pants, a belt made of grass rope, and a shirt sewn of shaggy red acdella fur. Naked in the cold wind, she pulled on her clothing as Shadowmane stared with tired eyes into the fire.
:Were there many snakes to eat?: Shadowmane eventually asked.
Fully dressed, Wareska sat on the dry earth and leaned her back against the horse’s warm side, drawing her knees up. :Only one,: she answered. :Though I did not eat him.:
:He knew my face name. And he wanted to pose riddles,: Wareska answered in disgust.
:I gather you did not solve the three riddles,: the horse said in amusement.
:It wasn’t a riddle, really. He offered a secret, something that would supposedly help me survive. He said the secret had once helped Hemfra escape a battle with him.:
:Hemfra?: repeated the horse with interest.
:Yes. When she was young, Hemfra stumbled on the same snake . . .: Wareska’s voice trailed off as the realization came to her. :By the gods! That snake would have been incredibly old if that were true.: Her faced darkened. :He had to be lying so I wouldn’t eat him.:
:But how could he know about Hemfra? Or even that she was your teacher? He even knew your face name.:
Wareska slowly shook her head. :I do not know. Perhaps he heard us speaking about Hemfra as we were traveling. Either way, I could not eat him. There’s always the chance that he was simply a test from some spirit, or perhaps another wizenblood playing games with me.:
:Or the Wolf Lord,: Shadowmane suggested.
:No,: said Wareska, eyes on the fire, :his influence begins and ends with canine.:
:Are you sure you don’t want it to be the Wolf Lord?: the horse asked carefully.
Wareska scowled, unable to decide if he was actually jealous or if she was imagining it. :Shadow . . .:
:The way you talk about him sometimes . . . You go on about his power and how you long to take the shape of wolf. I fear you would rather a wolf for a companion . . . and not a horse.:
:It is a foolish fear,: Wareska said at once and could feel the content the horse had for her confident response when his mind caressed hers.
:What are we going to do,: the horse said after a pause, :when the sun rises tomorrow? Will we follow the path the spirit laid out for us?:
:I’m not entirely certain we have a choice,: Wareska answered grimly.
:It mightn’t be as bad as it seems,: soothed the horse. :We’ve been given a chance to heal the dying the land. . . .: his voice trailed away, and Wareska knew he felt as dismal as she, that his own words were no more soothing to him than they were to her.
:The spirit said to travel north, through the vale and the Waters of Kin,: Wareska said thoughtfully. :I suppose that’s where we’re headed first, then.:
There was a pause, and then the horse spoke the words they had both dreaded to utter, :If we do this thing, if we go to this place at the end of the world, you will die, Ravenhawk.:
Wareska was silent.
:You heard the spirit,: went on the horse. :Healing the land will mean your life.:
:Yes, I heard the spirit,: Wareska answered, :but I am also bound by my oath as wizenblood, to protect life, even at the cost of my own. If I give myself to the gods, color and life will return to the land, earth and sky will sing again. In light of all that,: she shook her head, :my one short and pointless existence seems a small price to pay.:
:Do not say that,: said the horse darkly.
Wareska blinked in surprise. :Shadow . . .:
:No!: the horse insisted. :If you wish to sacrifice your life for the sake of Nesertia, I will stand with you to the very end. But I will not sit idly by while you disparage your own life. It may have been pointless and meaningless to you, but these past two years have meant the world to me.:
Wareska smiled sadly, her eyes on the fire. :I was going to tell you . . . you don’t have to come with me.: She frowned. :I’d rather not put you in danger.:
The horse snorted. :Don’t insult me. I do not intend to cower and hide as my only friend faces one danger after another. And there will be danger, Ravenhawk. The way to the Seaglass Stair will be long and arduous. There will be those who wish to stop you. They will kill you to keep you from succeeding.:
:Why? That’s insane.:
:As if insanity were some fabrication, some dark tale Hemfra told you one night when you were a child and refused to sleep.:
:I can not imagine there are people who would rather I do nothing as the world crumbles,: Wareska answered in amazement, :but you are probably right. Somehow, you always are.:
:I am,: insisted the horse with another snort. :But one question remains: why did the gods choose you?:
Wareska stared into the fire. :I suppose it is not so hard to understand,: she linked after a thoughtful pause. :A wizenblood is supposed to serve humankind. I should be protecting a village and healing the sick, not wandering around in the wilderness. I have no calling, no purpose. I live for myself. It is a direct violation of my existence. Given all that . . . I can see why they would have chosen me for the sacrifice.:
:It seems cruel,: said the horse darkly. :Why should you be forced, by accident of blood, to live for others and never for yourself?:
:Because I have the power to make a difference. It is my responsibility to use that power for the good of all.:
:But it should also be your choice,: the horse insisted. :Your life in service to others loses all its merit when the choice wasn’t even yours to being with.:
Wareska was silent for a long time: the horse was right.
:You should rest,: Shadowmane said after a while. :If we are really to ride for the Waters of Kin, we will both need our sleep.:
:Don’t be a mother hen. I will play a song,: Wareska linked, and the horse snorted irritably.
:Fine,: Shadowmane gave in. :Just one.: He lay his head on the dry earth. Wareska saw him close his eyes, waiting for the soothing sound of her lullaby.
Wareska held out her hands, her black nails gleaming as material swept to her in a gentle flurry. Her magick pulled from grass and earth and the fire itself to form a long, narrow flute. With the conjured flute solid in her fingers, she closed her eyes, and sitting against the wall of Shadowmane’s warm body, she played a forlorn melody, long and slow, that trembled gently on the back of the wind.