This short story was my first attempt at writing in the fantasy/science fiction genre.
The sun rose from the eastern horizon above the distant hills, painting brilliant swaths of fire across the bottoms of the departing rainclouds. Morning found little animals, which scurried about in every direction, in the limbs of the trees, the males chasing the females in mating play. A fresh wafting of wet pine needles flowed through the stone house that was almost as ancient as the Elders of the tribe were. They watched with a long silence and brooded over their descendants living in the forests skirting them.
Riva walked to the window open to the forest around her home and breathed in deep of the last day of her childhood. It seemed not that much different from the day before, but there hung about it an air of mystery. As if alerted to the young woman's presence, the morning quill began to chirp its usual melody that it seemed to want to sing just for her. The little bird, perched in the fork of a limb of the madrina tree outside of her window, even seemed to acknowledge her and fluffed it's fore and aft wings to greet her. The mist from the swamp was glowing with a light pink from the rising sun. Riva propped up on one elbow and breathed in deeply of the cool morning air.
Somewhere, in the back of their home, Muhli hummed softly to no one in particular as she prepared for the day. Riva could hear the sounds of Poppi as he moved about in his small corner of the home where he kept great volumes of old parchments. At night he would gather his children around him and tell them of the wonders of the past when men could not fly without machines or show them the pictures from the time before the N’kari. Riva used to look on with wide-eyed wonder at the different machines and the great stone towers.
“Riva!” Devin’s sweet little voice startled the quill, and it darted away to safety. “Are you awake?” The little boy rushed into the room with a devilish joy dancing in his eyes. "Guess what?"
"What is it, little monster?” Riva yawned and stretched out the stiff muscles of her back. “This better be good. You scared away my little quill."
The little boy jumped up onto the foot of her bed. "I saw the kesh talking to Poppi!" Devin was not one to be able to contain his excitement very well.
"That's kedesh." Riva corrected.
"They have already found a match for you!" Devin hopped up onto her stomach. "You get to go up on top of Mount Ok-Bora tonight!"
She gently picked him up and set him back on the floor. "You are teasing me!" Riva drew a robe over her shoulders and stepped out of bed.
No one could dismiss Devin that easily. "Ask Poppi!"
Riva looked into the mirror to make sure that her hair was not in too bad of disarray and then walked out of her room with Devin trailing right on her heels. Muhli was in the kitchen cooking the savory strips of pork that crackled and sizzled on the flatiron. Riva would have proceeded to the kitchen to take a sample of the meat, but there were times when she could not tell when Devin was speaking truth or fantasy. She needed to see Poppi, to determine the truth for herself, but she did not find him in the place of the parchments. He had already walked out to his place of teaching.
Riva walked out into the garden of the home she had lived in for the last seventeen winters. Vines covered the great stone ring that sheltered the garden from the horned beasts, which feasted on tender shoots still glistening from recent rain. The morning quill began to sing for her again. The delicate mist began to turn pink with the approach of the giant red sun’s light filtering through the pine trees.
In the midst of the garden sat a large circle of flat stones carefully cut and joined together so that there was a place where Poppi could teach the village children. In the midst of the circle, the old teacher sat on an old carved stump. The N'kari and human children gathered around him to listen to the history of Earth. Riva approached from behind and touched the ancient, wrinkled head with a measure of affection and respect.
"Ah, my eldest child has awakened...and today no longer a child." Poppi beamed with pride and shifted to offer a seat beside him. "Say good morning to Riva, children. She will soon begin to share in my duties for you."
Like music from heaven, the small voices lifted a greeting to her. Devin could not contain his excitement as he took a seat among the students. His activity quickly stirred them all into nervous chatter. Poppi had to clap his hands together several times to draw their attention back to him.
"Today is special for Riva. She will be preparing to meet her symbiotic tonight." Poppi kissed his daughter on her forehead.
"When will the transport ships arrive?" Devin looked to the skies as if they were already there.
"This evening, as the sun sets, the ships will pass over us." Poppi reached for his favored parchment. "You may stay up this night to watch."
A small girl with dark eyes and dimpled cheeks leaned forward as curiosity furrowed her brow. "What is going to happen, Master Poppi?"
"Something wonderful will happen!" Poppi opened the book. Though his hands were tough and leathery, he possessed the delicate touch necessary to turn each page without tearing them. "But I must first teach each of you of the darker times of Earth's past."
"Before the aliens visited us?" Devin blurted.
"They are not aliens." Poppi raised his hand for all the children to silence their chatter. "They are our friends. Because of the N'kari, the people of Earth continue to live.
"Many eons ago, the Earth was sick and dying. Men used machines extensively, and the pollution they generated caused the surface temperatures to rise. When the lands began to suffer and plants could no longer grow, a terrible war waged over who benefited from the remaining food. The greater nations unleashed incredible weapons of destruction upon each other. The air was poisoned, and the people suffered terrible deaths.
"The four gods of Mount Ok-Bora looked over a small group of our people during that war. They protected them from the sickness that kills slowly. Perhaps it was they who summoned our friends from the stars.
"With their technology, they cleansed the poison from our air so that we could live freely on earth again. Tonight, they will return from their five-year journey, and we will celebrate the homecoming with great joy."
"Master Poppi," the little girl leaned forward, "will you fly?"
Poppi stroked her hair as he allowed a soft laugh. "No. Not tonight. The skies will be full of the symbionts that need to join with the chosen ones. It will be a perilous time for them. Therefore, no one will fly until dawn."
Muhli called from the edge of the garden. “Breakfast is ready!"
There was a symphony of chattering quips as the village children rushed into the kitchen and gathered around the table. Muhli’s cooking held no equal among any of the mothers of their tribe. Poppi caught Riva's hand before she followed them. He gently turned her to face him. There was nothing but a father's tender love in his eyes as he stroked her long, blond hair.
"Why are you crying, Poppi?" Riva considered how much taller he was than she. His strength had always been a comfort to her. "Is it not a good thing to happen?"
"Many years ago, the humans who waged the wars over food thought that if they could end once race. Instead, they unleashed a genetic weaponized virus that rendered most of the people of Earth sterile. The effect was irreversible after that terrible war. They tried to justify what they had done by calling it 'population control' due to food shortages. They doomed our world instead. The unfortunate children, who were born after that, often died of starvation or the slow sickness." Poppi gripped her shoulders with both hands. "Our friends knew of only one cure that would save the future of the earth. Tonight, you will become a mature young woman and be able to select a mate to bring new children to our world. After a morning meal of your mother's delicious cooking, you will go with me to speak with the kedesh."
Riva sat on the stone bench outside of the home of the village kedesh. The small animals that scurried about in the canopy of the trees overshadowing the kedesh’s home chattered at her as if she intruded upon their little domains. She could not help wishing that she could scurry with them. Ever since she discovered the wonderful news that morning, nervous energy flowed through her veins and charged her whole body with excitement.
Poppi was already inside the kedesh's home. It would have been improper and impolite for her to follow her father in uninvited by the kedesh. The N’kari elder rarely saw children unless an illness threatened their safety. She was not yet an adult, not until the end of the day.
"Riva!" Nearly two months older than Riva, a lively young girl followed her own father up the path to the kedesh.
"Are you to climb Mount Ok-Bora tonight as well, Lydia?" Riva shifted to one side to make room for her friend to sit on the bench next to her. "Good morning to you, Fa'Mark." She tipped her head in respect to another of the village Elders.
"Good day to you, as well, my fair child." Lydia's father returned the gesture with a smile. "Such good news it is to discover that you will be ascending with us up on the mountain today."
"How many of our tribe will be going up with us?" Riva asked Lydia after the man had entered the kedesh home.
"My father said there would be five others, including you," Lydia responded. "Can you believe that Nepti has finally been chosen?" The older girl giggled. "She has seen more than forty winters!"
"Hush!" Riva scolded. "That poor woman has longed for children for many years. The kedesh must be happy. His eye has been upon her for as long as I can remember."
"I hope that everything goes alright." Lydia looked envious. "Muhli is very beautiful. I see many of her features in you. When you mature, you will favor her greatly. I am not as fortunate. Mother tells me that I will favor my father even more as I mature."
"I am sure that you will be just as lovely as you are today." Riva stood up to walk off some of the energy.
"Riva!" Poppi's head stuck out the door. "The kedesh will speak with you now."
Riva stopped pacing as her heart caught in her throat. Poppi motioned for her to come quickly as he held the door open to let her inside. It was improper to keep the kedesh waiting. She walked as fast as she could without stumbling. As she passed by her father, she acknowledged his unspoken warning to watch her manners.
The home of the kedesh was a single great room carved out of a stone boulder. It was dark inside except for a fire burning in the hearth of the north wall. The kedesh sat near the fire, quietly scrutinizing the young girl as she entered. Fa'Mark tipped his head again to her and went outside to wait with his daughter.
"Good morning, my child." Since he was a true N'kari, the kedesh had a small amount of difficulty speaking the human language. "Please have a seat while I pray to the four gods of Mount Ok-Bora to bless your day."
Riva sat on a small cushion across from the kedesh. She kept as quiet as she could be with the reverence the N'kari elder deserved. Seeing that the kedesh folded his wings over his body like a robe, she similarly arranged the folds of her dress. This seemed to please the kedesh, though he was quick to stifle a smile. Poppi sat behind her, and together they leaned forward in prayer to the four gods of the mountain. The kedesh closed the prayer with a whisper to Riva.
"Yes, Master Kedesh?"
"You may look up to me, child." The kedesh spoke with a voice that was calm and soothing. "I am not so far above you."
"Will you tell me how it will happen?" Riva tried to suppress her nervous smile.
"It is okay to be joyous about this wonderful day." The kedesh smiled to put her at ease." The N'kari have located a bondling among the people of my homeworld. As the sun sets, the transport ships will arrive over this land. We are quite a distance from the drop zone, but I am confident that she will be of sufficient strength to reach you. The blood in my family runs strong."
"Master Kedesh!" Riva gasped in surprise.
The kedesh waived off the unspoken compliment. "I know you must feel honored, and I must admit that I had favored you for a long time. Your village is the only contact with the human race that I have ever experienced. I am just as amazed as you all are. The selection was merely a coincidence. My granddaughter's genetics matched yours perfectly. Rest well today, for she will be tired when she finds you. I hope that tomorrow I will be able to speak with both of you again."
The kedesh motioned for the two to leave, tipping his head favorably to Riva. She was surprised that Poppi's hands were shaking as he took her own and escorted her out. He could hardly keep from stumbling over his own feet as they departed. He could not find words to speak as the two of them went home.
Muhli always seemed to have a sense of the things more important to the village or her own family than her own needs. She waited with a teacup warmed with herbs to soothe Riva's nerves, which helped her rest during the afternoon. They sent Devin out of the house for the rest of the day. He was to join with the other children as they prepared for the coming evening.
"Muhli," Riva rested her head on her pillow as the tea was beginning to work its magic, "what will it be like?"
Muhli sat on the bed and brushed her daughter's hair. "It is hard to describe. You will change, and yet you will also be the same. New memories will seem like old ones. Old memories you will find yourself probing and exploring of your own free will, even when you become bored with them."
"Do you enjoy being N'kari?"
"More than words can describe." Muhli kissed Riva on the forehead. "I would never have been able to enjoy bringing all of my children into this world."
"Did it hurt?"
"It was not pleasant." Muhli leaned back. "The pain is not that great as to cause you terrible suffering. The reward is far greater than even if the pain was tenfold. Now sleep, my child, for you will need your strength tonight."
Riva stood at the base of Mount Ok-Bora and looked up at the four gods. An ancient people carved Mount Ok-Bora long before the Great War. The forest was slowly approaching the foot of the mountain, but the stern gods did not seem mindful of it. They looked over the village with a cold stare. They seemed to warn against evil with a stern look permanently etched in stone.
"Poppi," Riva started to climb up the mountain, "I have heard that there is some danger involving tonight."
"There is." Poppi watched Devin run up the path a distance. "Once the transport ships arrive, the N'kari females will have only a few precious minutes to locate their symbionts. Our air is much too heavy for their delicate physiology. Unfortunately, many of them will die before they reached their human match."
"Why don't our friends make it easier by bringing smaller ships closer?"
"That question I cannot answer for you. I would guess that it has something to do with politics and finances." Poppi looked skyward. "Our friends provide humanitarian efforts throughout the galaxy, but their resources are already limited. There are some factions on the N'kari homeworld that are opposed to saving the people of other planets."
"I see," Riva added quietly. "I hope that my N'kari will make it."
Mountain of the Four Gods
The circle cleared at the top of Mount Ok-Bora was the highest point in the land as far as the eye could see. A large fire burned in the center of the pit, sending smoke up into the sky. In the far distance surrounding the mountain, hundreds of other village fires dotted the landscape. Many other villages had sent their own chosen ones, along with their Elders, to Mount Ok-Bora to await the arrival of the N'kari. The sun had already set, and the celebrations were a memory. The transport ships had entered the earth's orbit several hours earlier. Sunlight reflected off the underside of several of them as they spanned the globe from east to west. The full moon lit the night sky well enough for the N'kari to begin the journey.
"It is time." The kedesh stepped forward and unfolded his wings.
Members of the village kneeled in honor of the six girls who would soon become women. The six chosen ones stepped forward to the edge of the circle to face the transport location. Their families were positioned behind them to offer support. Riva looked upon her parents with deep anxiety. She could see the pride and the pain in both of their eyes. Poppi was about to see his daughter grow up, while Muhli recalled the day of her own maturation. It was wonderful to bring new life into the world and live to see them grow up.
"Devin looks almost like the cherub in your book, Poppi." Riva smiled in wonder.
"His wings are too small to cover him now, but they will soon grow big enough for him to fly with us." Poppi rubbed the little boy's head. "Until then, he can ride on my back like you used to."
"Will Riva get wings, too?" Devin asked.
"They will be strong enough for her to fly with us next spring." Muhli hugged the girl. "Now we must be quiet and listened for the N'kari. They will be coming soon."
Silence fell over the village people as they waited for the N'kari to arrive. Even the breathing sound seemed repressed so that the ear could pick up the slightest sound on the wind. The night creatures were a bother to some, but Riva was able to ignore them. She focused her attention upon the air, and then upon the wind.
In the distance, somewhere behind her, she heard a thin screech. Out of the corner of her eye, she could see the kedesh covering his ears. Muhli shook her head as a tear rolled down her cheek. Poppi tightened his grip on her hand. Another screech followed. This one was in front of Riva but much farther away. She understood what the screech was. Another N'kari was dying as she fell from the sky. Riva felt a deep sadness creeping into her soul.
There was a fluttering of wings as something flew nearby. Nepti cried out with joy as her N'kari counterpart embraced her.
"She will no longer be scorned," Muhli whispered.
An awful squalling ripped Riva's attention away from the happy embrace. Her N'kari was in distress. The N'kari's wings fluttered desperately as she fell the final distance to the ground. There was another fluttering of wings as more N'kari reached the village. Many of them were on the verge of death and desperately tried to reach the human girls in time for the union.
"It is not too late!" The kedesh rushed to where Riva's N'kari lay writhing in agony. Her chest swelled from the poisonous air as her lungs were about to burst. "We must calm her for the symbiosis to begin!"
Riva acted quickly to save her symbiont. She lay across the N'kari and began to stroke the girl's face. Poppi and Muhli each worked to hold the flailing limbs still. Even little Devin knelt in fervent prayer to the four gods.
A strange tingling began in the center of Riva's gut and then quickly spread throughout her whole body. She began to realize that her lungs felt as though she could not breathe. That was not really happening. She drew in a breath of cool air and knew she was not suffocating. A soft light filled her senses. She could no longer see her symbiont or hear the other N'kari squalling in their death throes.
Poppi and Muhli each breathed a sigh of relief as they lifted their daughter from the ground. Her chest and her stomach appeared discolored from absorbing her N'kari. Each parent supported an arm because she was not strong enough to stand on her own. She would be weak for several days. They led her to the fire to warm her and dry the moisture from her newly formed wings.
"When can we fly, Poppi?" Devin then asked.
"It will happen soon." Poppi watched with sadness as one girl still waited for her N'kari.
Riva's union with her symbiont had taken nearly twenty minutes. There would be no others that night. The village would mourn the deaths of the N'kari who did not survive the nascent and of the girls who would never have children of their own. In time, those who survived enjoyed much rejoicing and celebration. Until then, Poppi would be grateful for the fact that his daughter would be able to bring him grandchildren someday.