Friday, March 23, 2018

Earthsong

Word Count: 2500 Words exactly Genre: Fantasy

‪Etha felt an overwhelming desire to see the open sky. To breathe the fresh, cool air of the outside world, to be out from under the darkness and the crushing weight of the Riana Caves, and to feast her eyes upon the beauty of the Kakaesian landscape.

Instead, she followed the Riana Leader away from the cave entrance, down a narrow passage toward an unknown destiny that Etha sensed awaited her.

Madra had approached Etha, and a handful of others, during the morning meal, asked them to participate in one last session to mark the end of their training, before the final celebrations would be held and the Initiates released to their homes. To return to the lives they had left behind at the beginning of spring, five moons before.

The passage narrowed as they descended. Madra led them slowly to allow their eyes to adjust to the increasing darkness. Etha wondered why Madra didn’t just light their way with an Elbrus Crystal, but she didn’t question the Leaders action; for Etha was accustomed to obeying her Elders. The group progressed into the subterranean depths, where they eventually emerged into a large, open chamber. It had an ancient, hollow feel to the place and Etha was sure she’d never been here before. She could hear the others shuffling about nearby, could just barely make out their shapes. When she bumped into something solid and unmoving, her nerves jangled, relaxing only slightly as she identified the misshapen structure of a living column growing up from the cavern floor.

The initiates settled on the ground at Madra’s instruction, and Etha sought to still her nerves. Normally confident and self-assured, she had always enjoyed Madra’s lessons. But something seemed different to the young initiate, though she could not say what or why she felt that way. She just felt uneasy, filled with a sense of trepidation; and a sudden irritation at the incessant whispers of the other trainees around her.

"Let’s begin.” Madra’s voice stilled the others. “I chose you to participate in this session because you have each shown an affinity for Gaea; an awareness of Earth and her many aspects. I brought you here, to the heart of the Riana Caves, so that you might open yourself to Gaea, to see if you might tap into Earth’s essence and hear if she will speak to you.”

The Spirit Leader’s voice was soft and muted. To Etha it seemed as though her words were being swallowed by the cold, dark rock of Gaea herself.

“In your time here at Riana, you have learned to mind-speak with your fellow Initiates; and you‘ve done well with that skill.” The words came in a soothing tone, and Etha realized that Madra no longer spoke the words aloud. “This exercise will be somewhat different from the other lessons you have experienced during your season here, for now I will ask you to open your minds to Gaea, and to let her speech come to you.”

The small hairs on Etha’s arms and at the back of her neck quivered. Fear mingled with anticipation. For she had felt Earth’s pull upon her before, knew herself to be drawn to Gaea’s power, though she had no idea the extent of that power, or what to expect from it, and this frightened her.

“Lie back, now, and close your eyes. Set aside your fear.”

The words sounded only within the borders of her mind.

“Listen to my voice and tune out the stray thoughts that distract you from your purpose. Slow the rhythm of your breathing, and listen.”

Etha heard the rustling of someone nearby. Forced herself to concentrate on Madra’s voice instead.

“Breathe in... Hear the sound it makes within you.”

Etha took a long inhalation through her nose. It sounded loud in her ears.

“Breathe out, now; slowly. Slowly”

Etha felt as if she were floating in air and darkness, as she focused on the cadence of Madra’s speech.

“Breathe in... Breathe out. Extend your awareness towards Gaea. Feel for the rhythm of Earth’s pulse and match it to the rhythm of your own.”

Madra's words quieted, and Etha did as the leader suggested.

She felt the cold touch of the stone floor radiating upwards, through the deerskin tunic and leggings she wore, seeping into her skin. She felt the pressure of earth weighing down upon her, and Etha willed her consciousness to move beyond the boundaries of the cave.

Down. Down into the depths she sank, allowing her spirit to become immersed and absorbed within the earth, though she knew her body remained behind, safe and guarded by Madra. Gradually, she became aware of another presence and Etha knew the exact moment her psyche merged and melded with Gaea's, and she fought back panic. For this was a power far greater and more infinite than Etha had ever imagined.

She lost all sense of self and time as she traced Earth’s lifeblood along its course. Its movement was slow and ponderous, pulsing and beating with a rhythm that flowed, sluggishly, ever outward. It pulsed with a steady beat. Pushing. Seeking. Burrowing outwards through a dark heaviness and slowly reaching upwards. Searching and seeking until, at last, Etha’s senses found and infused a network of roots and tendrils and life.

Her consciousness expanded. Twisting and twining. Pulsing and surging. Outwards, upwards, further and further, until Etha felt herself stretched beyond her capacity to comprehend and she feared she might lose herself within the immeasurable being that was Gaea. She sensed power calling to her, welcoming her, nourishing her own lifeblood as surely as she knew her spirit had infused a network of living plants.

Etha hungered for this power in the same way her body hungered for food.

This hunger frightened the girl, for she did not understand it. This was so far beyond her scope of understanding, and the more she tried, the more panicked she became. In alarm, Etha began to struggle against the weight and the presence of Gaea, closing off her senses to all but her panic and her need for self. Forcing her thoughts back into the confines of her own body, which lay on the cold, hard floor at the heart of the Riana Caves.

Consciousness returned and Etha’s eyes snapped open, and though they filled with the darkness of the cave, it was not nearly as dark as Earth’s depths had been.

Movement stirred beside her. A dim, warm light pulsed into being from a crystal that Madra held in her hand, illuminating the Elder and giving detail to their surroundings.

“Where… where are the others?" Etha asked, as awareness settled around her and she saw that she was alone with the Spiritual Leader.

"I sent them away," Madra answered. "They weren’t able to reach a trance state like you did.”

Etha nodded, disoriented, and unsettled. "How long have we been here?”

“Quite a while. The meal bell has chimed twice since we began. Are you able to speak of your experience? Did Gaea speak to you?”

"I... I don’t know." Etha shivered as her sense of self slowly returned, even as she yearned to return to that state of selflessness; so at odds with the fear of being consumed. She found she was not ready to share the experience just yet. Needed time to absorb what had happened. "No. I’m sorry”

Madra nodded, and Etha could tell by her expression that she was curious about Etha’s experience, and therefore disappointed. Perhaps troubled as well.

For the barest of moments, Etha saw herself through Madra’s eyes; light brown hair falling out of its braid, tangled and matted against a pale, angular face. Her eyes wide and wild. Blue eyes, so unlike everyone else’s. Except Agua's.

But Etha did not want to think about Agua just now.

Madra's lips twitched slightly, as though she had heard the thought; which was entirely possible, Etha knew, at that moment of joining.

“Has Gaea ever spoken to you?” Etha asked, impudently; and was not expecting the response when the Spiritual Leader shook her head.

“No. She has not.” Etha heard rueful frustration in Madra’s response. “Though not for lack of trying. My Mother, Terrell, was the only person I’ve ever known to tap into Gaea’s power, and she did it rarely. She died before passing on her knowledge to me, and as far as I know, she never trained anyone else to use the ability.”

“So, you knew of this power? And that’s why you had us try, today?”

“I test each group of initiates, at some point in their training. When I touch your spirit, Etha, I sense something beyond the normal gifts that we teach. Something I felt in my Mother, once, when I was young and she was training me. Much like I sense in your cousins, Pyre and Agua. You all have such unique abilities.”

“But… Why did you wait until now? We’ll be going home at the next full moon.” Was it anger she felt, or betrayal? “How will we learn to use these abilities if no one has any knowledge or experience with it? Who will train us to use these gifts?”

“We will give you guidance, Etha; and you will find your way.”



*******

Etha fled, driven by the need to put distance between herself and the yearning desire to connect with Gaea that yet consumed her soul. Up the narrow passage she ran, scraping and bruising legs and arms against rough walls, as loose dirt and debris crumbled to the hard packed ground as she passed.

Finally, she made it to the cave entrance, where she had expected to find bright sunlight and blue sky. Instead she found day fading to dusk behind a low layer of clouds, heavy with the scent of fallen rain and the promise of more to come. She barely slowed her pace as she burst past the entrance, sucking in large gusts of air into her lungs as she went, not paying attention to the path at her feet until she tripped upon an upthrust root and fell, sprawling among the brush.

Momentarily stunned with dizziness and disorientation, she stared up at rapidly moving clouds while the ground remained solid and unmoving beneath her trembling body. She felt bereft; disconnected. As though she had lost something precious and was just realizing its full worth.

A fierce longing for her family suddenly rose up in her heart. Etha realized she hadn’t given much thought to her family or tribe since she’d come to Riana. Too busy learning to fit in with her new surroundings, she supposed, and embracing the lessons and the skills she’d come here to learn. It had helped that Pyre and Agua had come as well, for they were of her tribe, and blood-kin; though Agua was three springs the elder, Pyre had been born the same summer as she. Having them near had kept the loneliness at bay, while they learned the intricacies and intimacy of mind-speech and imagery. She had excelled at the training, pushing herself to learn more, to open herself to each lesson and embrace the experiences as they came. But now, alone, feeling strange and empty, Etha sought comfort in the memories of her mother, and she let the images flow into her mind.

Memories of Ariel calming her young daughter when Etha’s first moon-blood had come, four winters past, and she’d been frightened by the change to her body and her position in the tribe.

Of Ariel’s compassion, last summer, when Etha thought herself in love with Agua and been told that cousins were not allowed to mate; though Agua was not true blood-kin like Pyre was.

Of Ariel’s pride, just five moons before, at the start of spring, when she’d bid her young daughter farewell, and Etha set off with Pyre and Agua on this journey to Riana, to learn the arts of the Rianan Initiate, and discover what hidden talents might lie within.

A small wolf cub scampered out from beneath a bush, made eye contact with the girl and froze in place, before scooting back into the dense brush. The action brought Etha back into the moment, connecting her again to the here and now.

Gray, shifting clouds contrasted with the greens that surrounded her, where Etha sat under a spreading canopy of low hanging branches, embraced by leafy ferns and sharp, prickly brush. Sweeping hills and snow-capped mountains graced the horizon, a sliver of light reflecting off the Riana River, snaking its way through a distant valley below.

The sound of a stream, swollen from recent rain, teased her senses; gurgling and swishing its way down a rock strewn bed. The ground cover was wet, the earth soft and spongy under Etha's hands, and as she focused upon these sensations she remembered what it felt to be merged with Gaea’s lifeblood. And with that simple contact she found herself attuning again to the network and the nature that was Gaea.

Expanding her awareness, Etha knew that she could choose to merge her spirit into the splashing waters of the nearby creek and trace Gaea's lifeblood upstream, far to the North and the East, where the glacial walls formed the borders of her homeland of Kakaesia; or follow its winding course down to the Riana River, where eventually it would flow into the Black Sea, where she’d traveled once with her family when she’d been a child.

She knew that she could allow her spirit to sink down again into earth’s soil, to find and meld with the network of plant-life that existed below ground. For some inexplicable reason, this knowledge didn’t bring the same sense of fear that Etha had felt under the crushing weight of the cave, where her spirit had been enmeshed in the soil and her lifeblood forced to seek out the network of life that existed at the border between earth and air. Because here, in the open air, Etha was surrounded by Gaea’s bounty, and her soul did not need to seek out that bounty, to touch it and feel it and know it.

Earthsong erupted around and within her, a celebration of Etha's awakening awareness to Gaea’s presence and this new found bond they now shared between them. Once again she was known and no longer alone. Gaea rejoiced at the joining, and Etha felt the trembling of Earth’s joy rumbling deep underground, where her lifeblood pulsed and sang. And Etha trembled as well.

A flock of birds took wing in wild abandon and a herd of gazelle bounded out of the woods and into the clearing, full of grace and beauty. Trees swayed in rhythm to the dancing wind, rustling the leaves and swirling among the waters of the stream, where crickets and frogs lifted their voices, and a wolf cub sang out in unison, a grand chorus that echoed Gaea’s celebration.

She was known and no longer alone!

The Deadline

The Deadline



The phone rang, shrill and startling in the silence of her home. It took three rings to find the phone, while she forced her mind back from the far distant past, and the desperate people she’d been writing about.

Reading the number on caller ID, she clicked the speaker button. “David, how many times do I have to tell you not to call me after eight? You’re lucky I even answered."

“Maggie, sweetheart! I hope I didn’t disturb you?”

“Of course you did! I told you my inspiration had returned and that I’d be writing. What do you want?”

“Ah, Mags, don’t be so harsh. You won’t believe it, but the History Channel wants your story. They loved your outline and are intrigued by the premise. I’ve scheduled a time for you to meet with them in the morning.”

“You're kidding?” she squealed, a rush of adrenaline pushing her to her feet. “That’s fantastic! Aren’t they like the eighth network you’ve been to!”

“Indeed it was, and believe me, this was not an easy sell.”

“Yeah?” She forced a deep breath, grounded in reality. “So, what’s the catch?”

“Well…” His voice cracked, and she heard nerves behind his hesitation.

“What? David! What have you done?”

“Well, they have a slot to fill next season, and they need to start filming right away. I told them you could have the pilot to them by Monday.”

“You did what!? Are you crazy? It’s Thursday. I’ve barely written ten pages.”

“That’s great, Maggie! And you’ve got your muse back, you said so yourself. I don’t see the problem?”

“David, one episode can be up to sixty pages; most pilots are two episodes. You expect that by Monday?”

“But you already have ten pages! You know you work best under pressure; especially when your inspiration is back.”


*****

Maggie's thoughts were flowing faster than she could type, her fingers flying over the keyboard at a furious rate. She’d been working practically non-stop for the last three days, alternating between feelings of elation that her screenplay was going to be aired on TV, despair that she would never finish in time, and self-doubt that it wouldn’t be good enough.

The phone rang; a disturbance completely at odds with the scene she was writing, and scattering it into the ether.

She should have silenced the phone, Maggie thought despondently, even as she turned the device over to read the caller id.

"Hey Mom," she sighed, answering the phone and pushing back from the desk.

"Hi sweetie. I thought I should check in with you. How are you coming along with your deadline?"

"Oh, God, I don't know," she lamented, at once glad for the opportunity to vent, while mourning the lost time. "I've got about twenty pages left to go, and it won’t be accepted it if I don’t have it, in person, at the Network by 8’oclock tomorrow morning. I’m not sure I’m gonna make it."

"Of course you will! Where’s your faith?”

“I left it behind in the last scene, when my characters started acting up and refused to go where I needed them to.”

“Haha, that’s funny, dear. Just give them a stern talking to and get them back in line.” She snickered at her own joke. "Have you eaten?"

"I'm too amped to eat. What time is it, anyway?"

"It's just after 7:00; you must be engrossed in your story."

"I am! I just finished writing the earthquake scene, killing off most of the tribal leaders who were holding a meeting inside the caves of their homeland, and destroyed tons of people in tents gathered outside. It's getting desperate for these people, because their whole way of life is coming to an end, and they're panicking, because they don't yet know what they're going to do."

"Ah, but you know what's going to happen?"

"Yeah, I've got it pretty well outlined, and I'm not too far off where I need to be, but I still have twenty pages more to go, and my characters aren’t cooperating.”

“You sound as desperate as your characters.”

“You’re telling me!”

*****

“Maggie? Maggie, wake up!” A warm hand on her back gave her an insistent shake.

“Hmm? What?” She found her eyelids heavy and crusted with sleep, her neck stiff, and her cheek pressed into the keyboard.

“Darlin, you’ve got to wake up. It’s Six-Thirty, sweetheart; we need to be downtown at Eight. Wake up, damnit!”

“David? What are you doing here?” She couldn’t shake off the fog in her head. The last thing she remembered, it’d been 4:30 and she’d sent the finished episode to the printer. Her brain finally engaged, and she came upright with a jolt, her eyes focusing on the clock. 6:33. “Oh, crap!”

“Please tell me you’re finished?” Her agent, and, incidentally, her best friend, asked in a tone that brooked no argument.

“It’s on the printer,” Maggie yawned and stretched, reaching over to collect the work.

There were only about ten pages there.

“Oh shit! No! No, no!!!”

David, ever calm, peered at the readout on the printer. “It’s jammed.” He looked at his watch, then at her disheveled, panicked state. “No, settle down. Listen, Mags, I’ll get this printed while you take a shower. As long as we’re on the road by Seven, we should be ok.”

Ten minutes later Maggie returned, stylishly outfitted and running a comb through wet, curly hair.

The printer was still jammed.

She pushed David aside, investigated the inner workings of the printer and finally found a tiny sliver of paper jammed in a place it should not be.

“There,” she sighed with relief as the machine whirred to life. “Thank God it’s high speed.”

Traffic was backed up when they arrived at the interstate at 7:35, no way they could make the deadline by that route.

Chancing surface streets instead, they encountered a string of green and yellow traffic lights, like an omen of goodwill, and arrived with just five minutes to spar