Rain removed her hands from the memory stone, clearing her head of the disorientation she always felt after she touched one of them. Sighing, she brushed back her long, black hair from her face before turning her head to see her companion. Song was seated on a mat near the stone, his legs crossed, watching her.
Song had once been Water; the same Water who had mentored and cared for Aurek. But a tragedy had befallen the first avatars of the goddess, a tragedy so horrible that the only way Water survived it was to destroy himself and take on a new persona. He killed Water and rose again as Song. Now he was the keeper of the histories, the one who Remembered.
She gave him a small smile. He smiled back, the sharp angles of his Nordic face softening for a moment.
Do you understand? he asked her in his deep voice.
Yes, I think so. You want me to find him, she answered.
Song nodded, his blue eyes losing focus for a moment. Yes. The events you witnessed happened five thousand years ago. Aerth and Aurek crossed into India in 3100 BC, Gregorian time, and all knowledge of Aurek faded from memory within a thousand years from that. We know he fulfilled his duty by procreating his species, but of what became of him, we have no idea.
Yes, I know. The vampires have always been elusive to us and Aiya cannot track them because of Her shield spell, Rain commented.
Aiya has searched for Aurek but has never found him, and Aerth has also been unsuccessful. That is why you have been chosen for this task. You have an affinity for vampires because you were bitten. You can find them. It is hoped you will succeed where they have failed, the historian answered.
I can find Tobias, no other, and it is a hard task for me. It took me weeks to track him the last time.
I know, but Aiya wants to know what has become of Her vampire child. As you know, She is considering abandoning Earth to Jaoi, but She does not want to do so without first knowing what happened to Aurek. We suspect that Jaoi has done something to him. She wants to find him. She feels guilty for having neglected him for so long.
One cannot question the motives of the goddess, nor should She question Herself, Rain replied.
Song looked at her for a moment. She had been Hindu Indian in life, before her rebirth into an ecomancer, an avatar of the goddess, and she still held the tenants of her religion. He hoped she would lose such ideals as she grew older; if not, she would suffer a crisis of faith when she realized the truth. But there was time for her. She was young, barely five hundred, and an infant compared to his twelve thousand years or Aerths many more years above that. She would learn in her own time. For now, there were other, more pressing matters.
No, She should not, but She still worries. She knows Aurek is still alive for She has not felt his Passing, but yet he has not returned or tried to contact us in any way. It has Her concerned.
And you want me to find Tobias to see if he knows where Aurek is.
Tobias can lead you to others. We want to know what happened to the vampires. We want to find Aurek. We have reason to believe that the Circle has been broken.
She thought for a moment, remembering. Yes. I think you may be right. When I found Tobias in Germany, he did not recognize me as kin. I had to assume the form of a vampire in order to catch his attention. When we were together, he had no concept of what he was or why his kind was created.
Exactly. If the Circle has truly been broken, we need to know when and where. If Jaoi has tampered with the sacred bonds, there will be... consequences. We need to find out what happened to Aurek.
I understand, she answered.
Song gave her a look that said he doubted that she really did understand, but he remained silent.
It is very important that you find out what happened. The success of your mission may influence Aiyas decision to abandon Earth. I do not have to tell you what could happen if Earths Balance continues to deteriorate. The repercussions could be widespread, Song added.
I understand, she answered, a coldness seeping into her. If Aiya abandoned Earth, what would become of the vampires?
Slowly, Rain stood, smoothing the silk of her black sari with her long, delicate hands, trying to quell her fear and worry. I will do my best, Song. I will find Tobias and reveal myself to him.
Song regarded her calmly. It is something you have wanted for a long time.
She nodded. Yes. I welcome this opportunity.
Be careful, Rain. To love a vampire is to love danger, and do not forget Sky.
She blanched at the sound of her partners name and looked away. I will not forget him, she assured and quietly walked out of the Library.
She had not traveled twenty feet into the forest when a heavy weight struck her from behind. She gasped as she landed face down on the moist earth; her mouth full of grass, her hands digging into the moss as the weight finally eased. She looked up at the creature that had pounced on her: a panther, all muscle and ebony, feline grace. She scowled as it flopped down beside her, amusement sparkling in its green eyes.
Sky, she growled, not pleased.
The big cats mouth opened, its tongue lolling out as if laughing at her, then its entire head began to shrink back upon itself, and the sleek, feline body shifted until the form of her erstwhile partner was left in its stead. Deep, masculine laughter echoed off the trees, and it seemed that the wind laughed with him as Rain sat up and brushed the torn grass from her sari.
Got you again, Sky enthused, his sapphire blue eyes dancing with mirth.
So it would seem, she answered, casting an impatient glance at the naked male figure seated next to her.
Want to play? he asked hopefully.
I cant. Im going to Earth.
Sky sat up straighter, his face suddenly serious, and swiped a stray tendril of his long, white hair from his face.
Aiya wishes me to find someone.
His brow furrowed in concentration. A wounded sparrow?
Rain smiled, chuckling softly. Decades ago she had used a wounded bird to teach him a lesson, and he had used the symbol as a metaphor for healing ever since.
In a manner of speaking, yes. I have to find Tobias, and have him help me find the one I seek.
Am I going too?
She shook her head. No, little bird, she replied, using one of her pet names for him. You will stay here unless I need you.
Will you be gone long?
As long as it takes.
Sky bowed his head, then reached to touch her. She embraced him, forgetting all her earlier anger and indignation.
Come back safely, he whispered into her hair.
She smiled at him and kissed his nose. Always, my dearest friend. Always.
She felt his arms come around her and they hugged for a moment. Then he pulled away, his concentration on something in the forest that had caught his interest. She waited a moment or two to see if he would acknowledge her again, and when he did not, she resolved to leave.
Rising to her feet, she moved to continue on her way. Looking back, she saw Sky still sitting on the grass. He was tracing intricate patterns in the air with his hands, smiling as he made little puffs of light that swirled around him and landed on his hair. He seemed to have forgotten she was there, and she would not have been surprised if he had. Skys attention span was often limited. Since she had told him that he would not be going with her on the mission, and was therefore not required, he had put all thoughts of it out of his mind. He could do that; it was a side effect of animal thought- the ability to focus only on the here and now to the exclusion of all else. She knew that he would soon go off on his own, morphing into one animal form or another, and she would probably not see him again until she returned from Earth.
As if he had read her mind, she watched him stand and shake himself off, bits of glowing light cascading all around him like tiny fireflies. He sniffed the air, pulling back his upper lip as if to taste the scents on the wind, then folded his body in half, shape-shifting as he did until a spotted jaguar stood where the man had once been. Without so much as a backward glance, the jaguar gave a rumbling growl and stalked into the trees.
Rain was not distressed at Skys disregard of her. Animals had little use for farewells since they had no real sense of time, and there were times when Sky was more animal than anything else. Oftentimes that was a blessing. While Sky could be completely coherent and sentient when needed, often displaying an intelligent and calm exterior, she knew better than to expect it of him on a long-term basis. Sky spent nearly all of his time in animal form, shifting from one creature to another, and she had learned that it was better that way. However, she knew that if she needed him all she had to do was call his name, pull on the bond between them and he would return to her. There was a time when such a call would not have worked, but Sky had been steadily improving over the last hundred and fifty years. In fact, Rain could honestly say that he was growing more stable with each passing decade. She doubted that he would ever be fully healed, but he was a far sight better than he had been over 350 years ago when he had first been given into her care.
Originally, she had thought to go home, but her mind was reeling from the implications of what Song had told her. After centuries of wanting, she would finally be able to reveal herself to her vampire savior. It was more than she had ever wished for, but her wish came with a price. She was only being allowed to contact Tobias because of her affinity for vampires, because Aiya wanted to find Her vampire child, and while the thought of showing herself to her forbidden love filled her with joy, she was worried as well. Song had hinted that finding Aurek could influence Aiyas decision about Earth, but would She take Her son and abandon the failing planet or would She choose to stay and try to restore the Balance? If the choice were the former, would she be allowed to return to Earth if she wished? Would she ever see Tobias again? The thought of leaving Earth forever did not sit well with her, nor did it sit well with many of her ecomancer brethren. They had all originally been human, born of the Earth and mortal parents. For them Earth was home, and they did not want to leave it.
As always when her mind was in turmoil and she needed guidance, her feet took her to the cloister and to her mentor, Aerth. She found Aerth sitting on a stone bench in the garden, watching the sun set, and knew the ancient one had been waiting for her. She sat down next to Aerth and folded her hands into her lap. Aerth did not speak.
I am being sent to find Aurek, Rain whispered finally, not looking up from her hands.
I know, Aerth replied, still focusing on the dying light.
Song says I am to reveal myself to Tobias and ask for his help.
That would be a wise course of action.
But I am worried. What will happen if I find Aurek? Will we abandon Earth? she ventured, turning her head to see Aerth.
Aerth looked at Rain, her brown eyes revealing nothing of her inner feelings, and Rain was concerned to see her mentor so closed off.
I do not know, Aerth answered.
But if Earth is abandoned, its Balance will continue to fail.
Yes, it will.
Rain shook her head. But... how can such a thing be allowed?
Aerth was silent for a moment. It has happened before, when a world is too out of Balance and its ruler too hostile to change. There are ways to minimize the damage benign neglect causes, although the result will still leave holes in the Web. They are not the preferred ways, but they can be employed in the absence of another choice.
But... what of the vampires? Will they be left behind?
I am not certain. If you are able to find Aurek and repair the Circle, it is possible that the vampires will be given the same choice as the dragons, elves, and other children of Aiya who once walked on Earth.
And if I cannot mend the Circle? Rain prompted, afraid of the answer.
Aerths expression turned sad and sympathetic. Then they will not know what they are.
Rain lowered her gaze and wrung her hands. She knew what Aerth meant. If the Circle stayed broken, then the vampires would be abandoned as well as Earth. The thought made her heart ache and she wanted to cry, wanted to rage against the wrongness of it all, perhaps even refuse to do Aiyas bidding. But no, that was unthinkable. She could not refuse to do as Aiya had commanded. She had no choice but to obey, even if she dreaded the outcome.
Of course, it does not mean that I will not do my best to fulfill my mission. I would never deliberately refuse to do as I was asked... she stammered.
Aerths hand covered one of hers and squeezed, commanding her attention and she looked up.
I know. And you will find him. I know that you will. You will succeed where I have failed.
How can you be so sure?
Because if you do not, then Aurek will be lost forever.
Rain swallowed and turned her eyes away as Aerth withdrew her hand. They were silent for several moments, but the air was heavy with unspoken words. Rain realized that Aerth knew Aurek would be abandoned with the rest of the vampires if Rain failed. The knowledge could not be sitting well with her. Aurek was the closest thing to a child Aerth had ever had.
You never speak of him, Rain said, purposefully not saying Aureks name.
He was my foster-son.
Rain ventured a glance at Aerth. The other ecomancer was tense, her body stiff.
You loved him very much.
Aerth nodded slightly. I did.
It must have been... very hard to leave him.
Aerth drew a deep breath. I had no choice.
I know, but it cannot have been easy. I know youve looked for him...
Yes. I never found any trace of him or Roshan. Aerth sighed heavily. I never should have left them. I knew they would be vulnerable without my protection. Jaoi found him once, He could do it again, but there was nothing I could do.
So you do suspect that Jaoi had a hand in Aureks disappearance.
Aerth looked at Rain. Was there ever any doubt? He was my son. If he were anywhere I could find him, I would have. If he were anywhere where he could hear my calls, he would have answered. No. This reeks of Jaoi and His minions, she said with conviction.
But if Jaoi is responsible for Aureks disappearance...
Then He has tampered with the Circle and broken the Law.
Would He take that risk? Rain asked, concerned.
Only if He knew He would not be caught. Aurek is not an avatar or part of the High Magic. His loss would not be significantly felt. The Others would consider it a petty dispute, unless Aiya could prove He deliberately harmed Aurek and broke the Circle, Aerth argued, then she sighed. His timing was perfect. He did it when Aiya was too grieved from the loss of Fire and Air, when we were all in shock from their Passing. He has waged silent war upon Her ever since.
Rain seized upon an idea. But if we could prove Jaoi broke the Circle, then Aiya would be able to make a case against Him.
Aerth nodded. Yes. If She could prove that He broke the Law, then She could seek retribution. She looked full at Rain and held her gaze. Now you see the importance of your task. It is not merely righting a wrong, or finding a lost one who should have been found long ago. If you can find evidence that Jaoi is behind Aureks disappearance...
Then Aiya could seek co-rulership and She would not abandon Earth!
For the first time since she was given the mission, Rain felt hopeful and she filled with joy. Perhaps things would not end as she feared, perhaps her success would yield her more than she could ever hope to obtain.
Aerths expression remained neutral, however. Depending upon what you discover, that is one way the Wheel might turn.
Rain smiled, then she recalled part of what Aerth had just said and mentioned it. You said finding a lost one that should have been found long ago. Does that mean you think Aurek should have been found before this?
Aerth lowered her gaze. I think his disappearance should have been given more scrutiny, especially after I failed to find him. Aiya has neglected Earth far too much in Her grief over the death Fire and Air. While Her back has been turned, the Balance has suffered. The situation there is near critical.
Rain agreed. I know.
But I have hope. Aiya is recovering from Her grief and She has returned her gaze to Earth. I think we will see change there soon. Else, She will goad Jaoi into doing something unwise.
Aerth gave Rain a small, wry smile and Rain smiled back, understanding. Then she sobered and made a vow to her mentor.
I will find him for you, Aerth. I promise.
Aerth took Rains hand and squeezed. I know. Thank you.
Rain stood and pressed her lips to Aerths forehead, then rested her brow against Aerths, her hands cradling Aerths face.
I will succeed for you, and for Tobias; for all of the vampires. If I can repair the Circle and teach them what they are, what they are meant to do, perhaps I can begin to repay some of the debt I owe to them.
Aerth covered Rains hands with her own and drew them from her head, holding them gently. I wish you good fortune and safe travels.
And now, you should get some rest. Daylight will come all too soon.
Rain nodded. Yes. I will see you when I return. Youll look after Sky?
As best as I can, I will.
Rain smiled. Thank you.
She stepped away and gave a little bow.
Goddess go with you, Aerth blessed.
And with you, she answered, turning and heading for home.
Home for Rain was a single room carved into the massive trunk of an ancient willow tree. Older than her by many centuries, the tree had grown to a height and size never seen on Earth. In the Sanctuary there were no violent storms to tear down branches and rip out roots, no droughts to slowly starve a tree to death. The trees grew tall and wide, lived long lifetimes, and because only the outermost layer of a trees trunk contained the precious sap, her hollow in the tree did no harm to it. Placing her hand upon the trunk, she reached into herself for the power to part the wood, and felt the rough bark soften and give, pulling back to reveal a narrow doorway. Smiling, she crossed over and closed the door behind her.
The room was small, but larger than the hut she had lived in as a mortal child. No more than double and half again the length of her body in any direction, it was well furnished but not cluttered. Her mattress pallet covered in pillows and woven blankets occupied the rounded wall to the East, furthest from the doorway, while her table and two chairs took up the center. Along the wall to the North was her dresser plus a small desk, and the South wall was covered from floor to ceiling with bookcases full of books. Reading was one of her passions, and she prided herself in her tiny library. Some of the books that lived upon her shelves were rare treasures.
There were fourteen avatars of the goddess. Each of them, with the exception of Aerth and Sky, had been chosen while still mortal by another avatar and mentored. Rain had been chosen by Aerth in 1512. Once the pupil was deemed ready, he was reborn as an immortal, an ecomancer capable of shapechanging, and controlling nature and all the elements of weather. There were ecomancers representing some of humanitys greatest civilizations, some of which had long since vanished from the Earth. Of the fourteen, however, only she, Song and Stars loved to read.
Stars, having originally been from Egypt, had given Rain some books rescued from the Great Library in Alexandria before it was burned in 391 AD. The Greek poetess Sappho had written volumes of poetry from her island home of Lesbos. Her talent was heralded throughout the ancient world, but the unchecked burning of ancient heretical texts by orthodox Christians had reduced her legacy to a scant handful of poems and fragmented quotations. Three of the prized, lost volumes occupied space on her crowded shelves, their goat-hide covers well worn and well loved.
Her entire room was well loved. The space was her safe haven from the busy, often demanding work she was given to perform for the goddess. She had once lived in the Cloister with some of the other ecomancers, but she found this small room more suited to her needs. It lacked facilities like a kitchen and washroom because she did not need them. She bathed and took most of her meals in the Cloister with the others, and returned to the willow in the evenings to read and sleep. Sky would join her there sometimes, or sleep in the den he had dug underneath the South side of the tree. When lit by the flickering light of tallow lanterns, the room was a cozy hollow, safe and warm and comfortable.
She lit two of the lanterns with a small pulse from her mind, and slid out of her sari, folding it neatly and placing it on one of her chairs. She then retrieved a volume of poetry from one of the shelves and curled up on her bed to read. A long time later, when exhaustion finally caught up with her, she blew out the lanterns and went to sleep.
She wasnt sure how long she had been asleep when something awakened her. Focusing in the darkness of the willow room, she heightened her hearing and sight to identify the disturbance. Most of the other ecomancers left her alone when she retired to her room, with the exception of Aerth and, of course, Sky. Her ears picked up the sound of another heartbeat and she caught the familiar scent just before Skys hand touched her shoulder.
*Sky?* she queried.
He did not answer her either mentally or verbally. Instead she heard and felt him sniff her, and then felt his weight shift onto the bed. He was touching her lightly, mapping her body through the bed covers with his fingertips. She rolled to her back, giving him more access to her, and stifled a giggle when he pressed his nose into the hollow of her throat. Wiggling his lithe form, he squirmed his way under the covers and pressed himself against her, curling up and draping his arm across her chest.
Rain waited until she was certain he had surrendered to sleep before making sure he was covered and warm. He shifted a little under her touch, but stilled when she wrapped an arm around him. He gave a little mumbled mutter and settled in, his long hair brushing against her cheek. His need to be with her this night told her more about his feelings than any words of his ever could, and she felt a rush of tenderness mixed with her usual love for him.
*Ill miss you too, priye,* she told him, using an old Hindi endearment, knowing some part of his subconscious would hear.
A tiny whimper was her answer, and she soothed him with her hands. Drawing him close, she pressed her lips to his forehead and tried to return to sleep. In the morning she would leave for Earth.