S H a l i N I
Shalini thought about the present. Things had changed so fast. The children were now adults dealing with all the drama that adults deal with while simultaneously trying to figure out their place in the realm. This is what all people do when they grow up, but within the Alliance, the tension in this particular area was high. It was more about doing the best one could do for the entire realm, and not just deciding who to be. How would people’s talents better serve the people was the issue, no matter how low or high their position might be.
Things were different now. The children no longer called her ‘mother.’ They were calling their own parents that. Her time with them had come and gone. And now, here she was in The Wood in the most dangerous of times. The first time the children had been in The Wood was when the magic was at its peak, and the forest grew in strength and rejuvenated itself. She was sure the only reason she was alive was because they had a Lurgal escort. The king had been destroyed in a failed attempt of the enemy to claim territory on the borders of Keldon and Mironi. It was a brutal death. One arm was never found. His head was also disconnected.
Janon was falling to pieces. He’d spent a lot of time in the forest as a child, the only one to ever be allowed to leave the elven city and only to go to The Wood. Shalini was glad to see that Drak was doing his part in helping Janon through this moment instead of shying away, as she had expected. Tilal was becoming more and more like Jania. She meditated a lot, practiced her war drills a lot, and read dreams just to keep herself attuned to the skill instead of waiting for a need for her to read. She deserved much of the credit for saving Daru.
As for Cherann, Shalini thought that she, too, was more than distraught about this situation. The Lurgals were exceptional healers. Still, they were willing to work under the guidance of her chosen healer and help to teach things most humans would never know about healing. Shalini had learned also their laws, their secrets, and their way of interacting with The Wood—something that Janon was now doing for them. Humans never survived during this time in The Wood. However, he seemed to be able to guide them through without aid of the hidden safe paths. Then again, she thought, during the growth period, there probably weren’t any safe paths.
She was also feeling oddly sad about so many deaths of so many people whom she admired and who claimed to admire her as well. She felt all who had passed, rulers and great leaders of their people, were more than she could ever be and had taught her so much; now here she was, walking toward the grave of another hero destroyed.
Daru was taking notes as usual. He had acquired a love of writing just as his mother did. Shalini smiled at the thought of reading his account of a Lurgal burial—a royal one at that. There was no telling when such a show would ever be witnessed by humans again.
The farther they moved, the darker things seemed to become. The only shadows were the ones their torches were casting on their immediate surroundings. There was something peaceful to Shalini in the dark; not knowing exactly where her feet were leading but certain it was not toward harm. The sounds of each crack beneath her feet connected her to life beyond her existence. She could hear unseen predators circling and knew she had nothing to fear. She could enjoy all that The Wood had to offer and without any of the uneasiness that usually came with being inside the forest.
The calm that came in the unknown was a pleasant escape for the Alliance; a pleasant departure from all of the setting up of the school, teaching so many magicians the basics of magic, and teaching a lot of them basic history of the realm. What were the schools teaching the people? Even the peasants seemed more knowledgeable then they were, and they had to find their own education. She was beginning to question their faith in her, but with all the new things she had learned about magic, and the realm, the members of the Alliance were indeed improving.
The farther in they moved into the woods there seemed to be a rumble rising: a sound floating on the air traveling through the leaves. It was feverish yet controlled—excited like a heart beating too fast or horses galloping through the plains. There seemed to be a cry in the air as well, Shalini thought. Screams—no, it was more like shouts or battle cries. As the sound grew louder, she could tell that it was the sound of music and dancing. A festival was going on. But what kind? The rhythm was different to her—and she knew of most of the festivals throughout the realm. What could they be doing?
Soon a light began to emerge through the trees. The magic in the air mixed with the cries of the Lurgals seemed to be overwhelming her. What could be emerging such a vast light in the middle of the forest? Nothing seemed to be harmed, and the smell of flames didn’t seem to be potent enough to match the extent of the fire or the vastness of the light. As they broke through the final of the trees into a large clearing, she saw something she thought she would never see.
It was the Fire dance.
J a N i a
Jania was shocked—but not entirely so. She knew the festival and all its ways had been somehow erased from the realm. It was apparent why. The Fire dance was of the Lurgals. It was their ritual, something that was passed on to humans, taught to humans as most things were and then retracted as faith was lost in mankind. So many good things had been lost.
There were six columns of stationary drummers beating on drums half their height with their hands. She followed everyone down to the front of one column, where a bunch of Lurgals were sitting cross-legged on the ground and chanting in a semicircle. She joined in, sitting beside them and looked forward onto the show. It was spectacular to see the fire before her was bright purple and stretched up as far as the trees. It was encircled by a stone ring of red rocks that gave off smaller yellow fire. The Lurgals were dancing through the flames to the rhythm of the chant. It was a graceful yet aggressively precise dance.
Jania was aware that this particular dance involved the ten chosen children of the king. To have the fire dance performed as the passing rights of death was the greatest honor to be given. Jania had only heard of one other such occasion for it being done for a death. There was something in the jumps and the sways through the fire. The rest of the Lurgal king’s children were dancing in the close ring outside the fire. Their arms were glowing orange as they seemed to dance in movements made of fire. Resembling fire themselves. All the dancers inside and outside of the fire seemed to be one with the flames and unharmed.
This was the trick of the dance, the method to the acrobatics and the calm that seemed to cross their faces. If done wrong, it was the only ritual that had no chance of survival. There was no stopping the ritual. It had to keep going and whoever didn’t survive didn’t survive. It was a ritual for the gods, and held the power to undue anything the gods had done. Even if the gift was the gift of life.
That was when a Lurgal Jania knew to be the eldest child and daughter of the king came toward her. Jania knew what was going to happen next; she felt it in her bones. Though she hoped deep down that the blessing of life would sustain this ritual, she also knew that Atora had said nothing about being brought to within an inch of death. All of them could probably ‘almost die’ a few times before the prophecy had seen its end. She was perfectly willing to take that chance though. She vowed to let her fears be faced in this mountain of fire. She nodded, and then the Lurgal princess took Janon into the fire.
“What is going on? You know that some of the greatest magics have the power to dissolve anything in the realm—even those blessed by the gods. He could be destroyed,” Shalini said in calm tones so as not to disrupt the atmosphere. Any disruption too strong could result in multiple casualties.
“Yes. I do realize this.”
“Then why would you send him into the flames? He’s your youngest child, the one to be part of the prophecy. Consider all the things that have changed. Everyone’s role from before the first battle to after has changed. What if it is meant for him to die? Only a ritual this strong could destroy him.”
“I know, Shalini. I know. But it must be done.”
“She is right. Besides, there are some things we do not yet know about Janon—some things he has chosen not to reveal to us that are plain to see whether he tells us or not,” Cherann interjected.
“And what would that be?” Shalini inquired, though she knew the answer.
“Don’t be a fool, sister,” the seer said. “He is a master of fire.”
The rest of them looked on as Janon removed the last of his clothes. He lit himself aflame in the blue of his people. Tears flooded his eyes. He took a quick run up, jumped, somersaulted into the fire and joined in on the dance with the knives he was gifted from Drak. His bright blue was a clear beacon amongst the purple flames. As he danced, the fire climbed, the drums beat louder, the chanting grew more intense and the magic in the plain grew so strong that it was almost threatening to squeeze them all together until they exploded it. Soon everyone was in a small glow of fire, watching as the dancers poured their souls into the flames. This dance would not end until the flames died, though no one was certain when that would be.
So the dance went on.