Personally, I think great fantasy art has spurred more story ideas in me than anything else. This particular image really caught my imagination (send me a link if you know where it came from – I can’t find it again). Originally, I imagined that this was a dragon. Then, I noted that there do not appear to be any wings on the creature. As I ceased to suspend my imagination, I noted that bones don’t get unearthed like this and wondered what the author’s story might be – what did he/she intend? Then, I considered that only a magical unearthing could lead to bones being left like this … or billions of insects … and off I went, wondering about the image and then writing a whole new book. I’m only 13,000 words into the new book and a lot of the story has nothing at all to do with this image but the opening scene does. So here it is – in all its gritty-pre-final-edit glory:
Opening the Grave
He couldn’t stop moving. Enslaved by his feet, Raz’oolenay plodded along like some halfhearted marionette who wanted nothing more than to cut the strings controlling his body. He didn’t really mind hiking and he didn’t really mind following these impulsive promptings but this particular trek seemed excessive. It had been two days now. With very little food and almost no rest Raz’oolenay had hiked past the outer ridges of town, through the sparse edges of the Vanaleige forest, and straight across the sandy dunes of Azh’leniki.
His feet were blistered. Raz’oolenay refused to look at them but he could feel the sores. Somehow, it seemed, looking at them would make them worse. Without thinking, he raised his hand to his mouth and coughed. He’d practically drowned himself this morning. Thirsty as sun bleached lips on a wooden totem, Raz’oolenay had been careless when he came across the only waterway remotely close to Azh’leniki: he’d fallen in head first. It hurts to breath in nearly as much water as you drink. He could have guessed that before but now he knew.
And on top of all that, Raz’oolenay was starting to feel chilled as if some foreboding might consume his soul. Something wasn’t right. He could feel it. Perhaps the earth was sending these promptings to help him prepare for his own death. After all, he was Azh’nahn. He probably deserved to die. Then again, the haunting darkness was suffocating. Whatever the earth willed him to do, he didn’t feel like doing it.
Raz’oolenay considered turning around and heading home, only this time, he wouldn’t be in such a rush. This time, he would pamper his feet a little. This time, his pace would be more rational, reasonable.
Raz’oolenay stopped walking. He dropped to his knees and then all fours. He began to crawl. He paused to uncork his flagon of water and nearly emptied it. This is crazy, he thought. But he was too intimidated to say it out loud. Shivering and consumed by a growing fear of whatever lie ahead, Raz’oolenay felt like a child: he was actually more comfortable crawling than walking. He was that scared. And he didn’t even know why. Not far ahead, a ledge taunted him, dared him to visit, to look over the valley below. Maybe this was the end of the journey. Maybe the ledge would betray him. Perhaps it was a stone elemental. Perhaps it would toss him to his death below. As he crawled into its inviting lap, Raz’oolenay froze, felt his bare stomach next to the cool earth below and obeyed its call to stay put.
There, Raz’oolenay lie motionless for many long moments, staring at the oddly familiar valley below. It seemed that he had been here before but he couldn’t be sure. If he had been here, he surmised, he had visited the valley from some other vantage point, perhaps from the hills on the other side. Still, the area exuded such a haunting feeling that he couldn’t imagine forgetting any detail. Every contorted tree branch seemed to tell a tale of torture, of some foul deed. Ando flowers bloomed even though the season was late enough to demand their presence. Even the grasses seemed yellowish, sickly from some sort of nasty disease. Raz’oolenay observed that they matched the demented, spiraling lichen that hung from the tree branches like loose beards.
A nest of fire ants seemed threateningly close. Their large size left Raz’oolenay more than mildly uncomfortable. He remembered hearing of a distant cousin who’d died from their stings. And yet, he refused to move. He was here for a reason. He had been raised to trust the earth, to have confidence in his instincts. That confidence had been sorely tested last week. Perhaps she was testing him again now. Yes, that was it. The earth was testing him. He didn’t know why she would do that but it was the only explanation he could conjure. Why else would the earth send Azh’nahn to observe the defining event of this generation?
Apart from the fire ant nest, there was no sign of creature life. That made sense. No animals would graze through such sallow grass. And if there were no grazing animals, there would be no large predators. This infested land was barely worthy of insect life, let alone the lives of larger, more sacred beasts. Perhaps, Raz’oolenay considered, there were some cursed creatures who fed on insects or the black, putrid fungi that threatened to overtake some of the larger trees.
Just as Raz’oolenay seriously considered moving somewhere else, he heard shouting down below. Amber hair and bronze skin immediately identified two men as Hiwalani, the mage race. Raz’oolenay was numbered among them but these men were not among his class. These men were Hinzwala, Hiwalani elite who lived off of donations from the Hiwalani masses, men and women whose job it was to explore the limits of magical forms. Their skin was a lighter shade of bronze because they spent much of their time indoors where they studied. Raz’oolenay recalled how his mother taught him that it was unnatural for people to spend so little time tilling the earth, working the ground, and expressing themselves through the arts. But Raz’oolenay considered that maybe their higher forms of magic were their expressions of art, maybe their magic was more deeply connecting to the earth than standard Hiwalani magic. Then again, maybe his mother was right. These men had very little free time. How could anyone connect with the earth when they had so little time to rest, to become one with themselves?
A woman joined the two men below. She was old. Even from this distance, Raz’oolenay could clearly discern her prominent crown of white hair. Then again, her figure seemed youthful and her gait was too lively to come from someone suffering their declining years. Perhaps she was Hinzwala’amaka, those rare Hinzwala whose lifespan bridged through new magic systems. Rumor was that they lived to be exceedingly old. Then again, Raz’oolenay figured he knew the names of every Hinzwalan alive – and there were no living Hinzwala’amaka. Even a backwards and shy young man like Raz’oolenay would be well aware of a woman like this, a woman who was old while still young, a woman who looked and acted like a youth – only, she had white hair. She would be the talk of every child. She would be a legend. This one wasn’t. And yet, there she was. Walking several hundred paces away, Raz’oolenay strained his eyes but he couldn’t make out her face well enough to sketch a silhouette of her features. A passing moment of good lighting suggested that her nose and lips were slender but the moment passed too swiftly for Raz’oolenay to memorize her features.
But the light did expose the colors of her decorative beading. And that solidified Raz’oolenay’s suspicions. She wore the colors of a young woman. But that wasn’t everything. Violets, blues, and oranges were the markings of a single woman. Despite her old age, this woman was no longer married. Probably, she had been married once but her husband had died. And then, after seven years had passed, she would have been required to wear the colors of a single woman. Hinzwala’amaka were expected to take a second spouse, to bear another generation of gifted children and to teach them higher forms of magery. This woman was thin. Surely, it had been years since she had born any child. She would be expected to fulfill this obligation to her people soon.
Curiosity and speculation flashed through Raz’oolenay’s mind as he watched this woman slowly pacing the valley. Her arms stretched downward towards the earth and her hands held a position suggesting she was petting the air, assuring the ground below that she meant it no harm. Her movements and countenance were those of someone gentle, loving, peaceful. And yet as she moved, Raz’oolenay felt those foreboding feelings deepen. Fear swelled within. For a moment, he trembled. And then, he mastered his emotions and calmed his body. As if in response, the earth below seemed to shudder as if it too feared something, as if it knew the future and dreaded what it would bring. Raz’oolenay chided himself for imagining such things. Surely, these impulsive promptings needed mastered just like any other emotion. Surely, he just needed more practice, more time to understand them.
But as he resolved within himself to not be superstitious about his feelings, Raz’oolenay felt the earth tremble with greater fervor. The two men below exchanged knowing glances and then turned their eyes back upon the Hinzwala’amakan woman as her petting hands began making erratic clawing motions as if she was grabbing something in the air and throwing it away. Immediately, huge clods of dirt flew through the air like splashing water, forming a large earthen ridge to circumscribe the valley. The two men stood still, in some odd stance that Raz’oolenay thought he recognized from a famous statue in a neighboring village. This was the stance Hinzwala held when engaging in intense collaborative magery, magic that was so intense that one had to consciously hold the feet to the ground. Soon, the ground lay bare, naked of any grasses, roots, or shrubbery. Exposed to the Hinzwala’amakan woman’s power, the earth continued to tremble with fear. Raz’oolenay could discern that much. If the earth itself feared what this woman would do, Raz’oolenay considered that he too must have much to fear.
Somehow, he mastered his feelings and lie motionless. It would be foolish to expose his position but that wasn’t why he held his ground. The earth had called him to witness this moment. Whatever evil it would bring, it was his duty to heed that call. Whatever demons he might see and wish he could forget, Raz’oolenay would hold his ground and bear witness.
Larger clods of red earth, bronze sand, and shattering shale rocks continued to fly through the air as if attacking some unseen foe. The mixture of materials the Hinzwala’akan woman was digging up seemed unnatural to Raz’oolenay. Could they really be naturally mixed like that? But then, what did he know? Raz’oolenay was a simple young man. True enough, he farmed his own garden but he never dug this deeply. Anything could be beneath the earth when one dug so deeply. Perhaps a long slab of metal lie below. Perhaps this Hinzwala’akan woman was unburying some great treasure worthy of every Trayki’s dream.
The earth’s foreboding grew. Soon, towering stripes of ivory were exposed below the ground. The unearthing seemed to change as the gargantuan bones were uncovered. Instead of large clods of ruddy earth and shattering boulders mixed with sand, the unearthing was now solely made of torrential sand. But as the pit grew deeper, the bronze sand turned more ruddy until it resembled some crimson grave where the sand had absorbed the blood of some indescribable monster. Raz’oolenay convulsed involuntarily and then forced himself to master his fear as the beasts’ forms emerged. At first, he thought them dracoliches as their ivory bones began pulling together and taking form. But after a few moments, he recognized their shapes more accurately. Four wings, four rows of teeth, and a long tail whose tip spread like the three feathers of an arrow. Worse than dracoliches, these were Kotrakoy, the three cursed beasts of Ali’ikiswan. Only two were uncovered but Raz’oolenay knew there was another just outside of his view. Desolation was upon the land and he’d been there to witness it.
Slowly, he backed away from the ledge. As he did, one Kotrakoy lifted itself high on its legs so that Raz’oolenay could see it well. He watched as its sinews attached to its bones, as its muscles began to form upon its neck, and as its eyes began to appear. He watched in horror as the beast slowly regained its reptilian skin and some few modified, decorative feathers.
Raz’oolenay had seen caricatures of the beast in children’s books. He had even seen paintings by some of the great masters. But none of that prepared him for what he was seeing now. Sitting upright, the largest Kotrakoy was nearly as tall as two homes stacked one on top of the other. But it wasn’t its size that was so intimidating. It was how it practically disappeared after it formed. It was this legendary camouflage that made the beast so feared. As long as it remained still, Raz’oolenay couldn’t even discern its presence – despite the fact that he knew precisely where it rested.
He stared at it intently, trying to discern any portion of its body. He sat in awe as he witnessed what no one in his generation or his father’s generation had seen. He was looking at the most feared beast in all history. But then, he saw a blur as the beast turned its head. Briefly, Raz’oolenay looked directly into the eyes of Kotrakoy and it looked directly back at him. But he only saw those piercing eyes for the slightest of moments and then they disappeared once more, fading into the background as its impossibly effective camouflage concealed the Kotrakoy from all view. Somehow, Raz’oolenay considered, it seemed unnatural, even unholy, for such an enormous predator to boast such an advantage.
As Raz’oolenay turned and considered running away, he experienced the beast’s other unfair advantage. He felt the Kotrakoy peering into his mind. So it was true. They can read minds, he intuited. It was a strange sensation but Raz’oolenay could peer into Kotrakoy’s mind as well. He could sense its excitement. He could sense its vast intelligence. He sensed that it wasn’t going to tell the Hinzwala that it had seen the young man. He sensed that it was too excited to be relieved from its prison to care much about Raz’oolenay’s trek through its own mind. He raced through some of the beast’s memories before those foreboding feelings overcame him once more.
Raz’oolenay could have taken comfort from this of the beast’s mind. He could have pondered over these details as he casually strolled home, taking care to nurse his blistering feet. He could have pondered over the earth’s purpose in calling him to witness this horrific development in the land. He could have wondered what he was supposed to do about it.
But he didn’t.
Raz’oolenay ran. And he took little care of his tender feet. He just ran as fast as he could and he knew that he wouldn’t stop running until he visited with the village elders.