By Robert Anthony Smith
I dashed through the dirt as fast as my tired legs allowed. Aurumai’s spirit lodge was right where I had last seen it, burnished by campfire light.
“Sulaa! Wait for me!” Father yelled. “Damned foolish girl,” he said through labored breaths while running up the hill behind me.
I arrived at the spirit lodge and threw open its leather flap. Burning incense smoke filled my mouth with the taste of charred pine needles.
“Why didn’t you tell us about the minotaur’s horns, Aurumai?“ I yelled into the thick fog. No response came from within the spirit lodge.
Once enough of the smoke funneled out of the lodge for me to see, the shaman appeared, sitting behind his fire, entranced.
His eyes were wide open, rolled back in his head, so only the whites glared at me. It was no use yelling at him now; he would never respond until his vision ended. Father stumbled into the spirit lodge behind me.
“Damn it Sulaa,” he said through a grimace while flexing his injured arm.
“I’m sorry father, I’m just—angry. It’s his fault our hunt failed. He should have known!”
“I know Sulaa. I’m angry too, but you must wait for me to confront Aurumai. The shamans don’t respect young women—even those born with simulation.”
“We should just kill him now and be done with him. I don’t know why you ever listened to him. You’re the greatest swordsman alive. We can hunt on our own.”
Father’s jaw dropped at my suggestion of murdering the shaman.
“Sulaa, you must not say such things! Aurumai and the shamans are touched by magic, just like you. How else would we have found the werewolf in the frozen tundra to steal his hide? Or the sea serpents we harvest for bile that pays so well?”
I shook my head and pointed at the tattooed shaman rocking on his haunches.
“I don’t care, we’ll find a way, and he is nothing like me,” I said. But Father spoke the truth.
The shamans were efficient at discovering the location of rare beasts for us to hunt, but that was the extent of their magic. The rough odor of dust-danced fur sang them the location of the beasts. Aurumai whispered to the animals of the earth, sea, and sky, begging for locations of their legendary cousins. He could coax or bribe a hawk for the whereabouts of a Wyvern roost; although, the hawks may supply that information freely, jealous as they were of the Wyverns flight pattern soaring so high above their own.
Everything else about the shamans, however: the entrancements, the burning incense smoke, and even the spirit lodges they moved were all meant to mystify. Believers, like Father, declared that when the spirit lodges vanished the shamans were traversing the void between the realm of dreams and our physical world.
I knew the truth. My magic was real, and theirs was a farce.
“I can do things he can never dream of.”
I simulated Father’s skill in a flash of light. A haze of blue mist filtered from his torso to mine. It mingled with the gray fog for a moment before rapidly ascending into my chest like a deep breath. I drew my long-sword, now a master of Father’s ability.
He could refuse my simulation of course, but it would kill me if he did.
I didn’t listen. The shaman’s smug face seared me with anger. I kicked Aurumai in his forehead, and he keeled onto his back. His eyes rolled from white to black then back again as he spasmed awake on the floor. I held my blade to his throat as sweat beaded his brow.
“You owe us answers, Shaman.”
“Sulaa!” The shaman cried. “What’s the meaning of this? Javed, where are you?”
“Here,” said Father. “But the girl won’t listen to a thing I say. She’s simulated me, and she thinks you set us up.”
“You’re damned right I do,” I said and pushed the blade into his short beard until it bit his skin and drew a thin line of blood among bristling brown hairs.
“Set you up how, girl?” Aurumai asked while squirming beneath my blade.
“The minotaur had venomous horns. You knew and didn’t tell us.”
“Why would I do that? I wanted the minotaur’s horns myself.”
“You did it because you’re jealous of my powers and always have been.” Tears began to well in my eyes as I pressed the blade tighter.
“Preposterous, you think too much of yourself. You forget your place.”
“He’s right, Sulaa,” Father said, he grabbed my arm and pulled me back. I didn’t fight him.
The shaman wouldn’t admit the truth. Killing him wouldn’t help. I wiped the maggot’s blood from my sword and sheathed it. My face dropped into my dirty palms as I sat on a stump next to the fire. Tears welled in my eyes. The dampness moistened my raven black hair which my finger’s trapped against my face.
Aurumai sat up, collecting himself. A long strand of his quicksilver hair fell from behind his ear as he took a deep breath.
“Now, Javed, please tell me what happened.”
“The minotaur got away,” Father said.
Aurumai closed his eyes and recoiled from us, exhaling deeply from his nose. Father rolled up his shirt sleeve to reveal the festering wound on his right bicep. It had grown since I had last seen it.
“But not before he gave me this.” Father’s sunken eyes aged him as he gazed at the wound’s rotting flesh.
“And how could I have known such a thing?” Aurumai asked. “Our dreams give but shapes in the shadows. If I had foreseen the venom, I easily could have seen ‘the greatest warrior of our generation’ and his daughter, the Simulator, being bested by a stupid beast.” His thin lips curled as he rocked on his backside.
“It wasn’t her fault,” Father said locking eyes with Aurumai, “Don’t bring her into it.” Father lied. The failure was mine.
Even though I had simulated him when we attacked the minotaur, I had quickly panicked. The minotaur was huge, eight feet tall and bigger than any beast we had ever slain.
Aurumai must have recognized the shame on my face because he began to laugh.
“Sulaa reveals her guilt. Even as a simulater, she’s useless.” He turned back to address Father. “Yes, well. It appears you can no longer fight, Javed, so our business is concluded. Best to chop off that arm before the rot spreads, and it will do so quickly. You have maybe a month before it consumes you. Those minotaurs can be pesky devils.” He lit a short wooden pipe and drew on it.
“There is another way,” I said. The dry smoke irritated my throat. I swallowed hard before continuing. “A Paeling could heal him.”
“And what do you know of a Paeling, girl?” Aurumai asked.
I lowered my eyes to the dirt.
“I . . . I just know one could heal him.”
“Indeed it may, but the search would kill you both. The creatures roaming near the Paeling’s grove are always the deadliest. Dragonkin and hydras would be the least of your worries. I have told you; it cannot be done.”
“But why?” I asked looking up into Aurumai’s eyes as another puff of smoke curled from his lips. “If my father and I can kill a Paeling.”
“Kill one! Ha! You were unable to kill a Minotaur! You couldn’t find a Paeling grove if a stalking night-leopard guided you directly to it. They don’t linger in your realm, girl. Shy as a demon’s whisper. Neither in dream nor reality, they are a figment of the nether.”
“Well if I can’t kill one, I’ll try to simulate it,” I said. Aurumai laughed again and waved a tattooed hand at me.
“Then you’ll surely die.”
“He’s right, Sulaa,” Father said. “No one’s even sure they exist. You can’t simulate a creature like that. It’s madness.”
“I’m sure they exist,” I responded. “I’ve dreamt of a Paeling grove.”
Aurumai froze, for if the Shamans believed in one thing, it was dreams. His cold eyes rolled to white and locked on me, unblinking.
“You’ve dreamt of the place, Sulaa?”
“Yes.” The dream rushed back to my mind. ”It’s a grove of violet ferns shrouded in mist. The Paeling bobs up and down like an arrow caught in a gale. It comes closer to me, close enough that I could touch it, but I never do before I wake.”
My cracked lips ground together as I closed my mouth. Father and Aurumai stared at me. While Father’s face was as blank as the tent walls around him, Aurumai smiled and stared down his nose at me in thought.
Something flashed in the shaman’s eyes—mma hint of recognition.
“What’s it mean, Aurumai?” Father asked, nodding toward me. The shaman sat quietly for a draw on his pipe before answering.
“It means your daughter has a vivid imagination. Nothing more. Go now, tend to your wound as I’ve told you, and don’t think of a Paeling again.” Aurumai’s words contradicted the recognition on his face, but before I challenged him, his eyes rolled to white, and he rocked back entranced again.
Father and I left the lodge into the chill night sky.
“I suppose we’ll find a surgeon in the morning to remove this arm,” Father said, his expression blank and sullen.
“No. I saw something in Aurumai’s eyes. He knows I’m right. My dreams are true Father—”
“Sulla, no, he prohibited it—”
“I know I can find a Paeling. You must trust me!”
His eyes scanned the stars before falling back to me.
“If you believe it so, we’ll search for one, Sulaa-bear.” I smiled at the nickname he had given me when I had saved him from being eaten by a dire-bear. It was the first animal I had killed. The name stuck with me ever since.
“Maybe I’ll be able to keep this arm after all.”
In the morning, we returned to Aurumai’s lodge to ask him a final time for any information, but the shaman and his spirit lodge had vanished. Nothing remained but a black patch of sand where his fire had smoldered to ash. I sat on my horse and watched as Father kicked the mark of earth and spat.
“It’s okay, Father. We’ll find the Paeling on our own,” I said though in truth I was nervous about the hunt. I had no idea where to go, and Father depended on me. For so long I had relied on him for his skill and strength. Now he needed me.
We traveled the towns nearby asking anyone we could about Paelings or my dreams. Men would frequently ignore Father, but entertain my questions after a flash of my blue eyes. No one would discuss Paelings with us. Some laughed at the ‘ludicrous talk’ while the topic frightened others.
What we did discover was the rumor of a place where violet ferns grew, like the ones in my dreams. It was on the verge of a forest called Mentril, by a lake of the same name. There the winds would blow sediment from the desert to the east, and the ferns would glow violet in the night mist.
The journey would be long, but we had no choice, so we left. Father’s wound grew blacker and wider on his bicep. It stank of putrid dung, and I feared he would never lift a sword again. I knew his heartache mirrored mine, but we held on to hope that he would fight another day.
We rode through mountains and gloomy caverns. We ignored the gusts of moldy wind from the flaps of giant batwings. We would normally hunt a giant batwing to the end of the earth for the prized leather that could be cured and shaped into glider’s wings, but we ventured on.
We tramped through deserts and oases alike, foregoing the chance to stalk a basilisk through one particularly lush patch. The sweet smell of its venomous nectar left seeping in the desert sand enticed us even more than the chance to kill the basilisk and take its fangs as ever-poisonous daggers. We also had neither a weasel nor a mongoose to help kill the giant reptile; no hunter worth their salt would ever attack a basilisk without a weasel or a mongoose.
We kept traveling.
With every passing mile, Father’s anguish accompanied our voyage. Everyday activities: setting up camp, eating, and washing were arduous tasks. I wish I could have helped him more, but I wouldn’t steal his last dignity.
Finally, at the edge of the Desert, the forest emerged. We traveled north up its border with the setting sun casting shadows across the sand. It was near dusk when we found Mentril Lake. I rode onto the shores and halted my horse.
“Father, I think this is the place,” I said before climbing off my horse. He nodded to me.
“Let’s tend the horses and find your grove.” He smiled in between grimaces when he was attempting to tie his horse to a stake he had placed in the ground. When he finally managed to tie the knot, he peered at the pristine lake.
“You really think it’s here?” he asked.
“I know it is.”
Once I tied my horse next to Fathers, we headed for the tree line. I climbed the sand until it turned to dirt and my brow began to sweat. I shivered as we left the openness of the beach for the forest’s dark path.
I opened my pouch to light my dragonfly torch. Father and I kept precious few prizes from our hunts, but we often needed light where none was available. The dragonfly heart embedded in a metal tube of lenses and glass needed only to be exposed to sunlight for an hour or so a day and would glow all night.
“Should I simulate you now Father?”
“The darkness frightens you still, child?”
“No,” I lied, “But what of bandits?”
“You could fend off a few miscreants, Sulaa. You must trust your abilities.” He stared at me, and I didn’t respond.
It was true he trained me on his sword technique. Some said I was near his equal, but I still felt more comfortable simulating his skills.
Father shook his head and stalked deeper into the forest.
“We’re far from civilization, Sulaa-bear. Your simulation will only last an hour. It’s better to wait until we are sure you’ll need to fight.”
I nodded to myself and kept walking. The path through the woods was barely a path at all. It suffocated us with winding branches until I could taste the dew hanging on the leaves. The ground beneath us was thick with undergrowth which sunk and cracked as we walked. Darkness became all-encompassing as time passed until all we could see was a small halo around my dragonfly torch.
I stepped over a long animal track in the mud and paused to examine it. The print must have been three times my hand’s breadth. The creature that created it had oblong fingers, with a thin jut at each tip’s end. Talons.
“Father, look.” He stopped and returned to me to view the print.
“Dragonkin claw?” I asked.
His jaw clenched.
“Hopefully we don’t run into it.”
We continued our path. The dragonkin print and the confines of the path made my heart spur faster.
“Father, I wish you would just let me simulate your skill.”
He stopped again and turned to me. His face crumpled with concern, but his eyes were friendly. It was the look he always gave me when something frightened me.
“Sulaa, how many creatures have we slain together?”
“Then you must trust me when I say this. You are the greatest warrior a man could have alongside him.” He slapped my shoulder with firm contact from his strong-arm. “I would wish for no other fighter beside me. You are strong, cunning, and fast.” His eyes reflected the glow of my dragonfly torch. “You don’t need to simulate me anymore. You can fend for yourself.”
My heart lifted as he held my shoulder firmly.
Then, we both stopped breathing as the monotonous sounds of the forest hushed one by one. The insects stopped chirping their mating calls. The owls ceased their hooting and the bats the flapping of their wings. Even the wind relented its rustling of branches and leaves until all was peacefully still.
Father’s eyes went wide as the reeking stench of rotting flesh wafted around us. We turned to stand back to back and crouched low. The eerie silence amplified until a burst of swirling air escaped from the forest to the sounds of twigs and branches cracking.
The dragonkin leapt through the shadowed depths of the forest to my right, splitting a trunk clean in half with a bone-churning snap. His scaled tail whirled in a blur until he slammed into Father.
I jumped backward from the fray.
Father tumbled headlong across the path until his head slammed into a tree, and he fell hard onto the ground.
I steadied myself and drew my long-sword. The blade sang free from its well-oiled scabbard. My pulse quickened. I stared at the dragonkin illuminated in my faint torchlight, all lizard on two legs, with dark devil-eyes amid a scaled face.
He flicked a splintered tongue out at me. I didn’t know what to do as he stared at me. I wanted to fight. I wanted to kill him. I wanted to defend Father and myself. He turned to Father and knelt close.
“Get away from him!” I screamed.
His attention turned to me, and he blinked his charcoal eyes twice, and then turned back to Father.
My training took over. I charged the dragonkin despite my fear swinging my blade in an arcing sweep that drove the creature back two paces. A fleeting glance at Father’s unconscious face revealed dark blood dripping down his cheek from temple to chin.
I would die if I tried to simulate him now. I postured myself to fight with my back straight and held my long-sword ready at my side. My free hand held my dragonfly torch high.
The dragonkin screeched a terrifying noise I felt on the hairs of my neck. Its mouth hung open, and its teeth flashed an emerald-green glow. The beast charged.
I felt a tremor on the path with every footfall of his lumbering gallop.
I pranced backward along the trail, parrying his taloned paws and striking a lunge if the beast got too close. My sword clanged and clamored off his armored scales when I struck a blow against his side. I kept the animal at my sword’s reach, and never let him get too close to me.
The dragonkin went berserk with frustration, lunging and clawing the ground. His talons ripped up clots of earth and flung them in his wake as he screeched and writhed down the path.
In desperation to close the distance between us, the beast leapt at me. I twisted my body painfully to the side of the path trying to get out of the falling monster’s way, but knew I would never make it. Instead, I swept my sword upward at the last second into his throat. His bulk landed on my legs and pinned me beneath him. I screamed from the force of his weight.
A talon pressed into my side, and I thought my sword thrust had missed. He would surely kill me. The talon pierced my skin, and I let out another scream. I thought he would maul my face, but then the pressure on my side slowly released, and the dragonkin mewed and died.
I heaved myself up and saw the blade had been well-aimed; it pierced clean through the dragonkin’s neck. I stood and pulled my sword free from the beast with haste before running to Father.
“Father, are you all right?” I asked, shaking him. He didn’t stir. My fingers pressed into his neck. His face was a mix of pale sweat and blood. A faint pulse lingered, and I breathed a relaxed sigh.
“Father.” I pressed my face to his damp cheek. He reeked of blood, metallic and flush. “How can I do this without you? Please you have to wake up,” I said the words pleading with no one but myself. I sobbed, and I knew he would remain motionless.
The pressure of the moment gathered in my chest heavier than the weight of any dragonkin. I had to find the Paeling myself.
I concealed father in the forest as best I could, and then began down the path again with renewed vigor. The trees of the forest all resembled each other. Turn after turn took me back to the same suffocating path. I would surely fail.
My mind spun on itself as I attempted to place one foot in front of the other. One more step and I would find the clearing of the grove. One more step and I would save Father’s arm and his life.
But each step became harder and harder like I was carrying Father’s weight on my back. I told myself, ‘fifteen more feet down the path and you can sit.’ I lied to myself. Until finally the lie became too much to bear, and I relented.
I sat on the edge of the path with my back to a tree and turned the metal hinge off on my dragonfly torch. Complete blackness surrounded me, but for the little starlight seeping through the thick forest canopy. I drifted toward sleep.
What may have been hours, or ten seconds later, I stirred. It was not dawn, but I the forest was visible around me, shrouded in an iridescent teal mist. It hung in the air around the thick trees and bushes in every direction.
I spun to take in my surroundings and noticed a violet fern close by. I stood and paced toward it. I held my breath. The teal fog was heavy and sweet. I was lithe, I belonged in the blue mist, lifting and floating toward the fern that expanded into a grove of similar plants. They radiated violet like they had in my dreams, but there were more of them, so many more that they seemed like an ocean spreading out beneath a canopy of green leafy stars.
I stepped into the grove on the edge of consciousness, tip-toeing on the verge of two realms a moonlight sliver apart.
A hint of a creature fluttered on the verge of the grove. It appeared as a faint shape of lavender light amidst the blue, speckled air. At first glance, I thought I willed myself to see it because it seemed so insubstantial, so fragile that it couldn’t be real.
It took the shape of a butterfly, but only when it had a mind to. It weaved and hovered on each gentle breath of magic amid the trees. It bobbed closer to me, then back half the distance.
My breath caught as I approached the Paeling slowly. I dared not frighten it by moving too quickly or longing to greatly. When it was close enough to touch, I touched the pommel of my long sword, but released it quickly.
I reached inside myself and breathed deeply. When Father let me simulate him my mind expanded as though all his years of sword training seeped into it in a blink. The ability I desired would draw into my body like a warm salt bath seeping into my skin, soothing every pore.
Now I desired a skill from the Paeling. I needed its healing powers. It hovered close to me. I breathed it in. The Paeling’s lavender wings filtered across the gap into my lungs, but the Paeling reformed, still gossamer, still beautiful.
I borrowed its skill, but the creature remained. In a heartbeat, I was as calm as the gentlest breeze rustling through the grove. The Paeling’s essence melded into me, making my skin tingle with warmth.
I felt my side and the cut from the dragonkin’s talon melted into blue mist. A smile spread across my mouth, and I giggled with the Paeling.
I ran from the grove with the Paeling fluttering behind me. The blue mist dissipated, and the ferns vanished as dusty sunlight spilled among the trees. The magic of my night melted away until I swore it was all a dream.
I found the place I had left Father and placed my hands on his chest. Nothing happened. He breathed raggedly but did not stir. His still limp form confirmed my deepest reservations. I was incompetent without Father.
Maybe the dragonkin had knocked me unconscious. The Paeling was a dream. I was no hero. Tears stung in my eyes.
I looked down the path at the dragonkin. Its body appeared even larger in the sunlight. It was real. I felt for the wound on my side. It was healed. I killed the dragonkin. I found the Paeling.
I let myself believe and relaxed my breathing. I took Father’s head in my hands again and focused on healing him. I touched his temples, and he jerked forward.
His eyes shot open, and a heavy gasp echoed from his mouth. He heaved against my hands.
“Sulaa!” He yelled, scanning the woods in every direction faster than a jackrabbit getting chased by a wildebeest.
“What happened? The dragonkin!”
“Shh. Father, it’s okay. I took care of the dragonkin.” I pointed to the path close-by where the carcass lay.
“But, you didn’t simulate me,” he said, sitting up on his own.
“I know, but I had to protect you.”
He rubbed his temples with his thumb and forefinger. Then his eyes stretched open, and he rolled his sleeve up.
“My arm! Sulaa!” The skin of his bicep was clear as the Mentril lake water. “You found the Paeling?”
“I thought it might have been a dream,” I said standing, and Father’s eyes lit up.
He noticed something behind me; his eyebrows raised. I turned back to the path where the sunlight filtered through trees. The Paeling bobbed behind me.
“You did find it, Sulaa,” Father said softly.
All was still for a fleeting moment.
“Thank you,” I said to the Paeling.
It nudged my head. Its essence was loving.
“It wants to stay with me,” I said, glancing back at Father. “Or rather, it wants me to stay with it . . .” I began to cry, despite myself.
Father stood and took my hands in his grip, strong as ever.
“It’s okay,” He said. “I’m so proud of you.” A tear dropped from his eye. “I’ll be sure to tell Aurumai what a fool he is.”
“Thank you, Father. If you ever need help again, you will know how to find me, but if our paths do cross, know that I will be trying to save creatures, not kill them.”
Father chuckled. His face lit up with a wicked grin I had not seen since his injury.
“I suppose we will be rivals of sorts,” he said.
“I guess so, but you be careful. Some say I’m your equal with a blade.”
He laughed, and it echoed off the sun-drenched tree tops, and then he hugged me tight. He still stank of blood and sweat. The only way I ever remembered him smelling.
“I love you, Sulaa-bear.”
I savored his last grasp and the sound of my loving nickname rolling off his lips.
“I love you too, Father.”After a final tear, Father turned and left Mentril forest.