WIP cover for an upcoming short story collection

Below you’ll find a special little short story written in the spirit of Halloween. My challenge to myself was to write something that had a “semi-spooky” atmosphere. The story at the end will be included in a future ebook release (of which I have already started painting), so enjoy this special sneak peek!


Solus Vaiyene

A short story from the lands of Kiriku by Noelle Nichols


Shenrae’s POV

Syrane, Torey, and I stood outside the caves of Vaiyene with packs slung over our shoulders. Each of us had brought firewood and food: provisions for when we camped later. Kilo and my parents were supposed to be back tomorrow from a Shadow mission, and we thought it would be fun to wait for them, camping outside of the village’s borders for the night. When Torey had found out, she had wanted to join. It was then that we’d decided it might be fun to explore the caves—like Syrane and I used to do when we were younger.

A wry smile spread across Syrane’s face as he watched Torey out of the corner of his eye. She stood closer to him than usual, her fingers gripping the edge of her robes.

 “You don’t have to come if you don’t want to,” I said to Torey gently, knowing the idea of going into the caves, especially at night, made her nervous. “I know you wanted to have time to study the ancient texts before next week.”

“It’s okay. I can do it later,” Torey said with a small smile of thanks.

Syrane gave me a knowing gaze before entering the cave.

“Well, shall we?”

With a short nod, I followed him, keeping an eye on Torey as she stepped over a small stalagmite. Water dripped down from the stalactites above us, running down the rocks’ grooves before pooling on the ground and snaking into the tunnels. The steady dripping of the water echoed throughout the tunnels, giving off a rather calming atmosphere. The water made the air fragrant with an earthy aroma.

I smiled; it was one of my favorite smells.

As we continued into the cave, the remaining light faded, and darkness soon engulfed us. Temporarily losing my sight did not bother me, but I heard a change in Torey’s breathing. Crystals were set into the ceiling, reflecting some of the moon’s light, so I was not completely blind as we walked.

I reached out a hand to reassure Torey, but she jumped, flinching away from me.

“Sorry,” I said, withdrawing my hand and clamping my jaw tight to not smile.

“Don’t you think we should light the lanterns?” Torey asked, her voice pitched unusually high with nerves.

 “Once you get farther in, you’ll be able to see more easily,” Syrane called from not far ahead. “If we use the lanterns, we won’t be able to find the glowing lights.”

My eyes were still adjusting to the loss of light, but I could see Syrane deeper in the caves.

Torey sighed.

It was, after all, why we had come.

Earlier in the week, Syrane and I had overhead some of the Shadows talking about seeing a strange blue light in the caves. The caves—technically—were only supposed to be used by the Shadows when they left on missions. Entering them was “forbidden,” but every person in Vaiyene had gone into them at least once.

All except for Torey.

Her three older siblings were already sponsored for meaningful careers around Vaiyene. She was the oldest remaining with her parents, so it was up to her to set an example for her younger sister. Because of it, she mostly avoided doing anything that even appeared to be wrong.

“You don’t have to come with us,” I whispered.

She shook her head. “It’s okay. Even though I’m scared, it’s sort of thrilling knowing that I’m breaking the rules.”

I laughed. Even though we weren’t supposed to go into the caves, I was sure most adults knew that the story of the ghost wandering the caves drew more people than keep them away. If they didn’t want us to continue exploring the caves, they shouldn’t have stressed the wailing child aspect. To me, that seemed like an open invitation to explore.

Walking faster to catch up to Syrane, I rested my fingers against the cave’s wall, letting them trail over the damp surface as I moved. Despite Torey’s brave words, her breathing was stilted behind me, making me more aware of her fear.

 “Do you have any idea where the blue lights are?” I called up to Syrane, intent on starting a conversation.

Syrane laughed. “Not a clue.”

Torey groaned.

“Don’t worry,” I said, maneuvering over a pile of rocks. “We know our way around the caves, so you don’t have to be so nervous.” I pointed ahead. “If you follow the main tunnel to the end of the cave system, it leads to an overlook. I imagine that the view is clear on some days, but every time we’ve found our way through, it’s been too cloudy to see the valley below. If I remember right, there’s a small town not far from here. According to our parents, the buildings there are made completely out of—”

Something wailed through the tunnel.

The hair on the back of my neck rose, and Torey let out a small whimper behind me. The sound permeated the tunnels, droning on for a few moments before it died off. The sound eerily reminded me of a child’s voice, and the tone seemed pained.

Sharp, even.

Up ahead, Syrane paused. I could just make out the faint silhouette of his figure.

“What was that?” Torey whispered.

“The ghost of the child who was lost in the caves,” Syrane said, coming back to where we were standing. A wide grin spread across his face. The crystals in the area reflected just enough light for us to see the glimmer in his eyes and the whites of his teeth. “They say the sound of wailing causes you to lose all sense of direction. It’s a warning to those who enter to leave quickly.” Syrane looked back down the tunnel. “If you hear the cry three times, you’ll never find your way—lost to the darkness forever.”

Torey’s lips pressed into a thin line.

Sighing, I gave Syrane a pointed stare before kneeling on a flat rock and removing the pack resting over my shoulder.

“We’re getting close to the main area of the cave now,” I said, unrolling the wooden poles to three lanterns along with a vial of oil and a firestarter. Pouring the oil into each lantern’s tube, I struck two rocks together, creating a spark that turned into a flame. Carefully, I lit the other two lanterns and draped the paper coverings over each, attaching the lanterns to their respective sticks.

Standing, I handed one to Torey.

Relief passed over her face. “Thank you,” she said.

I nodded and glared as Syrane took his into the tunnel, a smirk still on his face. Near the ground, the light from his lantern refracted across the puddles of water. Shivering, I silently wished the fire I carried radiated heat. I always forgot how cold it could get in the caves.

Keeping a mindful watch over Torey as we continued, I stayed behind Syrane a few paces, idly looking at the cave walls. The layered sediments of the rocks were always interesting to look at, and more than a few times, I was able to find faces and resemblances to mountains and trees in them. Besides the steady dripping of water—and Torey’s loud breathing—the only other sounds in the cave were Torey’s footsteps. Syrane and I both wore soft-soled shoes as our parents did. Supposedly they helped the Shadows when gathering intel from different villages.

A gust of wind howled through the tunnels, breaking my musings. The sound careened against the small nooks in the stone, distorting the air as it moved to simulate a child’s cry.

Torey stiffened and grabbed my arm, her fingers digging into my skin.

“It’s just the wind, Torey,” I said, grimacing at her grip.

“No, it’s not. I saw something moving.”

Raising my eyebrows, I turned my attention back to the cave. Ahead was nothing but the sway of Syrane’s lantern and the glow it emitted.

“Something’s up there,” Torey said, a note of fear still in her voice.

I smiled gently. “There’s no one else here but Syrane, who’s walking ahead of us. The child’s cry is just the wind being distorted by the tunnels. It’s a legend, nothing more. A story to keep us away from the caves.”

Torey shook her head. “It’s not him.”

Sighing, I called out.

“Syrane, stop messing with Torey. It’s not funny.”

The glow of the lantern in the tunnel wavered, but Syrane didn’t say anything.

“Syrane, come on,” I said, feeling my agitation rising. We had brought Torey into the tunnels to show her the blue lights the Shadows had mentioned, not to make fun of her paranoia and fear of the supernatural.  

“I’m not doing anything,” Syrane said from my right.

My attention snapped back to the tunnel.

The lantern and the person who had been walking there was gone.

My eyes narrowed. “Weren’t you walking ahead of us?”

Syrane shook his head and nodded toward one of the tunnels to the right, raising his lantern to illuminate the path. “I broke off from the main tunnel a while ago. I thought I saw a blue glow, but I couldn’t find where it was coming from. It’s a dead end.”

Torey’s fingers continued to dig into me, and I gently pried them off before raising my lantern toward the ceiling. There were crystals set inside the stalactites. Could it have been a reflection of some sort?

Although… I was pretty sure I had seen someone walking ahead of us, too.

“Next time, let us know when you’re leaving the main tunnel,” I said.

Syrane nodded absently.

“What did the Shadows say again?” I asked, starting down a different tunnel. “Something about how the lights illuminate when you draw near?”

“They weren’t very clear,” Syrane replied, seeming to shake off his amusement enough to return to our search. “Some of the Shadows said it was a blue glow that came from the ceiling, while a few of them commented about how they had seen a silver light from inside the rocks.” Syrane paused and thought for a moment. “The blue light I saw was moving, so I’m not sure it’s what we’re looking for.”

“Moving?” I paused, tilting my head.

Syrane shrugged and spread his hands. “It was like a streak of something through the air. Not quite like a firefly’s glow, but similar to it. Or maybe it was more like a shooting star.”

I held my breath.

That was something I had heard before, from our parents. “Do you think it’s the same thing that inspired Dad to create the fireworks?”

“Maybe.”

“Our dad told us about this thing he once saw, this…” I tried to figure out how to explain it to Torey. “Natural phenomenon, I guess you could call it. It was a light my parents saw once when they were lost in these tunnels. They began following it, and eventually, the light led them out of the tunnels. He mentioned there was a presence in the air with them. Almost as if someone were there.”

I rested my hand on the rocks, looking around at the cavern. The walls had expanded in a circular shape, with multiple tunnels leading away from this central area. My fingertips touched the damp stone, tracing a line of water down the rock.

Was there something more to the child’s howl and the light?

Was it more than a story to scare children?

Whenever my father explained the inspiration behind his fireworks, his eyes lit up. He remembered the memory fondly, and often I had seen him staring at the stars at night with a sort of wanderlust. The fireworks he had created had been his attempt to harness that moment for us to see.

Seeing it in person would be even more special.

A shadow of a figure crossed into the light of one of the tunnels. Sighing, I opened my mouth to yell at Syrane again, but I caught sight of him at the edge of my vision. Turning around, I saw both Torey and Syrane waiting for me.

Questioningly, Syrane raised his eyebrows.

We weren’t alone.

“Someone else is in the caves with us,” I said, my eyes narrowing. I tried to make out any details of the figure, but they faded back into the darkness at the sound of my voice.

Torey bristled, her hair seemingly standing on end as her eyes widened. Holding out my hands in front of me, I tried to calm her. “I’m sure it’s just one of the Shadows.”

“Or a ghost,” Syrane said.

I sighed.

“Let’s continue to follow the main tunnel,” I said, pointing at a tunnel on the far right of the area before leading Syrane and Torey down it. We had brought blankets and some firewood with us, so we could wait until our parents returned if we wanted to. Sometimes they were delayed upon returning, but if there was someone in the tunnels, it would not be a bad idea to put some distance between us and them. If we ran out of wood, we could gather more from the cliffs’ edge and the surrounding forest. Although not being able to find our way home made me nervous.

I inhaled deeply. It smelled damp, as if we were getting close to the lake inside the cave.

But…that meant we were going in the wrong direction.

Pausing, I looked back at the way we had come. Syrane held his lantern close the ground, looking up at the ceiling. When he noticed my gaze, he raised his lantern.

“What is it?” He asked.

I shook my head, peering down the tunnel. I could just make out the glimmer of the lake in the distance.

Had I gotten mixed up after seeing the person in the tunnel?

Hastily, I walked back a few feet and scrutinized another tunnel to get my bearings. The light from my lantern spread across the rocks, making the water-slicked surface take on an amber glow. We had explored the caves many times, and I had studied the different arrangements of stones and their layouts to ensure we never got lost—but nothing seemed the same.

Pressing my lips tight against one another, I returned to the others, a weight at the bottom of my stomach. I didn’t know where we were.

A voice echoed throughout the caverns, sending chills up my spine. Its words were muffled, and unlike the previous melodic tone, this one was very much human.

Torey eyed me warily. Even Syrane’s eyes seemed to widen slightly. I swallowed, my throat tight as my heartbeat pounded in my ears. A cold sweat broke out across my back, and I held my lantern tighter, moving past the others, forcing myself to appear unfazed. I needed to remain confident in my direction and my certainty that the cry was nothing to be worried about. While I didn’t know which direction we were heading, it seemed logical to begin moving so that we could find our way out.

If it was one of the Shadows, they might need help.

If it was something else…

Syrane bumped against my shoulder. “I don’t think this is the way we need to go.” His voice was low, though Torey was so close she might still be able to hear him.

“Do you want to wait for whoever that was to catch up to us?” I replied evenly.

Syrane considered his next words. “We could wait in one of the dead ends. If we keep the main tunnel in view, we at least won’t be caught off guard.”

Then we would be cornered.

“If we continue far enough, I’m sure we’ll begin to recognize some of the rocks and their arrangement. This just must be a place where we haven’t been before.”

“Or the ghost is distorting the tunnels,” Torey said. “That was the third cry.”

“I don’t actually think that…” I said. A fleeting image of a shadow moved behind Torey. Raising the lantern in my hand, I watched as a tiny pebble slid down from the cave’s wall.

Torey’s gaze fixed on it.

“Someone was there,” she said.

It seemed pointless to argue with her with such tangible evidence.

“Come on, move,” Syrane said, putting his hand on Torey’s shoulder and shoving her forward.

A cold wind brushed against my back. Syrane and Torey headed into a dark tunnel; behind us was the same darkness, but the wind’s direction against my back meant there was an opening for the wind to have come from. Our main concern was now safely finding our way out of the tunnels.

Kneeling on the ground, I placed my hands on the surface of the rocks, laying the lantern down. The light rippled off the edge of the water as it sought out the cracks in the stone, revealing the crevasses on the surface. Judging from the trickle of water, there was a slight incline here. The ground was tilted down a few degrees, with the water flowing where Syrane and Torey had disappeared to. The opening near Vaiyene, where we had entered, was on top of a mountain, higher near Vaiyene’s boundary. While both were high in the mountains, I recalled the steady downward slope of the cave leading outside of Vaiyene.

We could get out that way.

Another caress of wind tousled my hair, and a whiff of pine trees carried over to me. Standing, I removed my lantern from its stick and looped the string over a bulge in one of the stalactites.

If we needed to head back home, this would serve as a signal to guide us back.

Heading after the others, I kept my footsteps light, being mindful of the uneven ground and the sharp rocks. Testing each place before I committed my full weight, I rolled my feet from the toe, allowing the sole of my foot to conform to the change in surface.

Torey’s and Syrane’s lanterns disappeared as they turned a corner. The halo of their light slunk after them, returning to the darkness of the cave. I inhaled sharply as the darkness engulfed me. Reaching out a hand, I trailed my fingers against the walls, searching with my toes for safe passage across the floor.

Rocks shifted behind me.

And something scurried away.

“Who’s there?” I said, a slight tremble in my voice.

I shouldn’t have left the lantern.

Over my shoulder, I noticed a blackened shape that took form as it moved close to the lantern hanging from the ceiling. Hands reached up to take it, unhinging the light. I rushed forward, stubbing my toe on a rock as I fell forward. I threw out my arm, and my hand struck against the ground. Sucking in a breath, I waited until the jolt of pain shot up my arm, before raising my head to see the light fading

“Don’t—”

But the light had been snuffed out.

I sighed.

Now how was I going to find my way back through the cave? I could continue forward, where I knew the exit to Vaiyene’s boundary was, but Syrane and Torey would come looking for me in the tunnels when they noticed I was gone, and chances were good they would become even more lost in their panic to find me.

Rocking back to my feet, I pushed myself up, turning around.

The light from a lantern hovered in the middle of the tunnel, and my heart beat loudly in my chest as the light flickered out, then appeared down the tunnel a short way away. The light stayed in place for some time before it disappeared, again moving down the tunnel.

Was I supposed to follow?

I walked a few paces forward, and the light dimmed and reappeared farther away before it turned down a different tunnel. Judging from the direction of the wind, I seemed to be headed in the right direction.

“Okay, ghost, lead the way,” I said softly.

A smile came across my face as the wind howled behind me. Instead of a wail carrying through the tunnel, the slightest sound of laughter reached my ears. It seemed warm somehow. As if there were nothing I had to fear from this visitor.

The ghost and I continued through the caves, the lantern and whoever held it keeping their distance. If I got too close, the light would hastily go out, so I lingered, stopping and working in tandem to navigate the tunnel. When we were close to where I thought Torey and Syrane had disappeared, instead of heading down the same tunnel as they had, the person hesitated.

Overhead in the rocks, a group of crystals shimmered. Tilting my head, I noticed the reflection of a person in one of the facets. Their blonde hair was tied up at the back in a knot, with a paintbrush thrust through to secure it.

Finae.

Not wanting to let her know I had found out it was her, I waited patiently as she chose the next tunnel to lead me down. We continued as before, her sleeve covering the lantern’s light while she moved. The ways she navigated the twists and turns made it seem like she had been here many times. Did she not reveal who she was because she didn’t want me to get mad at her for being here?

“Shenrae!” Syrane called from somewhere in the caves. His voice echoed off the cavern walls, making it hard to pinpoint where it was coming from.

A few moments later, Torey’s voice joined Syrane’s. “Shenrae, where are you?”

They had finally noticed I was missing.

Finae hesitated, her head swiveling between me and the tunnels.

“Thank you. I think I can find my way now, Finae,” I said, keeping my voice close to a whisper. “I won’t tell anyone I saw you here.”

Finae startled and almost dropped the lantern in her hands. “You knew?”

“I saw your reflection in the crystals a while ago. What are you doing here? You nearly scared Torey half to death.”

And that was even before Finae had taken the lantern. Torey would have lost it, seeing the floating lantern.

Finae covered her mouth, unsuccessfully stifling the sound of her laughter.

“Finae,” I said, trying not to smile. “You shouldn’t scare people.”

She uncovered her mouth, a mischievous smile still on her face. “Syrane seemed to be enjoying it, so I thought Torey would appreciate it if I was able to get under his skin. You know, as payback.”

I clamped my mouth shut, feeling a note of mischief tugging at my lips. “Do you think we can separate the two of them?”

Finae’s eyebrows raised. “But you said—”

“Scaring Syrane is different.”

He was my brother. Which meant I could get away with a certain measure of sibling mischief without being scolded too much by our parents. And since it wasn’t Torey, who was genuinely scared of ghosts, I had no problems messing around with him. It would be nice to see Syrane less smug about going into the caves.

“Keep the lantern,” I said, mulling things over. “If they see the light, they might think it’s me. Knowing Torey, she’ll let Syrane come down the tunnel first. I’ll stay behind and let Torey know what’s going on while you lead Syrane away.”

Finae nodded. The glow of the lantern illuminated her face from the bottom, casting a harsh shadow across her face. She had not been trying to be mean about her tactics. I was the one getting carried away now.

But what were siblings for?

I tried not to cackle.

“What should we do after they’re separated?” Finae asked. Judging from her tone of voice and the twitch of her lips, she already had a plan.

 “Do you have an idea?”

“Well, he seems to like the wailing an awful lot. There’s a long tunnel that branches off from the main direction where the acoustics are good. I can smother the light and head to the end and start wailing.”

I considered for a moment. There had already been some wailing before. If it seemed as if the “ghost” was pleased by Syrane following him…

“Maybe try laughing.”

Finae grinned. “I can do that!”

“We won’t string him along too much, but a little fun never hurt anyone.”

Wrapping my fingers around the edge of the cave walls, I peered around the tunnel, spying Syrane and Torey. As I had expected, Syrane walked in front; Torey followed a step or two behind him. She still held the lantern tight in her hands, her head swiveling at the drops of water leaking down from the cave’s ceiling.

I crouched down, wedging myself behind a pillar of rocks before looking up at Finae. “It’s all up to you,” I said, happy to see her delight. She was six years younger than I was, and being that my parents and Kilo were childhood friends, Finae was one of the people I spent a lot of time with.

Keeping my breathing steady, I sank lower against the rocks hiding me. There was a small opening in the rocks where, if I positioned my head just right, I could see into the tunnel, and soon Syrane approached. The light from his lantern increased, the glow spreading down the tunnel where I hid. Holding my breath, I hoped I was hidden enough for him not to see me.

“Syrane, do you see that?” Torey asked. Her voice was contemplative.

The circle of light on the ground shifted as Syrane moved the lantern.

I let out a slow breath, trying my best to remain quiet.

“Shenrae!” Syrane called.

Through the crack, I saw Syrane race ahead. Torey hesitated momentarily, and I stood up from my hiding place. Immediately, Torey took a step back, her arms covering her chest. Placing one finger to my lips, I held my arms out in front of me as she clutched the clothing at her neck. Letting out a deep breath, she relaxed.

“Shenrae, what are you doing?” she hissed.

“Shhh,” I said, waving her back into the tunnel. “The noises from before, the wailing, that was Finae. She was originally going to try and lead us outside of the caves, but after seeing Syrane tease you, she thought it would be fun to do the same to him. And then, well—” I smiled “—you know how Finae is.”

This, at last, made Torey smile.

There was a streak of mischief in Finae, and all of Vaiyene’s people knew it. No one really cared much either. Her pranks were harmless, and they always made people feel better. Even Kilo had the same playful streak at times.

Catching Torey’s eye, I nodded back toward the tunnel. “Syrane is following Finae now. What do you want to do?”

Her demeanor had changed entirely. Now that she knew there wasn’t a ghost in the tunnels, she seemed in the spirit of things. She bit her lower lip to keep from smiling too wide.

“Well,” Torey said, pretending to take her time to think it over. “I suppose it is only fair to show him what it feels like.”

We both laughed.

“I think Finae is going to lead him back toward the main tunnel and begin laughing.” Looking around, I recognized some of the rocks and the formations in the area. “If we go down this tunnel, it’ll be quicker than the main one. There’s a small part we’ll have to climb, but if we want to help Finae, it will be easier than trying to sneak past Syrane.”

“Lead on.”

Using Torey’s light, we navigated through the darkness, tip-toeing over piles of rocks, sneaking around corners, and ducking under stalactites. After a short distance, the walls of the cave constricted, forcing us to continue on all fours. At the end of the tunnel, I pressed my head against the cave walls, peering out into the main tunnel from a sizeable crevasse.

It was an intersection Syrane and I had found on a previous trip.

Distantly, a dim light bounced off the cave walls. It seemed like Syrane’s progress was slow.

We still had time.

Sliding through the tunnel, I motioned for Torey to follow. She maneuvered herself through the crack in the wall, and together we moved down the cave, pressing our backs against the wall as we peered around a corner.

The tunnel ahead was lighter, with rays of moonlight that spilled in. It seemed the exit was not much farther.

“Torey? Shenrae?” Syrane called from behind us.

He lifted up his lantern, concern in his voice.

A cry howled throughout the cavern. It was somber and droned on, the hairs on the back of my neck standing up. Wasn’t Finae supposed to have been laughing?

Narrowing my eyes, I focused against the light pouring in from outside the caves, trying to see if it was Finae or not. Swinging against the moon’s glow was a lantern—no, three. They bobbed as if being carried by someone.

Suddenly, the quiet sound of cackling came from one of the other tunnels. Syrane stiffened, and beside me, Torey covered her mouth to muffle her laughter.

That was Finae, but what was coming toward us from outside the caves?

Nudging Torey with my elbow, I motioned back toward the wall. “There’s someone else coming.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Torey said. “Is Syrane also in on the plan?”

Confused, I raised my eyebrows, then realized that she thought I was joking. “No, there’s actually someone coming from outside the caves. By the looks of it, three of them carrying lanterns.”

Torey continued to smile, then slowly, it faded, and with it, all of her amusement. The caves were the entrance into and exit from Vaiyene; who was coming?

Grabbing Torey’s forearm, I pulled her back. “Let’s get Syrane and Finae and wait in one of the tunnels. There’s a possibility that—”

“Who’s there?” a deep voice called from behind us.

My throat tightened, and I ran through the tunnel, pulling Torey along with me. Ahead, Syrane lifted his lantern.

“There you both are!” Syrane said. He let out a deep breath before he looked around at the caverns. His eyebrows were lowered, creating a scowl across his face while he stared suspiciously around.

“There’s something strange going on.”

I waved him off, grabbing his lantern and blowing out the light. “Finae was in the tunnels with us. We were trying to scare you, but right now, we need to find someplace to hide. Three people are…”

A circle of light spread behind me. Torey and Syrane stiffened. Glancing over my shoulder, I saw three silhouettes approaching. Meeting Torey’s and Syrane’s gazes, I nodded, preparing to run by counting down silently in my head.

Three…two…

A hand fell on my shoulder, stopping my momentum and holding me in place.

“Whoa, whoa. Slow down there, little spitfire.”

I froze.

That voice.

Turning around, I looked up to find my father grinning down at me. He raised the lantern in his other hand, casting himself in the light. Behind him stood my mother and Kilo.

“You know you’re not supposed to be in the tunnels,” my mother said gently. She came closer, and Syrane reached out his arms to give her a hug. They had gotten home earlier than we expected.

My father pulled me into a hug, and I wrapped my arms around him. Kilo’s eyes swept the cavern walls, his head tilting slightly before it fixed on something.

 “You can come out now, Finae,” Kilo said.

She ran to him from the shadows, extending her hands as he bent down to the ground on one knee. He embraced her, placing the lantern on the floor as she wrapped her arms around him.

“Were you causing trouble again?” Kilo asked.

Finae pushed away from him. “Of course not!”

Kilo raised his eyes to me, and I shrugged. A part of me was almost sad that my parents and Kilo had not taken longer to come back. I’d hoped to scare Syrane and had been looking forward to spending the night out camping.

“They certainly take after you, Zavi,” my mother said with a sigh, crossing her arms. “You probably scared them half to death with your wailing just now.”

“Ah, yeah, sorry about that,” my father said, looking at all of us before focusing on my mother. “But aren’t you proud they made it through the caves?” my father asked, winking at her. “There are a few Shadows who still can’t find their way through them.”

“That means they’ve been here enough times to have figured out how to navigate the tunnels.” My mother’s face was stern while she watched my father try to formulate a response.

“It is a clear sky tonight,” Kilo said, walking back toward the moonlight. He paused at the edge of the cave, the light outlining his hair and shoulders. “Why don’t we spend some time relaxing before heading back?”

Finae inhaled sharply.

“Yes!” she said, rushing through the cave’s opening after Kilo.

My parents looked over at me, Torey, and Syrane before heading out of the cave. Walking to the edge of the rocks, I paused, admiring the view below. For the first time, the valley was unobscured by clouds. Trees lined the mountainsides, flanking the valley and creating diagonal lines that followed the mountain’s curve. Near the horizon, the trees began to thin out, and the hill became laden with rice paddies. The moon’s glow reflected across the surface of the water, the crescent shape splaying out in the ripples.

It was beautiful.

A gentle wind brushed against me, and I inhaled the crisp air. Nighttime was my favorite time. It always felt so peaceful when everything was beginning to fall asleep. Flowers, trees, and animals. Although it also meant that those who had been sleeping during the day would start to wake, and with it came a new set of life.

Tilting back my head, I gazed up at the night sky. The stars shone brightly tonight.

Walking to my side, my father placed his right arm around my shoulders and leaned down. He pointed up at the sky, drawing my attention to a collection of three stars aligned in a single row. They were one of the easiest constellations to make out in the night sky. We used it as a marker to find our favorite constellation, Solus Vaiyene, the prominent Phantom warrior who’d led our ancestors to the Miyota Mountains. Drawing his finger across the sky, my father pointed at a star that had a slight blueish hue to it, with a cluster of smaller stars around it that cast a green light. The way to visualize the constellation was to see the main blue star as the warrior and the green stars around it as the trees and the mountains.

“Solus Vaiyene,” my father said. “The grief-stricken warrior who left his homeland in search of a place to heal his heart.”

It was one of my favorite stories. Filled with grief and sadness, the warrior who sought something more to his life. It was a romantic tale about the beginning of Vaiyene.

“Will you tell the story?” I asked eagerly.

My father chuckled and placed his hand on my head briefly before he looked around at all of us gathered.

Kilo took the bag hanging from my shoulder, gathering my parents’, Syrane’s, and Torey’s packs as well. Finae, Torey, and Syrane started taking out all of the supplies, and Kilo began stacking pieces of wood against one another, intent on building a campfire.

“Solus no Vaiyene,” my father said again, his voice seeming to carry back through the ages. He moved near the edge of the overlook; his eyes fixed on the star as he began to tell the tale…

“Many years ago, there lived a man who gave everything to his people. He was a Phantom, and as such, he served and guided his people, keeping watch for any threats or danger. His day-to-day life was a simple one, mundane to some, but one that he enjoyed immensely.

“One day, while he was walking the perimeter of his village, a voice called to him. It was not a voice that carried words, but one that spoke directly to his heart. A deep longing awakened in his soul, and he set off to fill it, sure that if he began walking, he would feel better. Long into the night, he walked—until the moon rose high in the sky. The stars twinkled beside him, encouraging him on his search. Looking up at them, he was grateful for their companionship, as the darkness often frightened him.

“When the man reached the top of the peaks, the deep longing inside him faded. He stood atop the mountain until the sun rose, waiting for the voice to return, but when no answer came, duty pulled him back to his village. The next day, when the sun again began to set, he returned to the summit, awaiting the call.

“But like the night before, the gentle pull of his heart did not stir.

“In desperation, he began climbing the nearby mountains, worried that he had followed the wrong path. Day after day, he traveled around the area, standing at the peaks and raising his head toward the stars. It had been months since the voice had spoken to him, but a part of him could not forget the call’s intensity.

“Weeks passed, and the Phantom began to lose hope. On one particularly cold night, instead of climbing the mountains as he had been, he stayed at the edge of the village. He walked the perimeter of his village as he usually did, lighting lanterns to protect his people. When he returned home, he found his daughter awake. She stood outside their house, her head tilted back, and her eyes filled with moonlight. Her white hair caught the light of the moon, and when the Phantom drew near, his heart was overwhelmed by the sight…”

My father cleared his throat, looking over at me as he always did. It was one of my favorite parts of the story, and I grinned as he came closer to me. Resting his fingers against the side of my face, my father brushed the hair from my face and looked into my eyes.

“Reflected deep within his daughter’s eyes was the infinite expanse of the stars,” my father said, continuing the tale. “So overwhelmed was the Phantom that he began to weep, for the pain in his heart began anew.”

Removing his hand, my father smiled at me, nodding.

The next line was mine. “‘Father,’ the Phantom’s daughter asked. ‘Why are you crying?’”

“I heard the voice of the world, but when I went in search of it, I could not find it. I am afraid that whatever worth it saw in me has faded, and I am no longer worthy of its attention.”

“But father,” I said, continuing my role as the daughter, “how can you be lost if you did not know what you were searching for? Maybe the voice that was calling for you became lost itself. You cannot give up now.”

My father nodded and took up the story again…

“Emboldened by his daughter’s words, the man returned to the mountains with an open heart. For almost a month, the Phantom made the same trek, and like the first time, when his hopes were almost at his end, he found his daughter waiting for him. It was the night of the full moon and she stood at the bottom of the mountain. When she raised her eyes to him, a question was in them. Had it been anyone else, he would have felt he had failed, but his daughter looked up at him with the light of the stars, and instead of shame, his heart was filled with love for his daughter. He bowed to her and whispered, ‘thank you’ before he returned to the mountain.

“With his heart once again renewed with love and strength, he knelt on the summit of the mountain and closed his eyes. When the sun began to rise, the first rays warmed him, and he felt his muscles relax. He remained kneeling and allowed his mind to calm. He had seen a silent conviction in his daughter’s eyes, and an unspoken exchange had passed between them. She had not said the words to him, but he had heard them in his heart.

“‘Go, find the voice. I will take care of things here.’

“For the Phantom’s daughter was a strong person, and when he was unwell, she took up his duties in the village. No longer burdened by his daily tasks, the Phantom meditated in the high peaks for nearly three months, until one night, as quiet as birdsong, the voice reached out to him. Like before, it spoke no words, but deep in his heart, he felt a soft pull. The deep longing returned, and he continued to meditate, keeping his heart and his mind calm.

“‘What is it that you ask of me?’ he thought, knowing that this voice was as ancient as the land itself. He remembered a time when he was younger when this voice had spoken to him. How could he have forgotten? He had become lost within his daily life, forgetting what originally had begun his journey. He hesitated only briefly, thinking of his daughter before he allowed his mind to become still.

“Another week passed, and the Phantom remained on the mountain. Down in the village, his daughter took on his duties, walking the perimeter and ensuring the town was protected. The starlight that touched her seemed to dance at her fingertips, and a lightness settled over her heart. Knowing that her father would return that night, she waited at the base of the mountain.

“When the Phantom returned to her, it seemed almost as if the stars followed after him. His eyes shone with moonlight, and when his heart beat, she could see the cracks across the surface of his heart. When she looked up at her father again, there was a deep sadness. Tears rolled down his cheeks, and she felt her stomach twist with grief. When she was born, her mother had died, and her father had been left to raise her. He spoke of her mother fondly, but never before had his grief been so openly shared.

“He had lived in the village below since he was a young child. Every time he looked at it, did he remember her? Struck by the realization, she became saddened and turned away. But her father reached out his hand, the glow of starlight shimmering around his fingertips. He placed his fingers against her head, and warmth passed over her mind. She saw flashes of her father and her mother when they were younger—the brightest memories he could share. Losing her had broken him. And he had protected this place for many years despite the pain it had caused him.

“The Phantom withdrew his touch, and the silver light faded. When he spoke, his words were gentle and filled with wonder. ‘There’s a place across Kiriku where a cave rests inside the mountains. It is said that the crystal waters there can heal the pain of any wound. For many years I have carried your mother’s death with me, and it is time for me to go. To find a new place to call home and go somewhere where my heart can finally heal.’

 “Learning their Phantom was leaving, the people were devastated. They cried to see him go, but the Phantom shook his head, saying that it was time for a new Phantom to guide them. For forty years, he had given his life to them, and for the next forty, he wanted to give everything he had to his daughter…”

My father took a deep breath before he moved close to the fire Kilo had started. My mother waved him over, and I silently groaned.

It was just getting to the good part!

My mother looked pointedly at me, and I sighed. My stomach growled, and I took one of the triangular rice balls Syrane had made earlier in the day for us. A small rectangle of seaweed was wrapped around the bottom. Our town did not border the ocean, and therefore seaweed was hard to come by, but my parents and a few of the other Shadows would occasionally go to one of the ocean towns to bring back supplies. To have it was a luxury, and I couldn’t help inhale with delight as I bit into it.

Syrane had used the last of it as a treat for our parents’ return.

I ate quickly, finishing two rice balls and a portion of the fruit I had brought. My parents and Kilo had dried fish with them—leftover rations from their trip that Syrane and I had prepared. I took one of these, remembering laying the fish out on racks for a few weeks for them to fully dry.

Everyone was quiet, contemplative, as if the words of the origin of Vaiyene still hung on the air. The winds, too, seemed hushed, as if the land itself were hanging on the words of its birth.

Syrane and Torey finished eating, as did my mother and Kilo. I looked over at my father. He was eating incredibly slowly, and when he noticed my gaze, he tried not to smile, consequently choking on his food while he did so. Kilo held out a stick to the pot resting at the edge of the fire, opening the lid. While I hadn’t seen him pour the water in, tea was often served after a meal. Small cups were passed around, and when Kilo began to pour out the liquid, the smell wafted over me.

My eyes grew wide. “Cider!”

Where had they found it?

The apples in Vaiyene were still a few weeks off from the harvest. Maybe even a month.

“The town we went to was north of Vaiyene,” my mother explained. “Their seasons are slightly ahead of Vaiyene’s. They were celebrating their harvest and the coming of winter when we went. Kilo thought it would be a fun treat to bring some back, and they were more than happy to give us some.”

I sipped at the tangy liquid, noticing that the spices in it tasted slightly different than those used for cider in Vaiyene. My father continued to eat excruciating slowly, and when he finished the last bite of his rice, he finally cleared his throat.

“Now, where was I?” he said, tapping his bottom lip with his forefinger.

“No one thinks you’re funny but you,” my mother said. She brought the cup in her hands up to take a sip. “I believe you were going to continue your story when the Phantom arrives in the Miyota Mountains. But if you’ve forgotten, you can start over again. I’m sure Shenrae would love to hear the whole thing again.”

“I wouldn’t mind either,” Finae said, a wry smile on her face.

My father chuckled nervously, placing his hand on the back of his head, rubbing it. “Haha, let’s not be too hasty now.” He straightened and crossed his arms, closing his eyes as he pondered the final part of the tale…
 
“The Phantom and his daughter trekked north, following the Kansai River as it snaked between great mountains and forests, deserts and plains. They spent many weeks traveling together, stopping along their way to take seeds and many healthy plants’ roots. When they finally arrived in the Miyota Mountains, the seasons had changed, and snow had begun to fall. They knew they needed to find shelter, but in every direction, there was only white. Without being able to see, they moved forward, knowing it was deadly to stop in such weather.

“After a day of blind travel, they came to a cave. Lifting their lanterns, the pair noticed crystals set into the rocks. The Phantom and his daughter were captivated by the cave’s minerals, and they wandered listlessly for some time until silver lights began to rise from the ground. Intrigued by the light, they followed its glow out of the tunnels, and upon exiting the cave, they looked down at the valley below. Jagged mountain peaks and a snow-laden valley made the Phantom’s heart ache, for he knew the place they were looking at was home.

“He and his daughter began building a house, cultivating the land and learning its secrets. As he had done before, the Phantom climbed the mountains each day, watching the rise and fall of the sun. After many years, others began to come, and at last, the Phantom’s heart knew peace.”

My father took a drink of cider, letting out a long breath. I sipped on my own, already on my second cup. Torey and Syrane were both looking up at the stars, while my mother’s gaze was focused on the campfire. Finae had pinned a piece of paper to the ground with her hand and sketched the landscape with bits of charcoal from the fire.

Kilo sat with his eyes half-closed; then, he looked up from across the firelight.

“That’s not how it ends.”

Whenever my father told the tale, it always varied slightly, but—I looked between my father and Kilo—it always ended in the same way.

“Legends always vary,” my father said, waving off Kilo’s comment. “I might have embellished in a few places.”

“I have no problem with the embellishments,” Kilo said, “but the true ending is at the lakes above the Reikon tree, where the Phantom found true peace. You also forgot the part about the Shadow bonds.”

My father’s mouth opened slightly, but no words came out.

“It’s a long tale,” my mother said, a smile on her lips. “As one of the boys who didn’t recall the basic tenets of being a Shadow, you remembered a surprising amount.”

Red tinged my father’s cheeks. “Shenrae’s always liked my version of the story,” he said, pursing his lips and pouting. “It has a great focus on the Phantom and his daughter.”

That was why I had always enjoyed it. But while I liked my father’s version, the lure of knowing the rest of the story kept my eyes glued to Kilo.

Eagerly, I sat forward to hear the rest of the story.

“What happens?” I asked.

“Well,” Kilo said, looking up at the stars as he seemed to gather his thoughts.

“After they left their home, the Phantom’s heart continued to be burdened by the death of his wife. Even though he had found some comfort in this new place, his heart remained broken.

“One morning, as he wandered around the mountain peaks, he found the caves above what we know today as the Reikon tree. When he entered the caves, the sadness in his heart poured out uncontrollably. His daughter had taken ill, and none of the herbs he had carried with him had been able to cure her. He fell onto all fours beside the waters in the cave, and as the Phantom cried, his tears turned the water to silver. When he noticed the change,, his tears abated, and a presence filled the cave. He felt arms wrap around him for a brief moment, and he knew his wife was there with him. As he stood up, silver lights floated from the lake and gathered around his forearm.”

Kilo paused, holding up his arm for me to see the silver threads wrapped around it.

“As the light melted and merged into silver threads, the Phantom knew that he was not alone. His wife’s will and his people’s strength continued to be with him even in their death. With his strength renewed, he left the caverns, feeling a new sense of oneness with the land. He went to the top of the mountain and sat down, allowing his thoughts to calm.

“His herbs had not worked for his daughter, but surely there was something the water could do for her. Heading back to his daughter’s side, he knelt next to her, holding a cup of the silver water. The fever had taken her, but as he coaxed her, her lips parted, and he was able to help her drink. Days passed, but still, she did not get better. He stayed with her through the morning and all through the night, tending to her and listening to the earth’s gentle hum. On the third day, under the light of a full moon, he noticed her silver hair glowing against the moonbeams. A sense of peace came over him, and he rested his head against his drawn-up knee, feeling the world lull him to sleep.

“A hand on the Phantom’s shoulder startled him awake, and his daughter knelt before him. Her hair caught the light of the moon, and it seemed that her fever had broken. It was then that the Phantom knew this place was one he must protect. The silver caves had saved his daughter’s life, and the silver threads around his arm created a connection to those he missed. Days turned into weeks and months into years. The Phantom and his daughter worked tirelessly, surveying the land, noting the fauna and flora in the valley, and cultivating a small field to sustain them. They built a house of wood collected from the forest, treading lightly on the land around them.”

Kilo looked over at me. “That’s most of the remaining story. There are a few pieces still missing, but the Phantom and his daughter were the ones who began Vaiyene. His daughter’s life was saved by the water up in the silver lakes, and the tears of the Phantom created the Shadow’s bond.”

“And when did the people come to Vaiyene?” I asked.

Kilo thought for a moment. “Years later, a disaster happened in the east, and the Phantom took in those who were displaced.”

“A disaster?”

 “A war of sorts,” my father said, rubbing his chin thoughtfully. His eyes were on me, and noticing he had again regained my interest, he winked. “A great battle took place, and many lost their homes. Vaiyene became the refuge for those displaced, and together with the Phantom, they created what is known as Vaiyene.”

“And the Shadow’s Creed?” I asked.

My mother laughed, her hand covering her mouth. When she removed her hand, she shared a smile with my father and Kilo. “Now, that is another tale. One that your father would unnecessarily embellish. You’re better off asking one of the Phantoms in a few years.”

From behind my mother, Kilo smiled knowingly. I had already asked him about the Shadow’s Creed on more than one occasion. How it had begun and who had written it. And even my parents had told me about the tenets, teaching me to respect the Shadow’s way. Even though it was another six years before I would be able to petition to be sponsored as a Shadow, it was something I was already interested in.

“There’s plenty of time for you to learn about the Shadow’s Creed and its history if you do choose to become a Shadow,” my mother said, now including Syrane and Torey in her gaze. They had been listening to the tale as passionately as I had. “Right now, we want you to enjoy being young. Study what interests you, and don’t worry about what will happen when you come of age. In time, you will learn everything you need to about the Shadows, but for now, we want all of you to have fun. This period in your life is a special one.”

“Because once you’re in the Shadows, you’re too weighed down by responsibilities to have fun anymore,” my father said, struggling to keep his face straight. “Mia and I are just too busy to enjoy life anymore.”

My mother flushed. “That’s not what I meant, Zavi! I don’t want them worrying unnecessarily about things that are too far in the future.”

My father winked. “You mean like you used to?”

“No! Well, yes, but that’s not what I meant by any of it.”

My mother and father continued exchanging words while Kilo stood and walked away from the camp. Torey and Syrane were laughing as my father continued to twist my mother’s words in playful banter. At the edge of the campfire’s light, Finae continued to sketch the landscape.

Quietly, I trailed after Kilo.

His eyes were on the sky, but briefly, he glanced over at me. “Some nights, I wonder what it would be like to leave everything in search of a place where your heart can be at peace. What must it have been like for the Phantom to leave everything he knew because his grief was too great to bear? A part of me finds the prospect exciting; the other part—”

“Is afraid?” I asked.

Kilo nodded. “But the Phantom did not leave everything behind. He had his daughter with him, and if he had not, I wonder if the Phantom would have ever found Vaiyene. Regardless, I understand why he chose this place. No matter how far I travel, there’s something about this mountain that speaks to me.”

“Like a voice?” I asked, coming to his side.

I had been joking, but Kilo seemed thoughtful. “Yes, perhaps that is what it is; a gentle pull on my soul. It knows that this place is where I should be. It’s why your parents and I became Shadows: to protect these lands and those who reside in them.”

Kilo put his arm around my shoulders, drawing me close as we watched the stars.

We stood for some time at the edge of the mountain before Kilo withdrew his arm and nodded back toward the caves. It was quiet, which meant my parents had stopped fighting. Kilo and I returned to camp. My parents spoke more quietly, talking about the town they had just been to and the people they had met. Torey and Syrane listened intently from their place next to the fire. I sat next to Syrane and Torey, watching as Kilo and Finae slipped away as my parents continued talking.

Whenever he returned, Kilo headed straight for the Reikon Tree and the silver lake beyond it.

Leaning back on my hands, I looked up at the stars, listening to a story about a village needing help repairing a bridge. My parents always made time for us when they returned, sharing what they had learned, and often bringing back food and gifts. Both Syrane and me appreciated their care, and given that Torey was around us so much, she often received the same treatment.

My mind wandered as I watched a wisp of a cloud float across the night sky.

Whether it was from hearing the end of the Phantom’s tale or talking with Kilo, contentment welled up inside me and I, too, felt a gentle pull on my heart.

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