Ledia Runnels' "World of Fantasy Fiction"











{November 18, 2012}   Prologue: Moon Magic

Cool and velvety soft,

she pressed the last of her tiny flowers

into the open palm of his hand.…

–Legend of the Cherry Jewel

A small shrine on the grounds of the temple, w...

A small shrine on the grounds of the temple, with cherry blossoms (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 Year of the Dog 1503

 

On the summit of Moon Mountain, the last fire-shards of sunlight glistened against the remnants of spring snow. Dusting the ground and the upturned roof of the shelter whereHinata Jintori stepped beneath, into the narrow space.

A frozen wind blew the hem and sleeves of his robe as he broke the skin of ice that covered the stone basin. Scooping the chilled water, he drew his cupped hands toward his lips where he sipped and then rinsed his mouth of impurities. He spat the warmed water onto the ground and then shook loose the freezing droplets from his fingertips. Having completed the purifying ritual, he turned and made his way toward Sakura Jinja, a smallish shelter, enclosed by four walls that stood a few short steps away.

Into the narrow entryway of the Cherry Shine, the outer sanctum, he crossed. A few steps beyond, he moved into the heart of the holy place. Only the rasping shuffle of his sandals against the wooden floor and the sound of his breathing broke the silence of approaching twilight.

Illuminated by the soft glow from a lantern, a silver platform occupied the direct center of the room. On the platform sat a wooden cutout, carved from the sacred Sakai tree into the shape of five cherry blossoms.

Five tiny bells dangled, one each, from the five petals, “Shards of the Sakura Hooseki”–the “Cherry Jewel.” Multihued lights flickered between the shards, accompanied by a soothing drone–like the whir of hummingbird wings.

From the topmost petal the blue-sapphire bell hovered over the jade-green bell on one side with the ruby-red bell on the opposite petal. In turn, the green bell swayed above its golden sister while the pulsating ruby-red bell bled into the brooding bone-white shard beneath it.

As he entered the room, Jintori lifted an incense burner from its place on the wall and lit the brass bowl that hung from the end of an ornately carved cherry tree branch. Standing beside the silver pedestal, he waved the bowl over the breathing Shards, sending tendrils of scented smoke that filled the room with pungent sweetness.

His warm breath formed a cloud in the frozen air as he chanted, “The Spirit Shard for the renewal of inner Chi.” At his words, the blue shard beamed with an azure glow.

He continued the chant, “The Shaman Shard for physical healing.” The jade bell shone with a verdant light, while the sapphire bell grew dim.

“The Dominion Shard, for power over the enemy.” The light from the jade bell faded as the next bell radiated a bloody aura

“The Death Shard ripped from the land of Yomi.” The ruby bell dimmed while the bone-white bell glowered like a skinless skull.

“The Eternity Shard with the power of life over death.” The glaring light from the white bell dimmed as the golden bell shimmered like a star point…

(Continued…)

 



Chapter One

PROPHETIC DREAMER

He cried, it is both

a blessing and a curse to

know the awful truth…

–Tsuru no Megumi

The bird man flew low beneath stars that crackled like ice chips in the moonless sky. Expanding his wings, he glided on the jet stream, directing his flight a kilometer short of where the sandy embankment stretched on either side of the “Sea of Japan“. Dreading what he would find there, he closed his eyes and drew in a ragged breath while a single wish filled his thoughts.

Tonight, things will be different from all the nights before. Back the way they should be.

His greatest hope sprang from his greatest horror that the terrible revelations he remembered from previous journeys would turn out to be mere dreams dredged up from nightmares. Not a horrific foretelling of the future, as all of his most vivid visions always turned out to be.

Megumi Tsuru landed soft as a leaf blown by the wind. The current blew strong near the ground so it pulled his outstretched wings, snowy white with jet-black tips. The next instant, the fetid stench of dead fish, matted with decayed seaweed, assaulted his senses.

So it remains the same. He shook my head while anxiety washed over him like a dull film.

The voice of the sea thrummed in his ears. The gulls that chattered overhead seemed too loud. Still, he swallowed his sorrow, letting the crash of the waves soothe instead of annoy him while a different, yet familiar sensation burned deep inside his bones. It quickly blazed over and through him to the deepest regions beneath his feathers to the very tips of his claws and beak.

Moments later when he opened his eyes, he peered out from the smooth face–of a man. The warmth of a summer‘s night caressed his human body while an inner chill made him shiver.

He dug his toes into the sand, dry where it should be wet, next to a notched branch shoved into the sand when snow had covered the ground–over six months ago. He had put it there himself to mark the place where high tide used to hit the shoreline.

Now dried seaweed stuck cracked and black to the upper nodes of the branch severed from the sacred Sakai, the same tree that once hung with brightly colored cloth and a mirror to lure Sun from her cave hiding place millennia before.

From the defiled branch, Megumi made his way on foot toward the edge of the sea, his gaze focused on the sand near his feet. He could have flown, but he wanted to feel the tremors when they rumbled beneath him, shooting like a spear up his spine. The terrible sensation reminded him that this was more than a dream.

Megumi shook his head. The quakes grew in intensity each time he ventured to the devastated shore. Nothing could deny that.

He had read about a time, lost in the distant past, when the moon came so close to the Earth that it seemed the two colossal spheres would collide. From the account he had heard, the terrible phenomena caused cascading tons of ocean to eat away the shorelines, drowning everything that stood in the towering water’s path.

Most saw this event as pure mythology. But not Megumi.

The visions he saw now told of a time in the near future when the moon would take an opposite sojourn and slowly pull away from the Earth causing low tides to yank the oceans farther and farther away from the present shoreline. If this happened, the creatures of the sea would lie gasping for breath, helpless on dry land.

A grim smile tugged at Megumi’s lips. The meat eaters would find themselves stalking the shorelines for a mere glimpse of fresh food.

He shook his head in dismay. If things did not change for the better and soon, all of creation would face a slow agonizing death of starvation and worse. The Tribe of Crane included. But that was not the worst to come.

Pressure. Pressure.

His chest ached with frustration. The weight of what he knew, of what he must do squeezed like an invisible hand trying to crush out his existence–before the coming atrocities ever could.

He stopped at the edge of the sea, staring into the endless darkness beyond while cool salted water lapped around his ankles. Like a cold slap in his face, he could not get the image of the dried branch he had stuck in the ground or the heaps of dead fish piled up on the sand, reminding him that he must never give up his search for a way to stop it any of it from happening.

Megumi spun toward a mound of sand littered with decayed seaweed and fish carcasses. For one night, this bird had seen enough to make him miserable for eternity.

Head ducked low in determination; he trudged to the top of one rotten heap. Lifting his arms a wingspan apart the wind beat against his back, whipping his white hair, with jet black tips, into stiff, damp swirls. Nose tilted eastward toward the Brother Mountains, he took a running start. By the time he reached the edge of the dune his arms became wings spread open in flight…

***

In the Northern Province of Yamagata JapanMount Haguro stood the smallest of the three Brother Mountains. Nestled atop the summit the monastery slept. Tsuru no Megumi woke drenched in sweat. He felt the chill in the room as he slipped from beneath the covered sleeping mat.

Soft snoring drifted toward him. He paused, watching the sleeper beneath the colorful quilt. He wanted to wake his friend and tell him about the latest, terrible dream. Shojika would know how to ease the ache in Megumi’s heart even in the dark, cold hours before dawn. But courtesy would not allow him to disturb his friend’s precious sleep.

Head bowed in deep concentration, he turned and made his way through the darkened corridor of the living quarters. In his human form, man‘s feet pattered softly against the rice rush floors.

Situated at the backside of the monastery, Megumi stepped into the library where he spent long hours poring over ancient manuscripts of Nippon history and what others would call folklore. A place of profound peace, Megumi knew the library as a refuge from the insanity and chaos that the visions brought. Today, he went to there, desperate to find answers.

Tsuru no Megumi, “Crane of Mercy”, was the meaning of his name. And for the most part, he lived up to the title. With the abilities of a powerful seer since a very young age, he had grown accustom to knowing the future before it happened.

The outside world held in great demand one with such a “talent” as he possessed. But the over stimulation of attention he received in the past had almost driven him mad. It was the reason he now hid in the Mountains of Dewa where he had lived a quiet life—until the recent visions came to bombard his peace of mind.

He made his way toward cubbyholes that covered every wall, filled with rice paper scrolls. He stopped at a familiar niche.

A gentle slick gave way as he pulled a paper scroll loose from its slot and then made his way to a low-standing tea table. He knelt on a floor pillow tucked beside a tea table that sat beneath a round skylight, like a perfect full moon, that hung near the top of the high-beamed ceiling. Outside the window, the branches of a towering cryptomeria spruce scritch-scratched against the glass pane where the sun’s light had yet to rise.

Continued…

Enjoy!



In the cold darkness, beneath the shadowed stairway, Luena Pierce sank into a living grave, her mother’s frantic screams still echoing in her mind…

A group bearing the Earl of Campbell’s coat-of-arms forced their way into the Pierce home.  Jannette Pierce was the only one in sight.  Straightway, the scoundrels cuffed the lady‘s hands behind her back while delivering a warrant for her arrest.

“On what charges?”  Jannette demanded hysterically.

Witchcraft, my lady,” a scar-faced man answered.

Wide-eyed, the lady searched the room for her child.   “Luena!”  she shrieked, trying to pull free of the thugs’ grasp.

“Bloody, witch!” the scarred man muttered between clenched teeth as he delivered a vicious punch, hitting Jannette squarely in the face.  She slumped forward, senseless.

Luena had been about to run to her mother’s defense until the man’s brutality.  She froze in place beneath the stair steps.  In the pandemonium, no one saw the terrified little girl whose luminous blue eyes gazed out at the thugs.   When they left, dragging the bound woman behind them, not one even bothered to close the front door.  Hours later, it still banged wildly against the parlor wall.

It was well after midnight before instinct caused Luena to move from the cramped stairwell.  Dazed, she stumbled into the root cellar.  With blackened, stifling air consuming her, the little girl followed the stone wall to a corner where she sank to the ground, panting like a frightened animal.

From her sleep, Luena heard the sound of footsteps in the room above her.  Moon-eyed, she pushed closer to the wall, trying to disappear into its stone surface.  Sunlight filtered into the room and Luena’s saucer-wide eyes slide toward the cellar door where she saw the silhouette of someone.

Like a mist, the person evaporated from the entrance and came to stand in front of the child.  Luena shivered more from fear than the cold, her stomach rumbling from lack of food.

Luena recognized Druzelle, the old healer woman that ran the apothecary in town. A silver tear slid down the little girl’s face. Taking the child by the hand, the healer waved her arms. From her fingertips, a cloud wound its way around them, swallowing them up. The two vanished from the cellar to appear in an opened field, miles away from the Pierce house.

“I shall send Rowena to announce us,” Druzelle whispered in Luena’s ear.” Brunda must not turn us away.”  Urgency tugged at the rotund lady’s voice.

Luena held her silver heart-shaped locket in one slender hand. In her mind’s eye, she could hear the tap, tap tap of the big black bird’s sharp beak against Brunda’s windowpane. Tap, tap, tap it came again and she saw a sleek, black cat jump up onto the window sill and bend its head to one side as it gazed toward the bird.

Rowena turned her narrow, feathered face so that one black eye glistened at the cat. “Caw, caw,” the sound leaped from the yellow beak. The tapping resumed.

Disgruntled, the black cat turned, giving a swish of his tall to the feathered fiend and jumped down onto the floor. The cat glided across the room toward a darkened corner where his mistress slept.

A cacophony of snoring issued from the withered lips of the old woman. It took several pats from Mandrake’s paw to awaken her. Brunda’s eye lids parted. She was not pleased.

“What?” she thundered. “This had better be good, drat you!” She pulled her aged body up from the bedding.

Poised beside the window, Brunda glared at the black bird. “Rowena!” she scowled. “You mangy crow! What does Druzelle want now?”

The bird cocked her head, ruffled her feathers and dropped a rolled parchment onto the windowsill.

Brunda drew back the latch and lifted the glass pane. Her irritation was obvious as she read through the note. Nonetheless, she scowled and nodded her assent. Rowena flipped her tail feathers and flew back to her mistress.

Luena and Druzelle walked along the frosty, cobbled path; they could smell freshly buttered toast and potatoes frying. Brunda drew back the front door and motioned the pair to enter.

With a gently hand, Druzelle pulled Luena to the front porch. The lady’s stiff, white apron and the pungent smell of starch filled the little girl’s senses.

“This is Luena Pierce. I found her in the cellar of her home after those…” Druzelle leaned forward to whisper in Brunda’s ear. “Monsters came and took her poor mother away to the witch trials. They hanged her yesterday evening.” Druzelle tried desperately not to let the little girl hear the gruesome tale. But Luena did hear. Cold tears spilled down her face.

Brunda stood arms akimbo. “Well, what made them think Mrs. Pierce was at fault?” Brunda didn’t bother to lower her voice. Her tenderhearted sister glared at her.

Druzelle took Luena by the hand and lead her to a far corner of the room where Brunda’s worktable stood. Then she whirled on Brunda.

“Can we please talk outside?” Druzelle called over her shoulder. She was already heading for the door.

Brunda rolled her eyes in disgust and followed. The front door clattered shut. Druzelle drew herself up. Her blue eyes were ice chips.

“No, she was not really a witch! Have those imbeciles been right even once? And even if she was, she hadn’t done anything to them. I swear they are trying to wipe out the entire village! It has gotten so bad, I have decided to go back to my inn and abandon the whole lot of them!”

Brunda studied her sister while rubbing long fingers across her own knotted chin. “And what of this tike that you’ve brought to my house? Do you plan on taking her with you when you go?”

Druzelle smiled congenially. “Well, that’s where I need your help, sister dear.”

Brunda’s response was a cutting, “harrumph!”

Undaunted, Druzelle continued. “It will take me several days to set things up at the inn. In the meantime I need to leave Luena somewhere secure. She certainly is not safe back in that town with those bloodthirsty savages running rampant!”

A frown creased Brunda’s face. The look in her green flecked brown eyes was not a welcoming one.

“What am I going to do with the child? I’m not the motherly type and have no wish to be so!”

“Brunda, the poor little thing has nowhere else to go,” Druzelle spoke beseechingly. “I could take her with me, but until the inn is in order, there is just no place for her there. I’ll be living in a crude, grass hovel and in Luena’s state of mind. I do not think that is the best place for her.”

Luena had heard every word. Brunda’s reluctance to keep her cut at her heart. She would rather stay in the grass hovel with the sweet tempered Druzelle than with the ill-tempered Brunda. But Luena did not voice her misgivings. She merely sighed and gazed down at her hands. Perhaps it didn’t matter where she was; the ache in her heart was so overwhelming the less she did in any capacity, the less she felt.

Luena sat statue-like in the wooden chair where Druzelle had left her hours before. The only sign that the little girl was still alive came from the steady rhythm of her breathing and an occasional blink of her eyes. She stared toward a bowl of porridge that Brunda had sat in front of her for lunch and watched, as it became ice cold. Her stomach rumbled terribly, but Luena did not have the strength of will to reach out and pick up the spoon.

Brunda quickly lost patience with the child when she would not even try to eat.  The old woman stalked off in a huff to, “be about her business.”  Adding that she hoped Luena wouldn’t just sit there and starve to death.  “Druzelle will not be happy if she comes back to collect a pile of dried up flesh and bones!”

Nightfall was close at hand.  After hours of watching the silent girl, whose eyes stared vacantly before her, Mandrake the cat jumped onto the worktable.

At first, Luena did not acknowledge the cat’s presence; she was off in the land of Nod, quietly anesthetized.  Decidedly, Mandrake attempted to jump onto the little girl’s narrow lap.  But each subsequent leap ended with him sliding precariously toward the sod floor.  Finally, after the fourth try at this ludicrous game, Luena reached out dimpled arms and caught the feline in an absent embrace.

The coolness of the cat’s sleek, furry body brought the child’s conscious mind back to Brunda’s cottage.  Nestling her face deep within the fragrant, black fur, Luena didn’t feel quite so hopeless. She held Mandrake too tightly, but though his throat was in his mouth, a weak `mew’ was the only protest he made.

Then after what seemed like an eternity, Luena let her arms slacken slightly and with one free hand, began to stroke Mandrake’s silky coat.  A contented purr rumbled forth.

Meanwhile, Brunda sorted through herbs that she had picked the day before.  Some would be hung from the ceiling to dry while others would be pickled in vinegar or alcohol for later use.  Once Luena heard the herbalist mutter beneath her breath, “Children got no use or time for them.”

Brunda held up an empty jar.  A beam of moonlight glistened off the glass as she shined it once again.  “This will be fine for that batch of medicinal verbena,” she said aloud and selected another jar that dripped with wet and dotted translucent soap bubbles.

The second jar proved to be more slippery that Brunda had anticipated for her fingers suddenly lost contact with its surface and it went plummeting toward the floor.  After an unsuccessful attempt at catching it, Brunda braced herself for the sound of shattering glass and the mess that would ensure…

When the crash did not come, Brunda glanced downward and saw to her amazement that the jar hovered half an inch or so above the sod floor.  She reached down to touch the jar and it drop undamaged onto the ground with a soft plop.

Straightway, Brunda snatched up the jar and turned to find Mandrake.  It had been years, maybe centuries, since he had been a full-fledged warlock, but he still liked to play tricks every once in awhile.  When she spied him resting luxuriously in Luena’s lap, the old woman clicked her tongue and shook her head.   The child sat patting Mandrake while the `silly old thing’ loved it.

Then Brunda let one of her rare smiles flit across her face.  “Thank you old fellow.  Times being what they are, I do not relish having to go into that town for replacements.” and she nodded toward the glass receptacles.

Luena ‘felt’ the cat’s reply.  “Sorry old girl wasn’t me.”  Then he wrapped his sleek body around Luena’s neck and meowed loudly.

Brunda stared in wonder at the mass of blonde curls that cascaded down the back of the wooden chair.  “No!” was all that she could say.

It seemed ludicrous.  Brunda walked over to Luena and peered curiously at the child.  Luena did not return the look. Her melancholy eyes transfixed, staring, it seemed, at nothing in particular.  Brunda’s gaze followed Luena’s until it came to rest upon her own worktable.  There she found a most unexpected thing.  For just above the table’s wooden surface, several of her round bottomed flasks swirling and shimmering in a queer, beautiful dance as the light of the silvery moon glistened within.

Glancing back at the little girl, Brunda watched as Luena’s left index finger danced like a conductor’s rod while her right hand continued to stroke Mandrake.  “My, my”, Brunda mused.

Abruptly, the receptacles ceased their cavorting as Luena froze in place.  Then just as suddenly, the little girl reached for the porridge spoon and began eating ravenously.

Brunda turned to the stove and drew up a warm bowl of soup.  Then with a brusque motion, she snatched the congealed porridge from in front of the child and replaced it with the fresh one.  Luena hardly noticed the switch; both were food and she was so very hungry!

Brunda scratched her chin.  “Seems I’ve found the true ‘Pierce’ witch.  Always knew those idiots couldn’t tell a real witch from an ordinary person.”

Then with each succeeding night, as the moon amplify, Brunda and Mandrake brought the child back from the land of the lost until the eve of the full moon, when Luena agreed to accompany Brunda and help her to pick herbs. Luena stood in the moonlight watching Brunda dig up a root with her bare hands and wrap it with coarse clothe.  A cloudless sky gave the moon full reign and as its silvery fingers brushed against them, the golden haired child began to feel a familiar cold heat envelope her.  Gazing at her hands, she saw a silvery cloud covering them.  Then from the depths of the mist, silver lightening race up her arms.

Luena looked up to see Brunda staring at her.  “My, my, lightening bug, what is this all about?” The old woman queried.

Luena shrugged.

Next day, Druzelle appeared.  Upon seeing her sister, Brunda blurted out, “Did you know that Luena was the witch and not her mother?”

Druzelle smiled.  “Well, yes, I did.  Didn’t I tell you before I left?”

“No, no, somehow you forgot that bit of information,” Brunda invoked.  “Might have made it a bit easier to deal with if you had!”

A worried look crossed Druzelle’s face.  “Nothing has happened to Luena?”

“Girl almost starved herself, but no, she’s fine.”  Brunda huffed and then quickly changed the subject.  “I’ve been reading all night to find out more about this power Luena has.”

“Yes, she does posses a rare form of magic,” Druzelle mused.  Brunda nodded her head and Druzelle eagerly continued, “So please tell what it is that you have found.”

“This little witch has natural magic,” Brunda recanted. “She doesn’t need herbs, magic spells, toads or spiders; only her own essence and the power of the moons light.  I’ve also found that she can read minds as long as she is touching that sliver necklace around her neck; so there’s no use in your trying to keep secrets from her anymore!  I don’t know if she has any other talismans that enhance her magic, but silver and moonlight are definitely strong ones for her.

Brunda’s eyes became two slits.  “One thing for sure, Luena’s power is such that it must be carefully cultivated.  She must be allowed to grow naturally into whatever she is meant to be.  She is young and vulnerable and we must keep her secret from others who might want to exploit her, perhaps for great evil.”

Luena sat in the corner with Mandrake lying happily upon her lap.  ‘Vulnerable’, she mulled the word over in her mind.  I wonder what that means.

Copyright by Ledia Runnels 2011



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