I promise to stay...
... only if you promise to return.
Teacher once told me, “There’s no difference between water and air.”
Just like then, I have always found his words to be true.
Whether it’s weightless wind threading my wings or water cupped in my webbed fingers as I propel through that dense world… in both water and air I always feel at home, and hardly recognize the moment when I traverse that line.
In the glittering slate-gray lake beneath me dozens of fish swished their tails back and forth in unhurried rhythm. They swam unaware of me hovering not too far above them in flows of wind so persistent I needed to only shift a single feather to hold myself steady in flight.
My pale grey reflection, covered almost entirely in the skins and scales of the very same sort of fish swimming the pocket of water below, was pierced only by a pair of vibrant golden eyes staring back at me as though I too were a fish being hunted. Instead of a tail or fins though, a long braid of silverblue hair lashed the air and occasionally struck the backs of my knees while my still wings blended almost seamlessly with the frothy white clouds and blue sky above.
Even if the fish had bothered to look up, they would have thought of it little more than they would when seeing another of their kind.
My reflection, hovering atop the lake’s calm surface, was accompanied by another far more conspicuous one nearby.
Although I’d once ridden his back when I was a nestling, nowadays Rüppell’s body and wingspan were barely half of mine. While I’d grown quicker and stronger with age, Rüppell seemed to do the opposite; while he could fly higher than anyone else in the grotto, the dwindling numbers of terrestrial animals made it difficult for him lately finding enough carrion to sustain himself. We’d only hunted together a few times now, but our arrangement—him watching and selecting the perfect prey, and my catching it—was finally becoming second nature to the both of us.
Once, twice, three times Rüppell traced a circle in the air. It was Rüppell’s signal he’d made his selection.
I looked up at Rüppell and gestured toward the fish to confirm.
Rüppell’s healthy caw bounced off the mottled black and gray float stones of the grotto. Mist and dew continually formed on the cool rock faces to collect in this healthy lake fed by web-thin streams rich in minerals, moss, and algae that fed the fatty fish sucking the water’s surface. Unlike regular rocks which would plummet out of existence into the raging storm clouds below, float stones lumbered like giant boulders, drifting apart and clustering at random within the confines of the grotto.
Rüppell stiffened his wings in the soaring updraft and went high as I rode the air into position over the fish.
The fish Rüppell chose was undoubtedly the largest. Watching it was like watching a single gray boulder among many smaller pebbles and rocks that all refused to sink to the bottom of the lake. The fish’s pulsing, membranous tail propelled it forward through its watery world as other, smaller fish swished violently to get out of the way of its gaping maw that could no longer be satisfied by the generous, food-rich streams.
I watched this behemoth of a fish terrorize its smaller kin as I waited for the right moment to strike.
Eventually it came upon one small fish that wasn’t fast enough, or that didn’t notice while it focused on its own ravenous feeding as it too strove to get bigger than all the rest. The larger fish opened its mouth, and in a single beat of its tail overcame and swallowed the smaller fish.
The big fish stopped in the water, satisfied at the feeling of prey thrashing in its mouth and throat on the way down to its belly.
Tucking my wings at my back, I angled myself toward the water and dove.
My oily wings passed without note from cool air into icy water. A wake of air bubbles were sucked beneath the surface of the lake and trailed me as I slid through the water until I overcame the fish from below. The fish noticed the cloud of bubbles rising up around it, but before it could regain its balance I notched a hooked piece of fish bone into its mouth and pulled, lodging the bone into the fish’s flesh.
The fish’s giant tail and fins beat the air-soaked water, but its efforts only further entrenched it in the bubbles that choked its breath and movements. Though the fish pulled with all its strength, its struggling only served to drive the hook deeper. There was no escape.
My webbed toes and hands cupped pure water, then gray pebbles and sand as I hefted the giant fish to shore.
Rüppell circled down as I hauled the fish from the water. Rüppell landed on a ridge behind me and craned his head to watch as the fish emerged from the shallows and exhaled its last full liquid breath.
Rüppell hunched his head between his bent wings and watched me muscle the fish further onto shore. My feet emerged from the soft sand collected beneath the waves and padded onto the hard grey face of the float stone. The blue-grey color of my skin shimmered glossy and wet against the dark color of the stone that only became darker in the wet footprints I left behind. The area closest to the pool had been washed smooth by the variably high water and coarse grinding of the sand over time, but as I got further up the stone became darker and more treacherous with sharp ridges and a near-vertical path on the way to the small plateau where Rüppell waited. As I got closer to the plateau it looked like a boulder-sized chunk had been broken off sometime in the past, leaving it less of a smooth plateau and more of a ragged, though still maneuverable surface.
The fish’s weight more than doubled once it was clear of the small lake. Its sides heaved in and out as the fish lost its cylindrical shape without support from the water. I climbed the short ridge between path and plateau in a single big step and held the fish up before Rüppell. He responded with a pitching whistle and flap of his wings.
“Nice choice, Rüppell,” I said as I hefted the fish by the red-stained hook protruding from its gasping mouth.
Rüppell danced around with his wings half-opened, whistling and cheering not much unlike Teacher did when I caught my first small fry. I shook my head at his childish display of delight, but couldn’t keep myself from grinning. While I didn’t have a difficult time hunting on my own, teaming up led to even greater results worthy of a little excitement and was made all the better by being a shared success with a friend.
The fish trembled as opaqueness began to enter its eyes. I knelt on the craggy ground, ignoring the pain of the hard rock lancing me through my fishskin clothes as I spread my wings and prostrated myself before the fish. The few remaining droplets of water rolled off my wingtips and oiled clothes, leaving me warm and dry. I held my hands out to the sun and recited the words of thanks Teacher taught me when I was young.
“May this flesh of your flesh, Cressa, join with this flesh of Nassima’s, and reunite the two brothers in one breath and blood.”
The sun blazing high above, I grasped the bone hook and raised the fish off the ground. With the extra weight in tow I waited for an updraft to form on the rocks, jumped into it with wings outspread, and headed for home.
My feet touched down heavy with the extra weight of the fish in tow. I set it flat on the ground as Rüppell landed not far from me. He hopped over and eyed the fish as he awaited what was to come. I glared at Rüppell and shook my head.
“I don’t want a repeat of last time,” I reminded him.
Rüppell looked up at me and balked his wings and neck as if trying to say he had no idea what I was talking about. He looked around pretending he no longer had any interest in the fish. However, I saw his eyes fix back onto the fish the moment he thought I wasn’t looking.
“I’m back, Teacher!” I called. I walked over to a stone painted white with more layers of fine, downy ash and bone powder than I could recall. Although it still wasn’t quite right, the color was finally starting to match the pure white Teacher’s feathers and hair had been.
“Thanks for watching over everything while I was gone,” I said as I stripped down out of my fishskin clothes and exchanged them for the clothes laying folded beside the stone that were made of warm, rabbit’s fur-lined buckskin. I bowed deeply in the direction of the stone.
I couldn’t remember exactly what Teacher looked like, but here, in the last place I’d seen him, was where I remembered him best. I could almost hear him say the same thing he always did when I came back from a hunt, the words that always waited for me regardless of whether I’d been successful or not:
“Welcome back, So-Rin.”
After properly greeting Teacher and receiving his welcome, I took up the pair of knives—a thin filleting knife and a thicker hunting knife—I’d left beside the white stone with my clothes before heading out.
I turned back toward Rüppell and the fish and pretended not to see Rüppell jolt away in an attempt to convince me he hadn’t been gazing at the fish like a starved fledgling. I stuck the point of the thicker knife into a crack in the rock and wheedled the blade underneath the inch-thick plate of stone. The stone made a low, grinding sound as I pulled it back to reveal a bed of hot red stones collected from the fire veins that ran through many of the float stones. I used the two knives together to remove a dark stone from their midst. It was a fire stone that’d lost its heat, leaving the pile smaller and cooler than before as Teacher’s collection of stones slowly dwindled down to a fraction of their prior number and barely filled the pit to the halfway point. How to find and collect strong fire stones was one of few things Teacher never taught me how to do. It was the number one thing I wanted to ask him when I saw him next.
Heat billowed from the pocket of red and grew strong enough to toss up flames into the wavering air. I heaved the fish over by its tail, brandished the long, scale-thin filleting knife, and began cutting.
Under the fin, around the head, along the backbone and underbelly…. On the way back to where I started I nicked the guts, which excited Rüppell as they started oozing out onto the black stone.
It took only a couple minutes more to muscle the fillet loose, divide it into smaller portions, and skewer them. Only one thing still needed to be done before I would start cooking.
Setting the larger knife beneath the fin, I pressed down until I hit resistance. Once the blade seemed unable to go any further, I forced it down with all by weight and heard one loud crack after another as the bones severed.
I removed the head, fins, and tail, and threw them into the blaze where they were instantly engulfed by flames. Rüppell started to let out a low-pitched disappointed caw, but stopped when I sent a glare in his direction. We watched together as the wet skin popped and sizzled as the water and oil burned away first. The eyes popped and oozed onto the hot rock, and the thin membranes of the fins and tail curled and shrunk before being reduced to ash that floated away on the hot thermals. Soon enough all that remained was bone which too eventually reduced to white powder before being lofted away on the wind.
This way, the fish would be able to swim the sky and carry messages between Nassima and Cressa.
With that final duty taken care of, the remainder would be the reward: a gift from Cressa to Nassima’s kin.
As the first strips of flesh broiled by the fire I pulled the guts from the fish and set to work on the other side, cutting it down and placing the pieces in a long, shallow divot in the rocks that was filled with salty brine in preparation for smoking. The moment I set the guts down Rüppell ripped through the soft outer membrane with his hooked beak to get at what was inside.
Once I was finished cutting, I made sure to wipe the blades clean before holstering them against my left thigh. Unlike Rüppell I had a soft-lipped mouth rather than a beak, and my fingernails always grew short. They were also soft and not good for much even if I did try to sharpen them into something more useful. Teacher used his long, blade-like fingernails as skillfully as any knife, and made me promise to carry at least one blade at all times to make up for what I apparently lacked. The only time I didn’t have a knife on me was when I went swimming to protect the animal skin hilt from cracking and crumbling.
As the flames and heat transformed the second batch of fish from tough and translucent to milky and soft, I took two of the cooked strips and returned to the white-painted stone. I leaned back against the rock and used it to support me as I stretched before settling down to eat and relax after such a good day’s hunt. I looked over the two pieces of fish and set the better piece aside as an offering to Teacher
“I did it just like you taught me, Teacher,” I said as I eyed the slightly charred white flesh of the fish. I used my short fingernails to pick off the hot bits of char until all that remained was the hot white fish.
I bit into the mellow, oily flesh and was greeted by a fresh taste thousands of times better than the dried fish from my previous catch I’d had just this morning. It’d been several weeks since my last fresh, warm meal. Although it was still a bit hot I couldn’t stop myself from gulping it down, my expression alternating between awkward pain and ravenous delight as the fresh catch made its way satisfyingly down to my stomach.
“I wonder how far the fish has gone,” I said after swallowing the last hot morsel. I crossed my arms behind my head and looked up into the blue sky. “Do you suppose it’s already carried its first message from Nassima to Cressa? Hopefully it’s a strong enough fish to make up for last time,” I said. I tried to glare at Rüppell, but I couldn’t help smiling at the sight of the old bird undulating his neck and stuffing his beak with raw entrails like a fledgling tasting his first meal away from the nest. I tossed the empty spit toward Rüppell but it just rolled off his quivering brown and white feathers without him breaking his stride.
“You should have seen it Teacher! Rüppell tried to act like he didn’t eat one of its eyes while I wasn’t looking,” I chided him as I threw my hands up, at a loss. “I explained to Rüppell it would be difficult for a one-eyed fish to find Cressa and Nassima, but I don’t think he really understands why he can’t eat the eyes of the fish we catch.”
The fire hissed and lurched in wild bursts as oil and fat from the strips of fish dripped into the flames.
“Don’t worry, Teacher, Rüppell may be sneaky but I won’t let him do that again,” I laughed. I spread my wings to catch the heat emanating from the warm fire pit.
Rüppell cawed and tossed aside a small fish he’d discovered inside the larger fish’s stomach.
I got up and walked over to pick up the small fish Rüppell had thrown aside.
An echoing peal filled the air. It was a cry I recognized just as well as I knew Rüppell’s. Rüppell’s fevered gulping stopped for a moment as he glanced over his shoulder. He bent down protectively over his meal and clattered his beak before he went right back to eating. I threw the small fish high…
… and a pair of sharp yellow talons nearly the size of my own hands grabbed the fish midair.
A dark bird even larger than Rüppell streaked the sky overhead. It cried out in long, piping notes even louder than before as it circled around and descended before eventually landing on top of the white stone.
“Enjoy, Ba’al!” I told him as he bent his white-plumed head down to his talons and shredded the fish with his hooked yellow beak. Blood spattered the white stone and colored it with pink and red splotches that would be difficult to cover over without adding several more layers, and would be nearly impossible to remove without a good amount of hard-armed labor. None of Ba’al’s feathers so much as ruffled during his meal, not even when he jumped from his perch and greedily pulled the cooked fish off the spit I’d set aside for Teacher.
“You know better than to eat Teacher’s share, Ba’al,” I said. I’d already long since given up on getting to choose another place to perch after he decided that Teacher’s white stone was the finest nearby—I had to agree with his reasoning as it was the very same as why I’d bothered moving it to begin with.
I rolled my eyes, but Ba’al ignored me. Instead he threw back his white-plumed head and swallowed the chunk of meat in two gulping bites. Once he was finished he spread his wings wide, showing off his dark underbelly and wings. Ba’al stared at me with his golden eyes, waiting.
“Teacher may be gracious, but if you think you’re going to beat me today you’re just being silly,” I said as I checked up on the second batch of fish to see if it’d finished cooking. Ba’al puffed out his dark brown chest and stared me down as I alternated between eating and setting aside fish for storage. Ba’al’s gold eyes beamed seriousness and pride as I laughed at his display.
I threw the remaining uncooked fish into the brine with the rest and would make jerky and smoked fish with it later. Such a large catch would be enough to last a couple weeks before running out and I would have to go fishing with Rüppell again. I turned to Ba’al and stretched my wings to their fullest in preparation. With my wings outspread I cast a shadow large enough that Rüppell and Ba’al together would be able to stand in it, wings outspread, without touching.
“To the Outer Rim and back. Think you’re up for it?” I pointed away from the setting sun and toward my favorite course, as was the right of the one to lose the previous day’s race. Unlike Ba’al’s favorite soar through the open sky, mine took us through a field of tight-packed float stones following a red-painted path painted by Teacher that varied as the float stones moved.
Ba’al flapped his wings, piping his agreement.
I placed my hand on the blood-speckled white stone. A long shadow cast by a distant float stone inched closer as the sun fell in the sky, but was still several feet behind me.
Ba’al glared at me, turned his beak into the wind, and took off high toward the Outer Rim.
Moments later I felt a cool shadow touching the back of my heel. I patted the white stone for luck as I remembered how Teacher would race anyone through any part of the Isla. No matter the challenge, not once did I ever see Teacher lose.
I thrust my feet and charged toward the edge of the float stone. The moment I spread my wings I felt myself lift even before I reached the edge.
“I’ll be back before you know it!” I called and waved behind me.
Rüppell didn’t even look up.
Without beating my wings I dove deep with the descending air, down where the smallest, slowest float stones rested for weeks at a time while hardly moving an inch. It was here that sunlight never reached and where the humid thermals were sapped of their strength by the cool black stone. Moisture froze to the white rabbit fur nestling my shoulders while my oil-coated wings remained dry and warm. I pulled the fur up over my mouth and nose to keep the damp cold out of my lungs.
Two red float stones hovered a few feet apart. I turned my wings vertical and slipped between the two, the first of many as I followed the path painted by one set of stones after another as they rose. Soon I felt the icy fur thawing and sunlight again warmed the backs of my wings.
The float stones grew larger as I went up. The field of float stones filled with grating noise each time the boulder-sized stones struck each other and created a broken, scarred path that became more disjointed over time. Larger stones in a variety of shapes and sizes rose while smaller ones would join those below and the entire grotto steadily fell over time.
I emerged from the field into the clearer, higher sky where only a handful of larger float stones dwelled. Almost immediately I saw a thin sliver of cloudy sky between two truly monolithic float stones in the distance disappeared. Remembering the noise heard clear across the grotto from when they split during a collision with another stone several years back, I covered my ears with my hands and readied my wings, only rocking slightly in the pulse of air forced from between the stones.
The gnashing stones made the air tremble with a screeching, grinding clash far louder than the noise of the storm clouds constantly roaring beyond the Outer Rim.
As I pressed ahead, I heard Ba’al’s piping cries coming from somewhere nearby.
It took several seconds to scale the height of the two monolith stones before I rounded them overhead. I could see clear across the grotto from this height, from the vast blue darkness overcoming the grotto from the east to the shadow-speckled rainbow-colored halo of sunlight falling below the storm clouds in the west.
I couldn’t see Ba’al from my vantage point right away, but when I looked up I spotted him circling directly above the fissure between the two stones that each stretched for miles in all directions.
The rule was that if a pathway closed all you needed to do was follow the fissure to continue on. But even after I’d closed the gap on his head start, Ba’al just kept circling.
“You haven’t given up, have you?” I called out as I streaked past Ba’al. A slight pressure sucked me downward as the crunching moan of the stones dissipated and the fissure reopened. I pressed my scarf down on my face and angled my wings upward. A mix of dust and small rock shards plumed from the fissure while larger stones trickled down the scarred rock faces to join the field below.
Ba’al never took his eyes from the fissure. He just kept circling.
I thought about continuing on, but it would be pointless going all the way to the outer rim and back if Ba’al didn’t want to race anymore.
I banked, meaning to ask Ba’al why he stopped the race. Before I could see what Ba’al was so fixated on, I heard it.
Or Read Prologue
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