Description: A little piece I was inspired to write after seeing this picture.
It is in the region of the Egova in which this tale takes place. There it is said that the spirits once lived, for the deep slopes of the hills and mountains are cut into hundreds of tiny stair steps which lead to grand, smooth plateaus. The plateaus are said to be where the houses of the spirits rested for thousands of years until these spirits, exasperated with humanity, destroyed their earthen residences and disappeared into the heavens – a world they created in which they could be alone and truly rest in peace.
However, it was rumored that some spirits stayed behind in Egova. These few had grown so attached to this place that they would not leave; instead they vowed to stay on Earth forever, to watch over and protect the land. The Great Spirit, who created the heavens and the earth, looked favorably on these few and blessed them with powers similar to his own. This way they could protect the earth during his absence.
Humans moved into the mountains once the spirits left, building small settlements directly into the ancient stairways. In these first days, many villagers witnessed ghostly forms strolling in the distance, circling the communities. Frightened by this, they built shrines for the spirits to show their good intentions. The visions then stopped. However, the villagers kept a wide birth from these shrines, arriving only once a year to tend to the shrines and present gifts to the spirits. Disturbing a spirit’s shrine on any other day was considered bad luck – not only for the individual, but for all the people of the mountain.
Spirit sightings had been rare since those first days. Only a certain few had witnessed bizarre or extraordinary events, things that could only be explained as the work of a spirit. Miraculous healings, massive, destructive fires… Both were considered signs of favor or disapproval of the spirits, respectively.
But seeing a tangible form of a spirit was rarely heard off. What they looked like was only known because of myths, and even they were contradictory. Some believed they possessed human-like forms, while others claimed they took form as animals.
Nevertheless, as the years passed, villagers continued to pay homage to the shrines; though, stories of spirits were always told in past tense, as if the species had died off long ago…
Cordelia, bundled in her warmest coat and slippers, dashed from the house. The cold, winter air smacked her in the face, instigating a deep flush in her round, peach cheeks, while her one, long braid shot back behind her as she scattered down the steep streets of the village, bobbing up and down like a dragon’s tail.
The streets were quiet as she ran – deserted, for the moon was high up in the sky, and most of the villagers had settled down for the night. The only movement came from the spiraling smoke that drifted out of some windows, and Cordelia longed for the warmth of fire and the protection of the indoors. However, she could not go back, nor hide away in another’s home. The village was much too small to hide in plain sight, to escape from them. No, she knew she had to run away, even if it meant freezing; it was a better fate than suffering any more days with them.
Filled with resolve, ten year old Cordelia fled from her village of Utura, the only place she had ever known. Over her shoulder she carried all of her belongings, in a well-made sack she had stolen from her aunt. These belongings included her favorite book, a knife that had once been her father’s, several servings of meat, bread, and cheese, and all of her clothes – another pair of shoes, two shirts, and a pair of slacks. However, her most prized possession was what she clung to as the red-hued buildings of Utura disappeared above her.
She ran until she was exhausted, which did not take long considering the hilly terrain. Even then she continued to walk, climbing up the steepest hill she had yet come across until she reached its plateau. There, feeling safe, she fell to her knees, gasping in the chilly air.
Her small hands grasped the fresh, green grass as she cringed in sudden pain. The sting of her back had returned, and Cordelia remembered with dismay that, in her hurry, she had failed to pack medical supplies. The wind rushed by her again, chilling her to the bone, and Cordelia ignored the pain, knowing she must at least make it to the nearby woods if she wanted to make a fire and stay warm. She stood to move on, but hesitated.
For in front of her stood a house chiseled from black stone, surrounded by wall of the same stone, that only came up to her chest. On the wall plates piled with food, trinkets, and flowers overflowed, and, where the wall gapped to allow entrance to the house, two tall lamps burned.
Cordelia approached the structure reverently, soon placing a hand directly on one of the lamps and glancing toward the house. The doorway was left open, and from her distance she could see a bed in the space.
Cordelia stepped in the gate. Then she took another step. And a third. A wild garden flourished in the house’s yard. Around her she saw gorgeous wildflowers, bright berries, vibrant, green vines…
“Didn’t anyone teach you that it’s rude to come into another’s home unannounced?”
Cordelia jumped and spun, only to spot a dog in the center of her path. The dog appeared unremarkable; he was of medium size, with clean, russet fur, quite like other dogs she had seen during her lifetime. However, this one did differ from the norm in one respect. Instead of possessing the deep, brown eyes that Cordelia commonly associated with canines, this dog’s eyes were a shocking, ocean blue and very alert. The voice spoke again.
“You might like to apologize.”
Cordelia jerked once more, and spun her head in order to spot the man who had spoken. However, the shrine was empty, save her and the dog that stood confidently before her.
“Are you… talking to me?”
“There is no one else here.”
The dog’s lips had not moved, and, yet, Cordelia was sure that the voice was his. She shivered, and, when she spoke, her voice was hushed.
“Are you… a spirit?”
The voice said nothing, but the dog stepped forward and began to circle her, each of his footsteps careful and deliberate.
“Someone has hurt you.”
Cordelia cringed, but nodded. The dog sighed.
“Go into my house, child, and remove your jacket, as well as your shirt.”
“You’re not going to hurt me are you?”
“Humans hurt and destroy what they create. My kind only destroys what threatens to do damage to our creations. Go. I have no reason to harm you.”
Cordelia nodded, though she walked slowly to the stone building that soon loomed over her.
“Let me see your back,” the dog ordered once they were inside.
He watched with steady eyes as she slowly slipped her shirt over her shoulders.
The dog’s vibrant blue eyes narrowed as they observed the swollen cuts that marred the pale flesh of her back. Slowly he walked up behind her, and Cordelia was overwhelmed by sudden peace. Her heartbeat slowed, her breathing became even, and, for a split second, a smile rose into her lips.
Meanwhile, the dog sat and, with little hesitation, began to lick her wounds. Cordelia shivered, but then her eyes widened as the sting of her wounds subsided and soon disappeared completely. When the dog finished and stepped away, Cordelia quickly pressed her hands against her back, amazed to feel that the ridges of her cuts had completely disappeared.
“Thank you,” she murmured. “What is your name?”
The dog sat again, though he did so with a slight upturn to his chin and regality in his posture.
“I am The Protector of the Mountains and Valleys, one of the Blessed,” he paused for a moment and met her eyes, the vibrancy of them, however, softened. “However, I was also known as Arlo, by a human of whom I was fond.”
“Human?” Cordelia wondered aloud. “But… humans have not even seen spirits in hundreds of years.”
The dog, Arlo, shook his head.
“One lie of many that your people have told.” He sighed deeply. “Cordelia, my child. There is so much that you do not know.”
Cordelia narrowed her eyes.
“How did you know my name?”
“I’ve known you since you were an infant, Cordelia. And I knew your mother.” He paused to jerk his head in her direction. “That pendant on your neck. It was hers.”
Cordelia grasped the pendant automatically and brought it to her eyes to observe it. It was a large, blue sapphire, set in silver wires that crawled around the gem like the vines of a morning glory. Yet… now it was glowing! Arlo nodded.
“It glows whenever you are in the presence of a spirit… or when you utilize one of the powers it bestows.”
“Powers? What do you mean?” Cordelia asked, her brow furrowed.
“That pendant is the mark of a prophetess, a human whom is blessed by one of my kind,” Arlo explained calmly. “It is passed down through the generations, to one considered worthy of carrying the office. Naturally, a prophetess is gifted with several abilities. Abilities which are held by the pendant.”
“My mother was a prophetess?” Cordelia echoed. She folded her arms. “That’s impossible. I told you. No humans have had contact with spirits in ages. I’ve never heard of any prophetesses.”
“That’s because the adults of your village have hidden it from you,” Arlo replied in a darker voice. He paused, observing Cordelia with those sapphire eyes. “They fear the notion of a human with spirit abilities. They feared your mother.” Arlo sighed. “It is why she is dead.”
“The villagers… killed my mother? Because she was a prophetess?”
Cordelia twirled the blue stone between her fingers. “Then why did they let me live, if I have the pendant now? Why did they let me keep it?”
“They do not know the significance of the pendant,” Arlo explained. “They believed her powers were her own. However, they are suspicious of you, for you share the same blood. It is why they have abused you so.”
The dog snorted, which, despite the atmosphere of disgust that surrounded the gesture, instigated a chuckle in Cordelia. The dog’s head shot in her direction, and Cordelia met his gaze with a smile. Arlo’s eyes calmed, and he stood and strolled to her. He nuzzled up under her arm and close to her side. He nosed the pendant at her chest.
“Your mother gave it to you before her death; she chose you to be my next companion. It is no accident that you stumbled here. The pendant drew you to this place, to me. As I knew it would.”
“That means I get to live here with you?”
The dog nodded.
Cordelia grinned, threw her arms around Arlo’s neck, and kissed him squarely on the forehead. Arlo squirmed and snorted, but, when he slipped out of her arms, he looked to her with his lips curled back in that doggy grin.
Cordelia laughed once more, but suddenly all of the exhaustion she had felt before Arlo healed her rushed upon her once more. Arlo nosed the sheets on the bed.
“You need your rest.”
Cordelia followed his instruction and soon lied down on the bed. As she scooted under the covers, she passed another thoughtful glance to the dog on the floor.
“So. Spirits look like animals?”
“Yes. And plants and humans, if we choose. Any living thing, we may become.”
“What do you look like when you are human? Will you show me?”
“Someday, I am sure,” Arlo replied. “But not tonight. Rest.”
And that night, as Cordelia surrendered to the blackness of sleep, she experienced the utmost peace…
Cordelia’s eyes opened.
Her brow furrowed at the brightness that flared up so vibrantly in the night. It had been so long ago since she had met Arlo, her dear friend. She would never forget that night, the kindness he had shown her, nor the wisdom he would bring in the years that followed.
But the memories of before had not faded either. She still felt the burn on her back, the cold, the exhaustion, the fear.
But she still felt regret now, many years later, as she stood at the edge of the mountain, watching Utura burn.
A familiar hand rested on her shoulder.
“They chose this.”
Cordelia’s voice was ice.