Nala ran up the side of the Valley, taking the steps two at a time. She ignored the smell of smoke and the chanting from the Circle of Isnor. Her bare feet sent plumes of dust into the air. Koll was atop the peak, as she knew he would be. He sat with his back against a newly sprouted tree with black bark and violet leaves. He wore a mask in the likeness of a bird, the beak carved of bone with deep red feathers.
Koll’s beak was pointed to the moon. He was crushing the stars between his hands.
“Koll, it’s time.”
Nala sat beside him. “You don’t have to go.”
“I do. What else could I do?”
“Something else. I don’t know what. Just something else.”
“Father would never allow it,” Koll said.
“What could Father do? What would Father do?”
“You know what he would do, Nala.”
They were silent for a time. Looking up at the stars, and listening to the singing from below. The Night Song reverberated through the Valley; it could be heard from every hovel, every hut. The Night Song was above them: the stars and the moon sang, the earth, the trees, the water, and the stone—they were all a part of the Song.
“I don’t want you to go,” Nala said.
“You could come with me.”
“I couldn’t, I can’t.”
“Why, what would Father do to you?”
Nala shook her head. “I’m not sure anymore.”
“Do you think I can do it? Kill a Stone Eater?”
Nala’s breath caught. No, she thought. Look what it did to Kohn.
Smoke billowed toward the sky from behind. “It’s time for you to go,” Nala said.
Koll rose. “Will you walk with me?”
Nala shook her head.
She listened as her brother made his way down the stairs and back into the Valley. Be careful, Koll, things are not how we remember them. I see a hint of madness in the Starsingers that was not there before.
Koll made his way down the age worn steps to the Circle of Isnor. He passed from platform to platform, ignoring the faces staring at him from hovels and huts. None of the Valley Singers came to greet him; none offered words to ease his mind. He was to go on the Final Hunt and kill a Stone Eater, and few expected him to return.
The mask was restricting, and the leather straps bit into the skin of his scalp. It was part of the ritual: the fledgling chick, an infant, was leaving the tribe to return a man. A Moonwarden.
He could smell the smoke through the mask. It scratched at the back of his throat. The Great Pyre burned and roared aflame, the smoke billowing thick into the sky. The Starsingers sang, their voices echoing through the Valley. Among those voices was his father’s, but he could not make it out. They sounded as one. A singular voice calling him closer to his task.
The Great Pyre sat atop a large outcropping of rock in the center of the Valley. It rose nearly to the Valley’s peak. Upon this outcropping was the Circle of Isnor, where the homes of the Starsingers and the Moonwarden resided. They were above all the rest, able to look down upon the others from their huts. Koll made his way up the stone stair, feeling the heat from the Pyre.
The flame was larger than a man, larger than all those who knelt around it. Six Starsingers wearing cloaks made from beasts slain in their youth. At the center, beyond the flame, knelt Kaz, Koll’s father.
The Starsingers looked beastly in the firelight, their faces hidden by masks made from the heads of animals they had slain. Koll knelt before them and waited for their singsong prayers to end. When there was silence, Koll sang. He sang the Songs of stars, of night and moon, he sang odes of old and prayers of new. The flames danced to his voice, wavering in the wind. The blackness of the sky was absolute as the flames roared higher.
Koll’s Song ended, and his father beckoned him nearer. The Moonwarden looked fearsome in his Stone Eater’s hide; the mask had six eyes, and the flesh was covered in claw-like quills. Koll knelt before him. His father gathered a handful of ash from the fire and pressed a blunted bone into it. Kaz tore away Koll’s mask and hurled it into the flames. He then drew the ash along Koll’s face.
“You are a singer of the sands, a speaker to the moon, a whisperer to the world.” Kaz intoned the words and the Starsingers echoed them.
“I sing to the sand,” Koll intoned, “I speak to the moon, I whisper to the world.”
Koll focused his mind, calling on his gift. He saw every bead of ash and sand, every grain rolling in his father’s hand. Koll called to them. He sang to the earth, prayed to the Night Song, and whispered to the world. He felt a weight pressing against his chest, his shoulders, and then his body felt as though it were being simultaneously crushed and torn apart. He opened his eyes. Sand and ash hovered in the air before him, frozen in time, still as it was never meant to be.
The Starsingers sang louder. Kaz’s expression was unreadable beneath his mask. He waited for the Song to end, waited for Koll to release the earth from his Song.
And then silence. Koll let the sand fall to the ground; it felt as though a weight was lifted from his shoulders. Kaz lowered his staff, Firemaker, its coppery metal gleaming in the firelight. Kaz sang a final song, and at the conclusion, Firemaker exploded in a beam of light, colliding with the Pyre, making the flames roar higher and hotter than before.
Fey, the youngest of the Starsingers, rose and draped a rognaw cloak around Koll’s shoulders. It was a simple garb of dark brown, and signified that Koll was to enter the forest humble and return a Moonwarden.
His father pressed Firemaker to Koll’s chest and lowered his head in a final, silent prayer.
Koll rose from his place, turned his back on the Pyre, and made his way down the stone steps. It was time to begin the hunt.
Solif and Kohn waited near the Valley’s entrance, their drogons snorting and stomping. Earthshaker whined as Koll approached, and Kohn let go of the beast’s reins so it could run to Koll. The drogon nuzzled Koll with its snout, leaving streaks of moisture along Koll’s cheek. The drogons were large but squat, their shoulders reaching the top of a man’s head.
Solif jovially greeted Koll with a pat on the back. “Time to find your manhood,” he whispered.
Kohn remained silent. His stomach churned as he looked into his brother’s eye, the grotesque visage. Kohn was tall and strong, but his skin was a mess of gnarled flesh. While he'd once shared the same blue-black hair as his sister and mother, nothing but a twisted scar remained. It spiraled down one side of his face, where he was missing an eye and half his nose. Two fingers had been stolen from his left hand.
Kohn handed Koll a stone hatchet. The stone blade had been meticulously engraved with the flames of the Valley Singers. A braided length of blue-black hair hung from the solid, black wood handle. This was a gift from his brother, but since his brother could not bind the gift with his own hair, it was sealed with the essence of their sister. It was truly a gift from both Kohn and Nala.
Kohn nodded, and then mounted his drogon. Koll wished his brother had the words to say he was proud or even jealous. Anything. The way his older brother so rarely spoke pained Koll. His memories of a stern but loving brother had vanished the day Kohn returned from the hunt.
How could someone as strong as Kohn fall to a Stone Eater? And how am I to succeed in his place?
Koll mounted Earthshaker and followed behind the others. They left the Valley and entered the smaller cliff faces that surrounded their home. The cliffs looked like rivers frozen in time: waves of orange pierced the red stones, and a few vines of violet root grew here and there. Bone spears with rognaw hides lined the cliffs, each bearing the five-pronged flame of the Singers.
Koll could still hear the chanting, and the smell of ash lingered in his nostrils. Sound from the Great Pyre was carried through the Valley to the cliffs. He remembered sitting at the edge of the Valley, waiting to hear the sound of Kohn’s drogon stomping home. Koll wondered if Nala would listen for the sound of his return.
A breeze carried the forest’s scent, and Koll began to yearn to be away from the Valley’s stone. It was not long before the forest came into sight, trees waving in the wind, the red sand fading into blue grass. Koll felt a sense of freedom fill him. He had been to the forest before, but never as deep as they were going. Never far enough to meet a Stone Eater. Koll inhaled, wishing Nala were with him. She would have liked this.
Nala watched as Koll disappeared into the cliffs. Protect him Kohn. You promised you would. She brushed blue-black hair from her face, and stared up at the moon. The sound of the Starsinger’s chanting was quieting; the ceremony would be over soon. Once the Pyre had burned out, it would be rebuilt and kept alight until Koll’s return.
Father, why have you sent Koll to die? The Starsingers were not how she remembered them. She felt fear whenever they chanted, and her stomach churned when she breathed in the smell of smoke. Too often she thought it was laced with the scent of burning meat when there was none.
She could make out swirling gray clouds in the distance, even in the darkness of the night. Rain would come, but the price had been too high.
There had never been a sacrifice before, and she could not make sense of it. Gia was gone, and Nala had done nothing. I watched her burn.
What hurt the most was not her father’s indifference, but Yohon’s. Yohon, the kindest of all the Starsingers, had watched. He’d hid his face behind his beast mask and did nothing to stop the nightmare. Yohon, the one who’d cradled a young Nala on his knee and had sung Songs of the moon and the stars. How could any of them just watch? Gia was gone, and Nala hadn’t done anything either. I watched her burn.
And now the rain, a reward for their butchery. There is madness here, eating us from the inside.
Nala closed her eyes and pressed her hands to her face. She tried to drive away those thoughts, to pretend that for a moment all was right in the world. When she opened them, she was looking toward the Origin, a glowing light in the south. It hung over forest and jagged black mountains like a star ready to touch distant peaks.
You weren’t watching over Gia. Are you really watching over any of us?
Footfalls sounded behind her. Nala turned to see Fey crouching on a nearby step, her golden hair ruffled from the pilmor mask at her neck. Fey was the youngest Starsinger, just past her twentieth year. Nala was her senior, but the Starsingers were meant to have absolute authority despite age.
“Yohon wants you to sing. He says it’s not right for you to let your brother go without prayer.”
“I doubt it will make a difference,” Nala said.
“Come, it is for your brother. Not us, not the Night Song, and not your father.”
Nala sighed as she stood. She started following Fey down the steps, but paused, turning. She looked toward the forest, and for a moment she thought she saw Koll atop his drogon riding into the night.
Where fire is sacred and the stars sing, a tribe lives in a secluded valley. Among this tribe are those given the first gift, the power to move earth and stone with their minds. Koll is one with this gift, he must leave the Valley to hunt a Stone Eater and take his father's place as the Moonwarden. No one expects him to return.
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