The cranes descended from the sky in droves of white. Lana watched the birds swoop from the cloudless blue to the clearing in a massive sheet. The wind from the birds’ descent whipped her dress out behind her like a white beacon of hope in this desolate place. All around the clearing, black scars of fire ruined the trees, their limbs bare, branches broken. The wind blew Lana’s ebony hair into her eyes, but she didn’t move to sweep it away. Her gray eyes honed in on the sky, the birds, her mission. The overwhelming aroma of smoke made her breath come in shallow pants. She could taste fire’s angry wife on her tongue and feel her clawing her way down Lana’s throat with each new breath.
She felt someone watching her from the tree line behind her, but she made no move to stop her work or look back to see who followed her to this place. She knew who it was.
Mentally, she double checked her weapons—two blades at her thighs, beneath her outer skirt, which split down the front at the center; a dagger strapped to her left calf; a small knife at her right ankle—more than enough weapons to defend herself against him. Besides, she had her Ero, her power.
Lana raised her hands toward the heavens, beckoning to the white birds as she whispered a chant, calling them to her. The sun loomed low, threatening to disappear over the ridge, but Lana knew she still had time. The purple peaks of the mountains spiked through the sky that quickly turned from pink to a deep orange. Still, Lana did not hurry.
She walked forward at a measured pace, stepping carefully on the tall grass so she wouldn’t fall on the uneven earth below. The fire that left this landscape so scorched and beaten, had curiously left this clearing untouched as if a dome of invisible protection shielded it from the roaring inferno that swept the countryside only hours earlier. Smoke still billowed along the ridge to Lana’s left and swept through the valley to her right, hanging in thick clouds of gray to mask the destruction of Lana’s city beyond.
As she left the city earlier this morning as the flames retreated from the walls of Sithmara, people were screaming in the streets, their homes fell in red embers around them as the fire swept through. Her fellow people ran, but there was nowhere to run. The fire had already sheathed the entire city in flame.
Lana did not have time before the disaster struck to save Sithmara, but she acted quickly once the City Guard made the alarm call. She rushed to Plaza Lato where she knew people would turn for shelter. The inner sanctum of the city housed the Warrior’s Garden and Sithmara Cathedral as well as Worin Castle, home to Sithmara’s reigning government, the king and queen of the centuries long Worin dynasty.
Drawing all her power to her, Lana first put her hands to her lips, then, standing at the gates, shot her hands up and out, releasing her Ero out over the inner sanctum, whispering inaudibly into the wind. She knew she was only strong enough for this small amount of effort and she knew it would have to be enough to at least save her people’s lives, if she couldn’t save their homes, until she could call upon assistance.
Lana felt her power rip through her body like a striking snake. Goose flesh prickled her arms and heat brought color to her pale cheeks as her Ero impacted with the still air, creating a zephyr both forward and behind her. Lana’s long hair blew back as if she were standing before a wind tunnel and she knew that if anyone saw her this moment, she was dead.
For the moment, she still lived and her singular purpose was to complete her duty before the sun set. The birds whirled around her in flight and came to rest in the clearing around where she stood. Lana in white. Hundreds and hundreds of white cranes calling back to Lana’s chant, answering her intensity.
The cranes made thirty-three perfect circles around Lana, stretching out to the trees in all directions. Now, all the birds had landed and Lana’s arms rested at her sides. Her lips stilled. Her whispers ceased. Even the cranes fell silent. From a small pouch at her hip, Lana drew a handful of white powder. She bent, letting the salt powder ooze from her fingers and make a perfect line on the ground where she dampened down the grass. She turned until the powder made a circle just inside the innermost circle of cranes, closing her inside.
First, she felt the separation in the air at the border of the clearing. Then, all at once, the cranes screamed. Lana spun toward the tree line of the ridge. The arrow had just left his bow. He stood at the cusp of the oak grove. His bow still poised at the ready, he stood with his feet apart in the black uniform of the Warriors: knee-high boots, black pants with a fitted waistcoat and black leather greaves at his forearms. His brown hair, cropped in the Warrior tradition, fell around his face at the forehead and cheekbones. Lana sensed his name to be Oren.
Lana’s right hand shot up and she pushed back against the air with her power, causing the wind to pick up momentum toward her assailant and his flung arrow. Halfway across the clearing, the arrow shook in flight as it connected with the wind and then shattered in mid-air as it slammed into her Ero.
Lana saw Oren retreat behind a tree and escape the force of her blow. Quickly, she glanced behind her to check the disappearing sun’s progress behind the mountain. Seeing that she had little time, but needing the safety of her circle to complete her task here, she drew her hands in front of her, palms together, then separated them to each side. The cranes parted for her and she ran, with her skirts sailing behind her, toward Oren in the oak grove.
She would finish it.
Oren did not fear Lana’s approach. He emerged from behind the tree, intent on the mission given to him by his father, Lana was certain. For she knew Oren by his reputation to be a noble man who would not hunt down a woman and shoot her in the back unless he had been specifically ordered to do so.
Lana hadn’t planned on hand-to-hand combat, but once she reached ten paces from Oren, she felt a strong vibrational pull toward him. She wondered if he felt it, too. The feeling confounded her and got in the way of her single-minded mission to kill this man so she could get on with her work before it was too late. She didn’t want to necessarily kill him, for she valued life above all things, but her work today was for the survival of the entire city, not just one man.
Lana flew at him with her right hand out, brandishing her power before her, expecting it to hit him square in the chest and fling him backwards. When it did not, she slammed into him with the force of her own body and had to rethink her strategy. Her Ero had not worked.
Did her Ero not work on this man? Why not, she wondered frantically, thinking of the retreating sun. She didn’t have time to look behind her because Oren clocked her across the face. Lana rolled to the side, flipped her outer skirt out of the way and unsheathed the two blades at her thighs, holding them in both hands as she drew herself back to her feet. Oren had gotten to his feet as well and drew his sword.
They faced each other for mere seconds before Lana charged forward. Time slipped away too quickly for her to wait. She guessed, without looking, that she had only ten minutes before the sun vanished and her window of opportunity to finish her work would be gone.
Five minutes to kill Oren; five minutes to unleash her power for the cranes.
As she lurched toward the warrior, she saw that he was raising his sword in readiness to strike. At the last second, Lana ducked down, slashing with her left blade at Oren’s right thigh, then with her right blade as she plummeted to the ground at his right ankle. She hit the ground, rolled and swept herself back to her feet to strike again. Oren dropped to his knees, left hand on his thigh, right hand still holding his sword.
Confusion covered his features as he stared at Lana. She knew he wondered how a woman could fight the way she could. He would be even more astonished to learn that her mother, Juliana, taught her everything she knew about combat. In fact, Juliana taught her everything about everything: combat, the work, her power, the way. Learning everything was necessary to protect the people of this valley her mother said. “And for your own survival. People will not understand you or the way,” Juliana often reminded Lana.
Oren rose full to his feet. He staggered forward and he and Lana locked blades. He had strength beyond that which Lana could match, but her Ero gave her added strength to help defend herself. She moved quickly, gracefully out of the way of his sword, advancing and retreating as he advanced and retreated. She sliced with her twin blades, cutting his arms, his chest. Oren seemed impervious to the pain these wounds must have inflicted, because he dove at her in response, a feral growl burgeoning up from deep in his throat.
Lana drew in a sharp breath as Oren’s sword point nearly sunk into her side, but instead caught the very edges of fabric of her tight-fitting dress, at her side, ripping the side apart, revealing her bare skin. She ignored it, deflecting his attack before he could damage her body.
The fight was lasting too long in Lana’s estimation. Her five minutes allotted to kill this man were far over and she was now using up her precious minutes to bestow her power upon the cranes. Oren presented a formidable enemy. He fought with an intensity that few Lana encountered before could match, besides Lana herself, and she whipped her blades against his sword so quickly that their path from one strategic move to the next became invisible.
Suddenly, Oren lunged forward with his right foot and flung his left leg out, kicking Lana square in the chest with his foot. Lana flew backwards, hitting the ground with a jolt. Her blades slickered out of her reach. She flopped over and began to crawl toward her closest one, when suddenly, she felt it. She was on her knees and she simply stopped and bowed her head. The impact of it washed through her body like an explosive river. She shuddered. She heard Oren stop behind her.
Lana didn’t need to look at the mountain to know that she had lost the sun.
“It is too late,” she said in a quiet voice, knowing Oren would hear her.
“Too late for what?” Oren responded in a deep baritone.
“To save our city.” Lana could not move. It was as if she were frozen to the spot where she kneeled. She put her chin to her chest, then raised it again, in reverence to her lost city.
“Speak to me,” Oren commanded. “You were to save our city by this…this…thing you were undertaking?”
“Yes.” Lana forced herself to rise to her feet and turned to face Oren. Her limbs felt wooden. She now moved with neither grace nor care. None of that mattered now. She had failed. “It is the way of my family,” she told Oren. Why should she be secretive with this man?
“My father said that you are a witch.”
“But you do not think so?” Lana asked.
“What does that mean? How were you to save our city? Our people?” Oren responded.
“Our family has the power to heal, to protect, to make whole again. I was in the process of doing just that when you came upon me here. But I needed the last vestiges of the sun in order to complete my process. Now it’s too late.” Lana continued speaking, telling him about how she had protected the inner sanctum, but that she had not been strong enough to save the entire city from destruction. She talked out of grief rather than necessity. Falling silent, Lana and Oren simply stared at one another across the small expanse between them. They stood not five paces from each other. Again, Lana felt the vibrational pull toward Oren that she could not explain, as if she needed to be closer to him. Curious, she took a tiny step toward him.
He mirrored her step back. Did he feel the connection as well and fear it?
Darkness engulfed the woods around them. Lana glanced to her left and saw the cranes in the meadow making their nests, waiting for her command. She blinked back the tears that threatened to spill over and couldn’t bear to release the birds quite yet. Her heart bled from her failure, but her mind had not completely gone numb from the shock of it. Still, she tried to work out a new way, any way, some other avenue of salvation, though she saw none.
She looked back to Oren and held out her hand to him in supplication, in surrender, in friendship. He stood immobile, but simply watched her as she moved slowly forward to stand before him. The vibrational pull she felt from five paces away now reverberated through her body like ripples on a lake. When they were locked in combat earlier, this intensity had felt like the rush of adrenaline and had urged her onward in the fight. Now, at peace, she let it flow through her until she finally could no longer resist reaching out to touch the bare skin of his chest. The feather touch sent a jolt through him, but he stood his ground, saying nothing. Lana laid her hand on the gaping wound her blade had inflicted across his upper chest. She released her Ero gently out to him, hoping it would work this time.
When she removed her hand, his wound vanished. The skin of his chest remained smooth and unbroken. Lana decided that her power to heal would work on Oren, but her Ero to harm would not. She had never found another person that had this anomaly to her power. There had to be a reason for it.
Oren finally looked down at his healed skin. When his gaze returned to Lana’s face, he asked, “What are you?”
Lana moved her hands to Oren’s other wounds and healed those in turn. She liked being this close to him. She could even feel his faint breath on her neck as she bent down to heal the deep cuts she had made to his thigh. It was then that Lana knew Oren felt the vibrational pull as intensely as she did because he grabbed her by the shoulders, pulled her to him and kissed her, a deep, long, intense kiss that shattered the world around them into nothingness and only the two of them remained. The fire was gone. The birds were gone. The destroyed city was gone. The forest was even gone. It was only Lana and Oren and they wrapped their arms around one another in an embrace so tight, so powerful that they shook together as one. Their united vibration seemed to sing, a music so beautiful that tears flowed down Lana’s cheeks unheeded. Oren brought his hands to Lana’s face, wiping away her tears as they kissed. He entwined his fingers in her dark hair at the base of her head, pressing her closer to him, deeper into the kiss.
Lana did not know how long their embrace lasted. For an eternity. For mere seconds. The length did not matter because in that time span, they became one, bonded together as a unified whole, two halves of the same vibrational force. When they finally parted, they still stood holding each other, faces only inches apart.
“What was that?” Oren asked, breathless.
“I’m not sure,” Lana admitted. “I’m glad I didn’t kill you.” Then, Lana noticed a small strip of light falling across Oren’s face. It illuminated his deep blue eyes and reminded her of the ancient goddess of the moon, Soreata.
Soreata, born from a blue star, had eyes as blue as the night sky, similar to Oren’s as the moon now shown down on them. Soreata, at her strongest when the moon shown full, protected the night and all of its inhabitants. Juliana once told Lana of a legend regarding the goddess of the moon that few other people remembered, but had been passed down through Lana’s family. Lana remembered it now because of Oren, standing in the half moonlight, drenched in the glow of moonbeams from Soreata’s grace.
In the legend, a night hunter sought to kill a beast that had been plaguing his village and killing livestock for many weeks. The beast had already taken out seven other hunters who had come to this forest to claim it—highly skilled and valiant warriors. This night hunter, the youngest son of the village chief, had set out this night in secret to avenge the death of his eldest brother. Nago, the young night hunter, was anything but a skilled warrior. He had only just begun his training to take his place as a warrior of the village because he had just passed his twelfth winter. Nago knew that his strength was not enough to overpower the beast, so he climbed a tree in the center of the forest where the other warriors had been killed and he knew the beast would show itself. He waited there for what seemed like hours, but it was just before midnight when he heard the sounds of movement below him. He perched himself on the branch, readied his sword and watched for the beast to pass by the tree.
The beast finally came into view. Walking on all fours, the beast owned the forest with the might of its massive girth, bodily strength and huge, horned head. Blood stained the fur along its expansive jowls. Its tongue flicked out of its mouth to capture remnants of the night’s feast.
As the beast passed just below him, Nago launched himself down out of the tree onto the beast’s back, driving his blade into its neck. The beast howled in rage, leaping up into the air, launching its head back and slamming its horns into Nago’s stomach, then throwing him to the ground. The beast ran a few feet, then stopped and fell forward on its front legs, crumpling to the ground, Nago’s sword still embedded in its neck.
Nago lay on the ground several feet away, his wounds bleeding into the earth around him. But his death meant nothing to him, for he had avenged his brother and saved his village. He closed his eyes against the pain in his stomach and waited for death to come.
Soreata, moved by Nago’s cleverness in killing the beast, came to him at midnight as his life waned. She administered a compound of rose bark and yarrow that staunched Nago’s bleeding and healed his wounds. Nago lived and went home to his village to tell his father that he had killed the beast and that Soreata, Goddess of the Moon, Protectress of the Night, had saved his life.
Lana blinked at Oren as realization sunk in that she still might be able to save the city with the help of the night goddess. “There still might be time,” she said.
“But the sun has set,” Oren replied.
“Midnight approaches,” Lana said. “We need to find yarrow and roses.”
“Everything is burned,” Oren protested.
“I can heal it.” Without wanting to, but needing haste in her new quest, she took a step away from Oren. Their hands stayed locked together. “Will you help me find the yarrow and roses?” she asked. “Quickly.”
Oren nodded. Then, he watched Lana as she picked up her blades and sheathed them in the holsters beneath her outer skirt and put her hands out to her sides as if feeling in the air for something invisible. Lana let loose her Ero, honing it to the degree of what she sought in the forest, knowing it would be rare in this part of the woods. She received no response close by and stretched her radius out further into the trees.
“Search behind me,” Lana commanded. “I can search here.” She motioned before her.
Oren left at once and Lana felt his vibrational essence recede behind her as he moved away into the deeper forest. After their embrace, their becoming one, she had a better understanding of his vibration and even though he was by now out of sight she still knew exactly where he was and that he knew the same of her.
Focus, Lana, she told herself. She stretched again, repositioning the radius of her Eros further out into the forest. Then she found it. Many, many kilometers from where she stood. She would never to able to get to the plants in time on foot and return to the cranes by midnight. Instead, she rushed to the meadow and kneeled next to a pair of cranes at the edge of the outer circle. She whispered a greeting to them as she brushed their feathers lovingly. The pair of cranes stood immediately. From the pouch at her waist, she pulled a small brown canvas bag. Spilling some of the bag’s contents onto her hand, she offered the grain to the birds. As they ate, Lana whispered to them. When they finished, the two birds called to one another once, then took flight, heading in the direction that Lana had located the plants she required.
Then, Lana turned toward the forest in the direction that Oren had gone, put out her hand, palm up and placed her face close to her upturned hand. She whispered his name, then said, “Come back. I found it,” and released her Ero to carry the message to Oren. He would hear her voice in the wind.
Lana felt Oren’s return before she saw him step through the trees. She had gravitated back to the center of the circles of cranes in the meadow and when their eyes locked, she beckoned him forward. The path still existed that Lana had made through the cranes to get to Oren what seemed like ages ago now, a lifetime ago. So much had changed in the span of a few hours.
Lana remembered Juliana speaking of long ago tales of her ancestors finding their eroslumen, their perfect match, their one true love, more transcendent than a soul mate. But, even to her mother, these were simply tales, myths, stories to be told to little children. Juliana never believed in the eroslumen stories, not in the way that she believed in her Ero and the way. When she told the stories of the way, there was passion and fervor in her voice, an intensity that grew out of knowing, out of personal experience and out of teaching these facts to pass them on to her daughter. But when Juliana told Lana the stories of the eroslumen, whimsy always dripped along the edges of her tongue and permeated the very fabric of the tale so that Lana, too, thought those stories to be myth, not based on reality. But now she knew differently. Her eroslumen stood before her now, gazing into her eyes with a love so potent that she thought she may lose her footing despite standing on firm earth. How had this happened? Why now after centuries of myth?
Lana did not have the answers, at least not yet.
* * *
The cranes began calling to each other, signaling the return of the hunting pair. Hours had passed while they flew the hundreds of miles over the vast forest in search of the yarrow and roses. The forest stretched for hundreds of square kilometers toward their neighbors to the east and Lana had sensed through her Ero that the entire forest had been ravaged by the fire. She guessed that someone or something in the east had precipitated the burning.
Midnight approached. Again, Lana felt time slipping away from her.
The two cranes swooped down from the east, coming to rest at Lana and Oren’s feet. Each bird held a burnt stem in its beak. Lana went to the female first and extracted the desiccated rose from her mouth. She smoothed the bird’s feathers with her free hand and patted the crane’s side with a loving touch. Holding the unrecognizable flower cupped in her hand so she wouldn’t break it, she released her power. Beginning with the very tip of the flower and oozing down the petals, the vibrant color inched the rose back toward life. Lana and Oren watched as black creeped toward brown and brown slowly blossomed into red. Even the small, brittle stem surged back to healthy bark in a slow resurgence. Once the transformation was complete, Lana handed the red rose to Oren.
“Amazing,” he said.
She turned quickly to the male crane standing patiently before her with the dead yarrow in his beak. Taking the brittle stem from his mouth, she repeated the loving pat to his feathers that she had given his mate and set to work immediately on the plant she now held. Only a fragile burnt stem absent of leaves or flowers, Lana focused her Ero on the yarrow, feeding life back through the battered plant. She saw immediate results. The blackened stem began to change color. What was scarred as dark as pitch turned first a deep olive, then a rich emerald color. Lana continued to let her power flow to the yarrow and suddenly tiny buds sprouted all along the fresh stem and slowly grew into skinny, spiky green leaves. Atop the stem, a larger bud emerged, transforming within seconds into a full cluster of tiny yellow flower petals.
Satisfied with her work, Lana turned to Oren. She handed him the yarrow as well and he looked at her with wide eyes. “All of that just to destroy them again,” Lana lamented.
Oren touched her cheek with his fingers.
“Now it begins,” Lana told him.
Oren leaned forward and kissed her lips with a lingering touch. They parted reluctantly.
Lana sighed and turned to the cranes. She called to them in a quiet voice, telling them to ready themselves. “It is time,” she told them. The cranes all called back to her, speaking in their distinctive, rich voices. They all stood and reformed their ranks in the thirty three perfect circles surrounding Lana. “We shall be one,” she said and fell silent. The cranes answered her, then they, too, were silent.
From her ankle holster, Lana withdrew her small knife. She took the rose back from Oren, letting her fingers linger on his hand to feel the connection to him that made her heart beat faster. But she couldn’t think about that now. She had to focus on her work, on the way. She needed all of her concentration. Using her small blade, she sliced four long strips of bark from the stem of the rose, placing one strip atop her powder circle on each of the four directions: north, south, east and west. Then she extracted the yarrow from Oren, careful not to touch him this time. Working from the top down, Lana slid the yarrow leaves off the stem between her pinched fingers until she held them all in her outstretched left hand. She handed the yarrow stem and flower back to Oren while she crushed the leaves in her palm, using her Ero to ground them up into small bits. The resulting yarrow bits, she sprinkled on top of the four strips of rose bark she had already placed in the circle. For good measure, she retrieved the flower and sprinkled the yellow petals around the circle as well.
Oren was left holding the rose and barren yarrow stem. Lana tucked the rose inside the outer pocket of his waistcoat and took the yarrow stem in her hand, closing her fingers around it. She released her Ero, opened her hand and nothing remained. She did not want any unnecessary energy within the circle. Oren was in the circle, but she felt his presence would assist her rather than hinder her because of their inexplicable connection, so she allowed him to remain.
With her back to Oren, Lana stood in the center of her now complete circle. She looked at the moon hanging full and heavy in the sky and began to whisper, “We are one, you and I. I give you what is mine. Together we will heal this land.” Her chant began at a slow pace, in a soft voice, but as she began to raise her arms out in front of her, her voice rose with them and her pace quickened. She no longer said the whole chant, but merely the words, “We are one,” in a calm, but compelling voice, calling the thirty three circles of cranes to join with her, be one with her.
The cranes stood perfectly still watching Lana, listening to her call to them. Lana chanted to them with a rhythmic urgency. Her arms continued to lift up and up until they were high above her head. She flattened her hands so that the backs were parallel with the ground, palms with the sky above. And she released her Ero, her very self to the cranes. The release felt like climbing a thousand mountains to Lana and if she had not been standing inside her prepared circle, she would not have the strength for it. In fact, after only a few moments, her strength began to wane. She feared she may not be able to finish before the work was complete. She could feel her shoulders sagging. Tears streamed down her cheeks as she continued her urgent chanting, “We are one. We are one. We are one.”
Finally, unable to stand, she dropped to her knees, but she fought to keep her Eros flowing to the cranes. She had to touch every single one of them. She must do this. She must succeed. There was no one else. Only she could save her city.
Suddenly, just as her arms began to shake above her head, she felt a touch at the small of her back.
His energy zoomed through her body like liquid fire giving her fresh stamina against the use of her Ero in such a powerful application. She now had the ability to stand once more. Her arms no longer shook. In fact, the release of her power to the cranes surged twice as fast. Lana felt strong and her Ero felt doubly so.
Through her power, she felt the cranes all receive her self into themselves. They were all now one. Her chanting ceased and when it did, the cranes answered her in a single uproarious call.
“Fly,” Lana commanded.
A thousand cranes lifted into the midnight sky, draping themselves over the ruined landscape. They flew in V formations across the forest, plains, cities—everywhere the fire touched. Every patch of grass, every scarred tree, every ruined house, every single living thing, every object that the cranes flew over began a transformation back toward life, just like the rose, just like the yarrow.
By dawn, it was as if the fire never existed.