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Epithet of the Muses

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completed chapter two [10 Nov 2004|07:25pm]

[ mood | melancholy ]

Novel Chapter 2

“Are you okay? Can you hear me?” said a male voice from somewhere. Erika opened her eyes and suddenly became aware that she was lying flat on the cool earth, face-up, squinting into beams of sunlight that were filtered through layers and layers of mist and treetops.
“I… I’m okay,” she said, propping herself up and glancing around for the owner of the voice. “Who are you?” she asked, looking into the dark brown eyes of an incredibly handsome boy who looked about seventeen.
“I’m Kadin,” he replied tersely, with brown-black locks surrounding his powerful brown eyes.
“Oh hi, um, Kadin… where am I?” Erika said, sounding more than a little stupid.
“About nineteen sylahs from East Hansha.”
Erika thought she must have banged her head on the ground a little too hard.
The boy nodded slowly; it looked like he was wondering what was wrong with her.
Just then, the memory of Friday night came pouring back. Why was she in the middle of a forest instead of back in her room? What had happened when she had touched the glowing mirror? A million questions swarmed in her mind at once.
“W-what day is it?” she stammered.
“5th of Lenarae.”
“What’s the next thing you need to know? Your name?”
Erika glared at him, her opinion of Kadin taking a sharp downturn. “No thanks, I already know that.”
“Care to tell me?”
“Not really.”
“Suit yourself,” he said, shrugging, and turned to walk away.
“No—wait—I’m Erika. And I need to get to a telephone fast so I can call my grandparents, and---”
Now it was Kadin’s turn to give her a blank look. “A tell-phone? Is that a Somnian thing?”
Erika heaved a huge sigh. “I have no idea what the hell you’re talking about---“
“You’re telling me,” Kadin retorted.
“Whatever. Just give me a hand,” Erika said, trying to get up. Kadin’s cool, distant eyes ignored her. “What’s your prob---” he began, but his tone changed abruptly when he noticed the wound on the side of her leg, which trickled a stream of warm blood. Erika had just noticed it too.
“How did you get injured?” he asked, his voice softer.
“I don’t know,” Erika replied as he bent down to examine her leg. ““No Florse ink in there, so this shouldn’t be too hard to patch up. I know someone who can fix it in no time.”
He turned and pointed into the woods. “Follow me down that route if you want some help.”
Erika considered her options. She could wander in this unfamiliar forest until she starved or bled to death, or she could swallow her pride and accept his offer to help her.
She stood up and limped after him.
“It’s not too far from here,” Kadin said encouragingly. Erika nodded and contemplated his personality, a little suspicious. Why was he so sarcastic one second and so friendly the next? And why was he dressed so strangely? His clothes looked like they had been torn out of the Middle Ages. A sword with a silver hilt engraved with a fancy letter “A” dangled casually from a strap on his right hip, and long black gloves stretched from his knuckles to his elbow.
Erika had been so caught up in observing his strange attire that she had barely even noticed that this was no ordinary forest. It seemed to be quite average at first glance, but when she looked more closely at the trees, she noticed that they had grayish bark and very large leaves that flopped from the branches like elephant ears. She also noticed a paper-thin layer of shiny dust blanketing everything, as if tons of mica had been ground up and scattered everywhere to give the place an eerie shimmer.
Up ahead, Erika could make out the outline of a house through an unknottable tangle of trees. As she got closer, she saw that there was actually a group of houses strung together, one next to the other. They were very simplistic, one-floored wooden dwellings (she estimated that there was only four rooms in each house), and she was half-afraid that one would cave in when she stepped inside.
“It’s the first house,” Kadin said, tapping on the front door.
After a minute, a female voice came from inside: “Nal unlin?”
Erika guessed it meant, “Who is it?”
“It’s just me, your grandson,” Kadin replied.
The door creaked open, and the old lady who let Kadin in looked surprised to see Erika there too.
“Kadin, you did not telling me you invited a guest,” she said softly in English. “Our house has need of cleaning first.”
“But I had to, she needs care,” Kadin said, pointing to Erika’s leg.
“Aieeee! Come to sit down, Despina, this is urgency!” said the old woman, horrified by the wound. Erika walked in and sat on one of the two wooden rocking chairs in the room as the old woman left to gather supplies to clean out the gash. She returned with a sack of herbs and a hot wash cloth and proceeded to rub vigorously on the wound. A pang of pain hit Erika as the dried blood that was caked on her leg was removed, reopening the injury.
“I must clean it out,” the woman said apologetically. Once it was clean of dirt, Kadin explained that she would put some antibacterial herbs on the area and bind it shut tightly with a bandage. Erika waited patiently through the process, grateful that the old lady was so kind. She could certainly see the resemblance between Kadin and his grandmother. Her hair was completely grey and plaited in a long thin braid that went down to her hips, and she had high cheekbones and deep brown eyes like Kadin’s. She wore a brown skirt made of a thick fabric that flowed down to her feet, and on top she wore a cream-colored poncho embroidered with green ivy leaves over a puffy white blouse.
“Thank you so much for your help,” Erika said, feeling like she owed something to the woman.
“Ah, not problem! You are welcome, and now you rest,” she said.
“But I still don’t know where I am,” Erika insisted. Kadin rolled his eyes. “I told you already, Despina, we’re seventeen sylahs from East Hansha!”
“My name is Erika, not whatever you called me… and what’s a sylah? Where’s East Hansha? Where’s Lonely Oak Acres from here?”
Kadin and his grandmother shot each other quizzical stares.
“Maybe my husband heard of this place,” she said, and went to get him. While she was gone, Kadin watched Erika suspiciously. “Exactly where are you from, anyway?” he asked.
“Lonely Oak Acres. I—I was just fiddling in my room with this mirror and key, and all of a sudden I ended up in the middle of nowhere. It doesn’t even feel like I’m on Earth anymore,” she said.
“Earth?!” Kadin repeated in shock. “You’re from Earth?”
Erika was beginning to think this was all either a convincing dream or a very bad joke.
“Are you pranking me? Of course I’m from Earth. This IS Earth!” she exclaimed, then added meekly, “Isn’t it?”
Kadin was still wide-eyed. “This isn’t Earth. This is Ariso,” he said quietly.
Erika closed her eyes and took a deep breath. Any minute now, I’ll wake up in my bed at home and laugh at this crazy dream...

“Are you the mysterious girl my wife told me about?” said an old man’s voice from behind her, making Erika jump. This must be the old woman’s husband. “Yes, I’m—“
“Pleased to meet you, Erika,” interrupted the old man happily. “Just call me Alden. And my wife’s name is Kynthia, in case she didn’t already tell you.”
He had a jolly air to him, and his bright blue eyes glittered with enthusiasm. He had a gray-white goatee and a halo of white hair matting his head.
“She claims to be from Earth,” Kadin said skeptically.
“Does she now?” Alden asked, eyebrows raised. “Well, I know just how we can find out if she really is from Earth.” He said something to Kynthia in another language, and she quickly left the room and returned with a packet of papers. Each page had a detailed sketch on it.
“Now,” Alden explained, “All you have to do is tell me if you can identify what’s on the pages,” he said.
The first picture he showed her was of a giraffe.
“That’s a giraffe,” Erika said, wondering if that was the answer he wanted to hear. Maybe there was a pattern in the giraffe’s spots she was supposed to be describing, or maybe she was supposed to say the giraffe’s scientific name… She should have studied her Latin more at home!
“That’s correct,” Alden said. Erika sighed with relief.
“How about this one?” he asked.
“A cactus,” Erika said plainly.
Next, he showed her a coconut, then a CD-ROM, then a pearl necklace, and then a few types of currency. When he showed her a picture of a Canadian dollar, he looked surprised to hear her answer. “So that’s what it’s called,” Alden said. “A looney… how peculiar! I always wondered what that was.”
Kadin gave him an odd look. “You’re supposed to be testing her, not the other way around.”
“I know, I know…” Alden replied, still fascinated.
Erika was getting a bit fed up with this. What was a series of random pictures supposed to accomplish, anyway? She didn’t know what to make of this unusual interrogation.
“You’re all set,” Alden said hastily, noticing Erika’s frustrated expression. “We believe you.”
Erika smiled a little. “Er… thanks, I guess.”
Kynthia and Alden flashed each other a serious glance.
“This is indeed strange,” Alden finally said. “If anyone finds out that you’re from the Outer Realm, things could get tricky. It’s best you keep a low profile. Kynthia will find some more—er—Speculian clothes to wear.”
“Speculian?” Erika repeated curiously.
“Ah---that’s right, you know nothing about this place. We might as well start from the beginning, then.”
He motioned to Kadin. “Get a few books off the banned books’ shelf. We’re going to give Erika here a history lesson.”
She couldn’t help feeling a little surprised. Banned books? Were these people criminals?
“We’ll explain in a minute,” Alden said, grinning slightly when he noticed Erika’s confusion.
Kadin returned carrying a few large, heavy books with worn fabric covers, and one of them, a broad blue one, had torn pages that stuck out at odd angles. Alden took the books and looked left and right suspiciously before saying in a hoarse whisper, “Do not repeat the contents of these books to anyone, understand? They’re strictly banned by the government.”
It took a moment for the enormity of the statement to sink in. Erika finally nodded, wondering what could be so subversive about the books.
“Instead of reading them to you, I’ll let you keep them a few days so you can read them yourself. You’ll be here for a while, anyway, until we can find a way to get you back.”
He yawned. “For now, however, Kadin will be more than happy to answer your questions. As for me, I direly need a nap…” He stood up and strode away, and Kynthia clicked her tongue. “That rogue--- ‘tis no way to treat a guest!”
“No offense taken, don’t worry,” Erika said quickly.
“Good. Let me know if you has need of me, Despina,” she said. “I will be in the, um…” She paused, trying to remember the word.
“Garden,” Kadin finished for her.
“Yes, yes… the garden.” She ambled away to her business, leaving Kadin and Erika alone again. Erika wished Kynthia would stay, mostly because Kadin seemed much less sour when she was around.
“So…” Erika began awkwardly. “How about starting with something basic?”
“Like your name, for example?” Kadin teased.
“I already told you, I know my name!”
“Fine. Let’s start with some geography, then,” he announced, speaking with such an authoritative air that Erika wondered if he would quiz her afterwards.
“First off, we’re in Ariso. In relation to Earth, it’s what you’d call a parallel universe, I suppose,” Kadin explained, pointing to a circular diagram in one of the banned books.
“Ariso is divided into three principal nations,” he continued. “Somnium, Speculum, and Aterium. They’re all at war with each other now, but it wasn’t like that before. There’s also one neutral territory called Hansha. It’s basically this palace located at the area where the three nations’ boundaries meet.”
He pointed out the boundaries on the old decaying book map. “Got this so far?”
“I think so,” Erika replied. “So, what nation are we in right now?”
“We’re in Speculum,” he said.
“Okay, continue.”
“In Hansha, there’s the residence of the Grand Councilman. That place, called Hansha Palace, was originally built by the admirers of a former young queen. While only twelve at the time she was chosen to rule, she had the mind of someone twice her age, and she also happened to be my cousin.”
“Your cousin was the queen? That’s amazing!” Erika said.
“Not amazing,” Kadin said, his eyes seeming even colder. “She was assassinated.”
Erika felt like a rock had just crashed down hard in her stomach. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to—“
“It’s okay. It was a long time ago, almost fourteen years, and I was really young at the time. You look a lot like she did, though, from what I’ve seen of her in paintings. Maybe that’s why Kynthia took such a great liking to you at first glance.”
“Maybe,” Erika said quietly. She felt a pang of compassion for Kynthia and Alden, trying to understand the pain of losing a grandchild.
“Back to geography,” Kadin said, waking Erika abruptly from her somber contemplation. “Each of the three nations I told you about---Somnium, Speculum, and Aterium---have their own language and traditions. Each country also has its own unique landscape. Somnium, also called the Dream Realm, is a barren strip of land with a constant mist and frequent storms. And trust me, you don’t want to be in the middle of a Somnian storm. As for Speculum, it looks a lot like Earth would, at least from what I’ve heard about Earth. It’s nicknamed the Reflection Realm ‘cause everything’s got this sort of shining quality to it. Maybe you noticed that too.”
“I did, actually,” Erika remarked, remembering the glittering tree bark. “What about Aterium? What’s unique about that nation?”
“Aterium is nicknamed the Shadow Realm and rightfully so, since it’s all dark and covered almost entirely in shadow.”
Erika shivered slightly when he said that but Kadin didn’t seem to notice.
“There’s one more thing you need to know about the nations,” he said, deep in thought. “Ariso has one intrinsic difference with the Outer Realm that you might find hard to accept. In the Outer Realm—which is what Ariseans call Earth--- there’s a huge distinction between mind and matter, but in Ariso, that’s not really the case. Here, the distinction is… well, blurry at best.”
“Less of a distinction between mind and matter? What’s that supposed to mean?”
“You’ll find out only with experience, because it’s not something I can really teach you about. I guess I can give you an example, though.”
He thought about it for a minute.
“For instance, people can have powers here that aren’t possible for people born in the Outer Realm.”
“Powers? Like what? Telepathic ones?”
“It depends on where you’re born. People born in Somnium have different powers than, say, people born in Aterium. I was born in Aterium, so I have the powers of a Shadow-born.”
“What can you do?” Erika asked, her mind brimming with curiosity.
“There’s no point in telling you when I can---” he paused dramatically, “---show you.”
“Show me,” Erika dared him.
“Alright then. Watch closely,” he added. At first she wondered what she was supposed to be seeing, and then she noticed it. Kadin’s body was slowly disappearing, camouflaging into the background until his body had become almost invisible except for the faintest gray outline. She could hear Kadin laugh as she gasped.
“Impressive, eh?”
“Yeah,” Erika said, awestruck. “Can you do anything else?”
“That’s not what’s important. Right now, we need to focus on your history reading.”
There he goes again, being all authoritative, Erika thought bitterly, unsure of why she was so bothered by his tone. Even though he was older than her, she felt strangely irritated by his authority---almost as if he had once been her younger brother.
“Who’s being authoritative?” said a female voice from behind her, making Erika jump.
“It’s just me-- no worries, no worries!” added the female voice soothingly. “I suppose Kadin didn’t mention that Speculians can read minds, did he?”
“I didn’t get to that part yet,” Kadin said. “She’s a little slow on the uptake…”
“Oh, Kadin, don’t be so harsh on her! You’re so suspicious of everyone,”
“Yeah well, it’s not my fault this girl doesn’t even know her own name…”
“I know my name, for crying out loud!” Erika interjected, turning around to see who it was defending her. It was a girl who looked about the same age as Erika.
“You are… Despina Erika, correct?” said the girl brightly. Erika noticed that she was wearing a dazzling purple cloak and had cascading blond locks that fell two inches past her shoulders, framing a pair of deep teal eyes.
“Yeah… what’s yours?”
“Teal,” she said, smiling, “for obvious reasons.”
Her bright clothes and cheerful demeanor contrasted sharply with Kadin’s dark clothes and grim melancholy. His expression betrayed a note of annoyance with her, so Erika thought she would relieve the tension with a question.
“Kadin, why does everyone keep calling me Despina?”
“Despina means Lady, so young Arisean women are usually called Despina-something. It’s our rule of etiquette.”
“Young men are generally called Despin-something,” Teal added, “but it’s kind of old-fashioned, so guys prefer to be called just by their first names.”
Erika nodded, hoping there weren’t many other rules she had to memorize.
“One more thing,” said Kadin. “Older women are addressed as Neryssa before their first name. It’s a sign of respect. Older men, however, are called Nirellus before their first names.”
“So… you would be Despina Teal,” Erika mused aloud to Teal, “And Kadin would just be Kadin, and his grandmother would be Nirellus Kynthia, and his grandfather would be, er… Neryssa Alden?”
Teal burst out laughing so hard that Kadin jumped a foot in the air. “Calm down, you maniac!” he exclaimed, but his words were lost amid Teal’s hysterics.
“You got it backwards on the second part,” Kadin explained, visibly annoyed. Erika wasn’t sure if it was her mistake he was annoyed with or Teal’s high-pitched fits of laughter.
“It’s supposed to be Nirellus Alden and Neryssa Kynthia,” he continued. “Otherwise it’s like calling Alden an old lady or something…”
“Yes, yes,” Teal agreed, her rose cheeks beginning to return to their normal color. “Best not to make that mistake!”
“So…” Kadin said, looking at Teal in such a way that it reminded Erika of someone trying very hard not to throw up. “What brings you here?”
Teal, blissfully unaware of Kadin’s expression, plopped a large maroon drawstring bag on the floor. “I came to deliver Erika’s new clothes.”
She looked on as Erika fingered the luxurious folds of the indigo-colored cloak that was in the bag.
“I thought you might prefer my extra cloak more than some of Neryssa Kynthia’s old clothes, which are quite old-fashioned. Besides, I’m a little short for it, but it’ll fit you perfectly.”
“Thank you,” Erika said. “This is beautiful.”
Erika slipped the cloak over her clothes and admired the stunning radiance of the fabric.
“This material isn’t like anything I’ve ever seen,” Erika mused.
“That’s because it’s made from a special Arisean plant called sorrilum. Sorrilum itself is an ugly, thorny shrub, but when its tiny buds bloom, these fibers can be extracted from the flowers’ delicate, gossamer petals.”
“Teal probably crafted the cloak herself, too,” Kadin remarked. “She works in my grandparents’ gardens, cultivating plants and spinning fabric.”
“Really?” Erika asked.
“Yes,” Teal replied. “It’s hard work, though.”
“Everything here is hard work, especially since any sort of advanced technology is banned by the Grand Councilman. Even schools are banned,” Kadin said quietly.
“How does anyone learn anything?”
“Apprenticeships,” Kadin replied.
“For example, I’m a botany apprentice,” Teal elaborated.
“I used to be a fencing apprentice, and a very talented one at that. But before my Fencing Master died—food poisoning, people think---and he taught me all the remaining skills so I could take his place. I’m now Ariso’s fencing master,” Kadin stated proudly.
“And he never lets anyone forget it,” Teal added.
Kadin sighed. “Well, I actually shouldn’t be talking about it much, because the Councilman is very suspicious of masters of fencing and other combative arts. Not that we’d ever use any of them against him,” he said with a glint in his eye.
“Of course you already have, along with that rebel of a woman… what’s her name again? Ah, that’s right; Ophyra…”
“Sometimes it’s necessary to stand up for what you believe in,” Kadin declared. “And if I and Ophyra are the only ones who will do it, then so be it.” There was a tone of finality in his voice that told Teal there would be no use in arguing.
Erika, however, was still confused about something. “Who exactly is Ophyra?”
“His girlfriend,” Teal answered for him. “She’s a lot like he is—black hair, somber, gothic, revolutionary. She’s a lot quieter and a lot less cynical, though.”
“Thank goodness for that,” Erika said, and she and Teal stifled their laughter.
“Stop distracting us from the lesson,” Kadin said, ushering Teal out of the room and through the back door of the dwelling. “Don’t you have some watering to do?”
Teal flashed one last smile towards Erika before walking off into the garden.

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