The Sky's Embrace, Chapter 2: The Wind's Breath
The Goddess of the sky exhaled, and her divine breath caressed the young woman’s skin. On the breeze was the fragrance of flowers, freedom, and truth. Zephoni Featherheart inhaled the aroma happily. She lifted her face skyward, brushing back her bushel of dark hair, letting the sun warm her closed eyes.
She sighed in contentment as she basked in the gift of the moment.
Zephoni opened her eyes, revealing irises colored a lively shade of amethyst. It was the primary feature that marked her station, as one of the Goddess Lisema’s chosen acolytes. There was no questioning whom she served with one look into her eyes.
She turned her unique gaze onto the horizon. To the east, a gigantic divinity tree loomed over the nearby mountain range; its vast branches canvased the sky. Leagues beyond where the shade from its coverage ended, Zephoni could just see the ribbons of sunlight shine down.
Off in the hazy distance, another divinity tree stood monumental and strong.
Zephoni briefly allowed herself to indulge in the fantasy of sailing to the top of those branches someday. Maybe the admiralty of the Sailing Guild would one day see the merit of adventuring up to those vast unexplored vistas. She smiled at the thought. Her songs would echo across the sky on such a momentous journey.
She sighed inwardly. Such a fantasy was not likely. The Sailing Guild was much more concerned with the matters that transpired within their imagined borders. The benefits of such a journey were beyond the limits of their imaginations.
The wind shifted.
Zephoni froze. She lifted her head and sniffed cautiously. The new breeze carried a cold yet unmistakable stench. Smoke.
She stood up abruptly from where she lounged and stepped up to the edge of the platform, she called home on the ship. The Maiden’s Arrow, although the smallest cloudship she had ever had the honor to serve on, offered her amenities that even its larger counterparts could not. Namely, a wind berth, a specially designed platform built atop the cloudship’s primary mast. It was outfitted with a small roof, cot, and a little chest that were fixed to its deck. The wind berth served as her home and temple on the little ship. It allowed her to touch her Goddess’s realm in a way few other places could offer, granting her the perfect vantage point to observe Lisema’s sky unencumbered. It also gave a decent view of the main deck.
The ship below her appeared to be peaceful. The sailors were going about their tasks with the unhurried pace of routine.
Zephoni shook her head and sniffed the air again. The whiff of smoke was still present, but not substantial. If it wasn’t coming from the ship, then where was it originating? What did it mean?
The wind blew from the southeast. On the breeze, she heard a faint yet frantic whisper that no one save a Windsinger like her could hear.
She asked aloud, “Where?”
The wind gusted at Zephoni’s back, blowing a sliver of wood it caught past her to the southeast. She heard a single word whisper though its gale.
Zephoni stared at the sliver as it blew away. She took a deep breath, partly to draw in some of her Goddess’s essence within her, but also to calm the stampeding thunder of her heart. She clutched the front of her robes, in what awe, fear. She did not know.
Lisema spoke to her. Not in the faint way of wind blowing and gentle tugging’s of the heart, but an urgent whisper. What could possibly be so pressing to concern a Goddess?
“Windsinger?” Someone called up to her.
She looked down sharply. Dayon Mlinzi, the young sailor with only a few turns of service under his belt, was startled by the intensity of her reaction. He was tending to his duties as the lookout in the crow’s nest built just beneath her wind berth.
He stammered, “Begging your pardon, Windsinger. I didn’t mean to disturb your commune with the Sky Goddess.”
Zephoni smoothed her features and smiled. “You’re not disturbing me, Master Mlinzi. How may I help you?”
He nodded slowly before answering, “I just came across something I thought you should see.”
Zephoni glanced in the direction Lisema’s urgent wind blew and frowned. Sighing inwardly, she met the young sailor’s eyes and nodded. “Of course. I shall be down there in a moment.”
She turned from the railing and dipped her head to enter her small hut. There she found her windfinder, a quarterstaff with a built-in weathervane at the top. Her staff had a spiraling half-circle design made of polished silver metal. Zephoni untied it from where it was bound to her bed. The weathervane spun gently when she picked it up.
She stared at her windfinder and remembered the regal bearing of the Windsingers who came before her, teaching her
Lisema’s ways. They all had their own unique staffs and held them as if they were an extension of their own bodies. No, they clutched their windfinders as if they were an extension of Lisema herself. In truth, that’s exactly what a windfinder was, a physical reminder of her invisible presence.
Like her sisters, Zephoni was gifted with her own windfinder on the day she ascended from an acolyte to the status of full Windsinger. It was her most prized possession. The staff represented Zephoni, her Goddess, and her journey.
She muttered to herself. “Lisema’s breath is my breath. My breath is her breath. I speak for Lisema, and she speaks for me. May my voice echo with my sisters as we sing the chorus of her power and kindness. May I always be blessed with the breath of Lisema’s wind.”
With her windfinder in hand, she made her way for the rope hung over the side of her platform. She gracefully swung her feet onto the ladder rung and expertly lowered herself down to the crow’s nest below. Her robes of somber grays and rich blues flowed unencumbered from her slender form. Zephoni, unlike the rest of the crew of the Maiden’s Arrow, did not wear a safety harness.
Mlinzi watched her descend with bulging eyes.
“Begging your pardon, Windsinger, but I fear for your safety something terrible every time I see you take to the ladders.”
She regarded him with a patient smile. What he said was nothing she hadn’t heard from a dozen other voices before, most notably from the Ambassador. “How may I help you, Master Mlinzi?”
“Oh . . . I . . . um . . . spotted something unusual on the horizon.”
“Unusual, you say.” Zephoni’s eyes automatically flickered to the direction of Lisema’s warning.
Mlinzi nodded, “Yes, ma’am.” He pointed not in the direction of the warning, but closer to the location of the divinity tree on the horizon. “I spotted a pod of gongdrifts.”
Zephoni stared at the young sailor for half a moment. “Gongdrifts you say.” She sighed inwardly before a slow beam began to spread across her face. “They are one of the goddess's most graceful creatures.”
He held up his spyglass. “See for yourself.”
She took the spyglass, and the horizon leapt forward. Off in the distance, she saw over a dozen massive beasts gliding through the air. Their bulbous, multi-colored bodies tapered into fin-like tail flutes. Their tails pumped lazily in perfect timing with their enormous, feathered wings. They idly glided through the air, searching for an errant wind to take them to their next feeding ground.
She watched them fly for several moments, reveling in their display of grace and power.
Zephoni lowered her spyglass and turned her smile on Mlinzi. “Thank you for sharing that with me.”
He nodded but frowned as he stared at the vast creatures with his naked eye.
Sensing something was troubling him, Zephoni asked, “Is there something wrong, Master Mlinzi?”
He nodded slowly, still staring at the creatures. “I didn’t call you down here just to show you the gongdrifts, Ma’am.”
Mlinzi shook his head. “There’s something flying in the middle of their pod. I thought it was calf or something, but I don’t think that’s it.”
Zephoni frowned as she rescanned the pod with the spyglass. She searched for several moments and was about to give up when a strange movement amongst the pod caught her attention. She focused on it and traced the dark outline of something with her eye.
What she saw in the wake of the gongdrifts’ flight was a small dark figure that was roughly humanoid in size and shape, save for two immense black wings and long taloned feet. It was hard to tell from the distance, but she knew that its eyes made up a significant portion of its head. It tried to conceal its flight by trailing in the gongdrifts’ shadow.
With the spyglass still pressed to her eye, Zephoni murmured, “Shadowing.”
Mlinzi’s eyes bulged. “Shadowing!”
“Yes,” Zephoni answered, still observing it. She was about to lower the spyglass when she caught sight of another flying dark outline gliding in the wake of a different gongdrift. She took longer to look up and down the pod for more. Soon she spotted a third shadowing gliding in the shadows of the largest gongdrift at the lead.
She finally lowered her spyglass and said quietly, “There are three of them.”
Mlinzi gasped, “What are those foul beasts doing out in the light?”
Zephoni frowned at the lookout.
She wasn’t surprised by the young sailor’s attitude towards the people of the sky, or shadowings. They were nocturnal and mostly kept to themselves, living in the abyss beneath the continental branches of Valenthrall. Their mysterious nature lead to numerous false beliefs.”
She said, “They are neither beasts nor foul. The shadowings are a proud people that were spun from the clay and sky by Lisema herself. They are more attuned her voice than even we Windsingers.”
“If you say so, Ma’am,” replied Mlinzi, clearly unconvinced.
Mlinzi stared at the gongdrifts. “Still, it’s a bit unusual to see one of those blighted child-snat—to see the shadowings out in the light.”
Zephoni’s frown deepened at the proximity of the slur, but she brushed it aside as her mind spun around his point. “It is not unheard of to see a shadowing scout travel in the wake of a gongdrift pod.”
“You think they are scouts?”
She shook her head slowly. “No.” She thought aloud as she processed. “One or two maybe scouts. Three is something else altogether.”
Mlinzi licked his lips nervously, before asking, “What does three mean, ma’am?”
Zephoni eyes flicked from the pod of gongdrifts to the direction her Goddess warned her. Her grip on her windfinder tightened.
“Three are an omen.”