Insects utilize a compound eye consisting of as many as thirty thousand lenses, which create a mosaic-like image. While most insects have relatively simple eyes that recognize only form and movement, those of the dragonfly provide a detailed view of its surroundings—imperative for an insect that catches its prey in mid-flight.
—The Seventh Korus of the Sapphire Tree
NightFire opened her eyes to hurts she hadn’t believed possible. Blood oozed from scratches covering her long, bronze arms and legs. She blinked out the remaining ash and wiped away lingering tears. She ran her fingers through knots of tangled, black hair, pulling out muck, mud, and a host of worms, leeches, and burrs.
Every muscle in her body ached but that was part of the bargain. Every Keeper knew the cost of Granting.
I’m back, she thought. But where? As if on cue, the Skaarsgard’s screams echoed on the horizon.
Alone. Now I remember. I am completely alone.
She examined the tips of her fingers to be sure…no fingerprints, no telltale signs of who she was. Where a normal person’s ears would be, she had only diminutive ear holes. Upon the canvas of humanity, where everyone else possessed a personal physical signature, NightFire displayed nothing. She was a blank slate. The Netherchild.
After tying her hair in a double-eight knot and dressing in her traditional hunting layers—a feathered lichen tunic belted with a Change Master’s rainbow burak, a chameleon-skin poncho, leggings, and moccasins—she gathered up her par fleche and unwrapped her weapons for inspection. A long bow made from polished dinosaur bone dominated her arsenal, its quiver filled with shark tooth arrows dipped in the paralyzing venom of the Digger Wasp. Jim Bowie’s long knife was tied along the bow’s upper limb, its razor-sharp blade gleaming in the moonlight. A bola strung with two thunder eggs lay next to her precious word spear, its six-foot long black javelin still empty of message.
Satisfied they’d made the journey safely thus far, she repacked her weapons, ensuring that they would remain silent as she ran.
Quickly, NightFire’s doubts returned. What if she couldn’t make it back to her father? It seemed impossible that TerraTopia’s salvation lay only with her, but what if StormWing truly had such an edge? What if he had so successfully masterminded the splintering of TerraTopia’s people that few, if any, would help her?
Her chest tightened and her breathing grew shallow. There was another option, but dare she try? Though she was the last of her kind, and only an apprentice at that, the possibility did exist.
Tick. Tick. Ticking.
Trust your ticking. Again, Sequoia’s words took root. A sense of resolve worked its way through her chest, down her arms, and into her fingers. She had to do something.
“So it is so…”
Closing her eyes, she wetted her lips and began humming the Heartsong of the Dragonfly, the haunting summons of the Guard’s emissaries known only to the Koru. She hadn’t had much practice but soon the hum gave way to unrecognizable words and sounds. She likened it to syllables sung through a woodwind and blended with the flutter of tiny wings. She kept the call to a whisper for fear the Skaarsgard might hear.
Over and over she sang. Her legs began to grow heavy and her shoulders slumped. Perhaps they’d lost their way. Perhaps they couldn’t find her. Perhaps she didn’t have the Heartsong right…
Please, she begged silently as she continued to sing. Please hear me. She waited in the darkness, leaning against the cold, mossy bark of an oak, afraid to sit lest she never rise again.
Suddenly, NightFire felt a change in the air and opened her eyes. Four distinctive lights appeared before her, their bright colors dancing on the evening’s wind. The emerald of the earth, the sapphire of the sea, both ivory and ebony, to strive as these shall we. Tears of relief welled in her eyes. The dragonflies had heard her. Her father’s messengers had come.
“I have a very important request of you,” she whispered.
She opened her fist, spreading her fingers wide. The tiny sparks of light flashed in response. One by one, the dragonflies alighted on her fingertips.
She steadied her hand. So much was at stake. She couldn’t afford to waver, inside or out. Raising her index finger, she whispered to the first dragonfly. “You, my emerald friend, must cross the boundary and travel north, left of the rising sun.” With her other hand, she placed a small piece of folded paper in her palm. “Seek out one with purpose who will commit to our cause, one who can endure our enemies and inspire both worlds from Falling.”
She studied the transparent forewings and hind wings, which were pointed down and forward. The insect held still for a moment, then began to hover. Deftly, it moved over to the note and retrieved her message.
NightFire gently blew the insect away. It took flight, circling her once, twice, then made for the sky. She watched it heading toward the clouds and the Clock of Stars beyond, until finally it disappeared.
Needing no invitation, the second dragonfly shifted over one finger, landing where the first had departed. NightFire folded another note and passed it to the sapphire colored insect. “Fly to the west, little blue one, where the setting sun sends the world into night. We must remember that only when we understand the darkness can we truly appreciate the light. Return with one filled with compassion who will see to it that our deeds are selfless, that they’re aimed at giving to others.”
The insect darted away. A third dragonfly, this one ivory, moved into place. “To the east you shall go, right and toward the dawn of knowledge, where life reawakens after the night’s sleep. There you must find one filled with wisdom. One who not only looks within, but never loses perspective without.”
She drew in a long breath before giving instructions to the last of the four—ebony. There was no turning back. Only time would tell if all were for naught. NightFire gave the final note to the jet-black insect before her. “You, my messenger, will travel south and left of the setting sun, to the place where peace and plenty reigns. There you will find a worthy apprentice possessing not only agility and speed, but also the ability to endure hardship with a sense of character. One who understands that strength is something you share, not own.”
NightFire ushered the last insect off, and with it her hopes. “Go. Find our champions, my friends. Without them, all will be lost.”
As if on cue, as if giving voice to the futility of her efforts, the Skaarsgard’s cry crescendoed in a distant, deafening knell, swallowing her prayer in the night.