Winds of Change
Due to its amazing camouflage, the Australian Death Adder is nearly impossible to detect, unless of course you find yourself mesmerized by its irresistible lure. The tip of the snake’s yellow tail resembles the common edible grub, drawing its victims in so close that the Death Adder rarely has to uncoil to strike. Unlike most snakes, this deadly relative of the cobra is completely unafraid of humans, leaving most encounters fatal.
—The Third Korus of the Sapphire Tree
Not So Long Ago (in human years)
The Wind tumbled through the towering cumulus, laughing as it bounced through the clouds, soaring over TerraTopia’s jagged peaks as it flirted with the top of the sky.
It kicked up rain and tugged on horsetails, and challenged the thunder to come out and fight like real weather. When it found no takers, the Wind dove, carving a deep path through the inner world’s mountainous ravines, searching for something else to taunt.
After skirting several arrogant snowcaps and their lumbering cousins, the glaciers, the Wind whisked toward a box canyon at the edge of the boreal forest far below. Just for the fun of it, it scattered a handful of sleepy magpies, tossing the birds through the aspens like so many dandelions in the afternoon. The magpies screamed in protest at the invisible assault, but that’s what magpies do. Complain.
The Wind accelerated, laughing at the aerial riot it left in its wake. It spied a gap in the forest at the canyon’s end, and without saying hello, hurtled past a stodgy granite rise and several prominent boulders from the local dolomite community. Why bother with pleasantries? thought the Wind. The rocks were nothing but stiffs.
Vaulting another cliff face, the Wind picked up speed, spraying pea gravel and pine needles throughout the canyon’s rocky sleeve. It threaded its way between the white cedar and balsam fir ringing the top of the canyon before slipping into a hidden glade atop the ridgeline.
There the Wind went still and, oddly, very cold.
At the far end of the glade, a human beset by noisy crows cleared the leaves from the base of a tremendous Wych Elm.
The Wind had seen this human before.
Barefoot and clad in a Keeper’s traditional work tunic, or soma—a crimson, high collared, scallop-shelled covering worn loosely over a woolen black-hooded robe—the human appeared every bit the earnest student of the Emerald Guard, a Keeper of the Koru in training.
His burak, a wide, intricately woven band of fabric and insect shells, was wrapped around his waist, its amber color designating his station—that of an acolyte at the beginning of his quest.
He carried only the traditional pouch known as a par fleche. No bow, quiver, bola, or cutting stone was visible. Other than the long staff in his hand, his taku, he appeared harmless.
But the Wind knew looks could be deceiving.
Just ask any full…bright…towering…thunderhead.
With a wide, cautious sweep, the Wind noticed how different this human was from the other inhabitants of TerraTopia.
Aside from the fact that he’d absorbed no animal spirit, no Toka (Keepers never did), his empty features were pale rather than honey-colored, his short hair slate gray instead of the brilliant silver of Water Light. Most significant, his expressionless face failed to communicate any personal history, much less emotion.
Missing were the distinguishable skin etchings and clan piercings most wore to tell their tale—that of their backgrounds, tribes, and people. In his case, the man bore no outward signs such as these. Beyond the fact that he hadn’t shared himself with another spirit, only his outer garment and his double-eight hair knot revealed any allegiance to the mysterious TerraKoru.
He was a walking riddle, a human chimera, a man who preferred his past stay put.
The Wind hovered around the human’s head, studying his features.
The eyes were little more than slits, easy for staring out of, yet hardly made for looking into. Though a human of no more than fifty ticks of age, his impish ears and pouting lower lip suggested confusion more than anything else—that of a pampered child continually lost in the moment. And while this made him approachable—most people want to help children, regardless of how many legs they have—like a crocodile’s smile, his placid countenance was only part of his trap.
His face was more or less chinless, sallow in tone, and sported little if any facial hair. Given his slight stoop, average height, and disarming air, many would call this very average human “friend.”
But the Wind could strip things of their facades. That’s what the Wind did.
Nearly everyone thought this human had come in peace, to learn the ways of the Emerald Guard, to assume his role protecting the balance, the Koru, between the twin worlds, as had generations of humans before. But the Wind knew better.
This man was no friend.
This man was dangerous. Very dangerous. The exposed handle of his hidden blade, the continuous grinding of his jaw, the glint of selfishness in his eye—these subtle signs gave his true nature away.
The Wind inched closer and hovered as the human suddenly froze, his eyes fixed on the dirt.
Cautiously, the Wind drifted in for a closer look. Half buried among sodden raven feathers, something flashed in the rich, black soil.
Ahhh, sighed the Wind. Of course.
It had seen the brilliant color many times before,
here and elsewhere. The Wind knew the human had seen it, too.
What? What? What? cawed the murder of crows tangled at the human’s feet. With a wave of his arms, the man angrily shooed the avian pests away.
“Nothing,” he growled. “That’s what.”
Who are you trying to fool? wondered the Wind as the human burrowed deeper. You know exactly what.
The human jabbed at the remainder of the crows’ feathery knot with his taku, the long staff around which his anxious fingers curled. The riot of black feathers finally parted to reveal more flashes of brilliance.
The Wind grew still.
The human had found what he was looking for. Oltec’ta…Sun stone…