The following is a commissioned mini-interlude focusing on the backstory behind the creation of the Ring of Anuk-Ité. Please enjoy.
Roughly five hundred years ago.
“Father. Father, stop.”
The strained voice came from the smaller of two figures who stood at the very end of a winding dirt path lined and half-hidden by gnarled old trees. In front of them lay the murky, mist-filled confines of a swamp, the stench from which gave both figures pause.
“No, Sonoma.” The taller figure, his body lean and muscled from years of hunting and war, shook his head. A face hard with the same fierce determination that had led him to the leadership of his tribe, yet lined with worry from the care that drew that tribe’s love and loyalty, stared down toward his beloved daughter as he put a hand on her shoulder. “There is no stopping. Not until you are made well.”
The girl, barely old enough to have seen eleven winters, took her father’s arm. “But the witch. Seeing the witch, it is… very bad. You cannot pay her price.”
A slight smile touched the face of the warrior chief, whose name was Liwanu, a name which meant ‘growling bear’. In this case, however, he could not have looked less like his namesake. His hand carefully took his daughter’s. “Sonoma,” he murmured, the love he felt for her palpable in the air between them. “For you, I will pay any price. If the witch-woman asks that I strip the skin from my body to fashion into a rope that will reach the moon, I will do so. You will be safe.”
Sonoma opened her mouth to speak, but before any words could come out, a visible shudder ran through the girl. Her head twisted sharply, and she made a pained sound as part of her face bulged out unnaturally. The skin stretched, her nose noticeably hardening and lengthening briefly before she caught it. With visible effort, the girl forced herself back to normal, though the effort left her drained and sweating.
“It is getting worse,” the man declared, staring down at his daughter. “You will not be able to stop the change should it come again.” With that realization, he bent to scoop the girl into his arms. As she protested, Liwanu began to jog into the swamp.
The path, which had always been narrow and hard to find, all but vanished the moment they entered the evil place. And what little light there had been seemed to flee from the very second that they crossed that border. Dingy water crept up to the man’s ankles, then to his calves as he sloshed his way onward.
For hours, the man forced his way onward, his desperate hope to save his child spurring him to ignore his own fatigue and inevitable, growing doubt. He continued despite his daughter’s weak protests, each little spasm of her body as she fought off the change urging him to move faster. As the animals of the swamp circled, their interests piqued by the strange intruders, he continued deep into the unfamiliar territory.
Finally, as the man felt that he could take no more steps, he realized something. The sounds that he had been hearing, the noises every animal made as they fluttered through the trees or worked their way through murky water, were gone. The snakes, crocodiles, birds, frogs, and other creatures that had been a steady accompaniment throughout his wet, cold, dark journey had all become mysteriously silent. Darkness and dampness were now his only companions. And even their presence seemed somehow muted, as though those very basic elements were hesitant to be seen in this place.
No sooner had Liwanu noticed this unnatural silence, than it was interrupted by a familiar sound. It was a sound that had been at his side from the moment he arrived in the swamp: footsteps sloshing through water.
And yet, in this case, his own feet were still, his gently whimpering daughter still held in his arms. Neither were the source of this familiar sound, which drew closer even as he noted the strangeness of it.
Carefully, the man set his daughter down on her feet directly behind him. Her arms wrapped their way around his waist as he drew the spear from its place at his back. Holding the end pointed toward the incoming sound, he waited, eyes straining to see through the gloomy darkness.
The water-filled steps continued to approach. Even in the dim light, the figure would come into view within ten more paces. Nine more steps… eight more… seven…six… he felt his daughter cling to him even more tightly… five… he crouched slightly, bracing himself to make a sudden move if he needed to. Four more steps… three more… two…
“You have come very far out of your way, Liwanu.”
The voice came not from ahead, where the approaching footsteps had suddenly fallen silent, but from behind. Even as little Sonoma gave a surprised yelp, the man spun back that way. His arm went down to ensure that his daughter was swept along to stay behind him, and he raised that spear threateningly. Then he stopped, staring through the shadows.
The figure who stood there had come far closer than she should have been able to, considering he had not heard her approach at all. And for a man who could hear the water-snakes winding their way just below the surface of the swamp, that was a chilling realization.
She wore a dark cloak, with a hood that left her face in shadows. Her eyes, barely visible, were azure blue, with a faint glow like some of the night-beasts.
And as she took a single step forward, the man realized something else. She was not standing in the water, but atop it. Her feet walked upon the top of the swamp as easily and steadily as his own stepped on solid ground. The cloak she wore spread out along the surface without getting even slightly damp, as though it too treated water as earth.
“You–” he started before stopping. “You are the shaman, the Lady of the Swamp.”
“Lady, are they calling me now?” the hooded figure remarked. “It is better than Creature of the Swamp, at least.”
Were he alone, Liwanu might have fled then. He might have run from the swamp and never spoken of it again. But the presence of his daughter, and her desperate need, drove him to stand his ground. Tightening his grip on the spear, yet lowering it so that the figure before him would not interpret it as a threat (as if such a thing could threaten her), he managed to speak again after a moment. “You… know my name.”
“I know a great deal more than that, Liwanu,” the cloaked woman confirmed. “As I said, I know how far you have come. And I know what you are looking for.”
“A cure.” The man quickly spoke, his head nodding as he pulled Sonoma around in front of him. “A cure for my daughter, so that she can be human once more.”
For a long moment, the figure in front of him, the Lady of the Swamp, stood silent. Finally, she turned to walk back the way she had come. “I have nothing for you here. You have wasted your time.”
Eyes widening, Liwanu fairly leapt forward through the swamp. He resisted the urge to grab for the woman’s arm, but only just. “No,” he blurted, “you are her last chance!”
“Her last,” the cloaked figure asked, “or yours?”
Abruptly, he was standing where she had been. Turning, he found the hooded figure crouching (still atop the water) beside his daughter. A hand, far paler than any of his people’s, reached out to touch Sonoma’s shoulder as the young girl shrank away from the figure.
Despite his fear and trepidation, Liwanu gave a shout that filled the swamp. Lunging forward, he drove his spear at the woman who would dare reach for his child.
It struck a tree. A tree that had not been there before, yet now stood in the same place that the figure had been, gnarled and aged as though it had grown in the swamp over the course of decades.
“You fight for your child,” the voice of the hooded woman spoke from behind the man once more, where she stood a few feet away from both him and his daughter. “Why? Is she not a burden, she and her… affliction that you wish me to cure?”
Giving up on yanking his solidly planted spear from the tree, the man turned once more to the figure. His hand found the knife at his waist as he pulled it free. “My daughter is no burden,” he snapped.
“She is a monster, yes?” the figure half-taunted him from her place in the shadows.
A low growl escaped the man, like the wild cats of the mountains. “My daughter is no monster.”
“Then why do you tell her to resist her change, when doing so harms her so much?” the woman asked. “Why do you travel so far out of your way to seek a way to cure her of what you call an affliction? You wish her to be human so that she will no longer be a monster.”
“I wish her to be human so that she will no longer be hunted!” Liwanu shot back, his desperation making him forget his own fear. “If it was only my people, I would take us both away from them. But anywhere she goes, the seers will know what she is. They will find her, hunt her, kill her.”
Again, silence returned to the swamp for several long seconds before the hooded figure spoke. “You wish her to be human not because you believe she is a monster, but because you fear for her safety.”
Slumping a little, Liwanu managed a weak, “Sonoma would never harm any innocents. I know that. But other people are… not so trusting. They do not know her. She would be hunted for all of her life. I wanted… I wish to spare her that. I want to protect her.” He spared a glance to his daughter, who was half-curled up on herself, doubled over from the strain of holding back her change.
“First,” the hooded woman spoke after a moment, “you must accept two things.” She moved a step forward, a step that carried her much further than it should have, putting her beside his daughter. Her hand found the girl’s shoulder, and she leaned closer to whisper something that Liwanu couldn’t hear.
Yet as she heard the words, Sonoma straightened. She gave a soft gasp of relief, before her body abruptly shrank. It contorted, bones shifting and cracking with painful sounds that seemed to draw no actual displeasure from the girl herself. Patterns appeared on her skin as she shrank, patterns that emerged a few seconds later as dark feathers.
Within a minute or so, the child had been replaced by a crow that flapped up to land on the tree that had mysteriously appeared so recently. It gave a sharp squawk, then another, looking at Liwanu.
“The first thing you must accept,” the woman informed him, “is that your daughter must change at times. It is a reflex that cannot be ignored. The longer she restrains herself, the worse she will feel.”
Holding out his hand, Liwanu waited until the crow flew down to land on his arm. “But you will–”
The figure interrupted. “And the second thing you must accept is that there is no cure. Your daughter will be this way until the day she dies.”
Even as his despair rose once more, she added, “However, if it is safety you wish for her… that is not so impossible.” Her softly glowing blue eyes stared into his. “It is not a cure. But if you wish it, if you are truly the man you claim to be, there may be a way of… disguising the child so that no one will know her true nature. They will believe that she is human. Even those seers.”
Quickly, Liwanu nodded. “Yes,” he blurted. “As long as she is safe, as long as she can live without being hunted. I will do anything, give you anything you ask for.”
“Do not make such a promise lightly,” the figure warned him. As she spoke, the air around them spun. The man felt briefly nauseous, before finding himself standing somewhere unfamiliar, with his transformed daughter still perched on his arm.
The floor was hard, like rock. Yet it was smooth to the touch. So smooth the man could almost see his face in it. The walls were similar, though blue to the floor’s polished white. And the air… the air felt… gentle, like a soft breeze was constantly running through it, a breeze that carried unfamiliar scents. A low hum, barely audible yet impossible for him to ignore, carried on constantly through the background. Light came from… not torches or any other fire, but from glowing… rocks running along the ceiling.
“Come,” the hooded figure instructed before turning to walk toward what looked like a wall in this strange, polished cave. “If you wish to help your daughter, if you really want her to have this safety, follow me.” Pausing then, she added, “And for all our sakes, do not try to lick anything.”
As she approached the wall, it slid aside with a soft whooshing sound, leaving Liwanu’s eyes to widen at her power of sorcery. She hadn’t made a motion, or even spoken a word. All she had done was approach, and the wall had opened for her.
He followed, Sonoma carefully perched on his shoulder, as the woman led them through a long tunnel just like the cave they had just emerged from. Together, the three moved through what seemed like a maze of these bright polished tunnels, until they reached another, slightly larger cave.
In that cave stood a man, a man… far different than any Liwanu had ever seen before. His face was more angular than a human, with grayish-green skin that was altogether… unsettling.
The silence held like that for only a moment before the figure abruptly dashed forward wish such speed that the two had barely blinked before he was suddenly in front of them. “Oh!” the gray-green man blurted. “Oh, yes, yes, perfect. You made it. You made it, you brought them. You really brought them.” His hand grabbed one of Liwanu’s, and the figure carefully, yet quickly seemed to count his fingers. “All present and accounted for then, yes? Yes. Thirteen fingers–no–wait. Ten.” A shocked gasp escaped him. “Did you lose them in a great bat–no, wait, we settled on ten, didn’t we? I always thought thirteen would be better, but the others wanted you to be just like so many other–”
Shaking that off, the figure lamented, “Oh, but now I’m being rude. I haven’t even finished counting your toes. Would you mind taking your shoes off so I can do that?”
Finally catching himself after standing there flat-footed staring at this strange demon of a man, Liwanu quickly jerked away while drawing his knife once more. “Who–what are you?” he demanded.
Despite his dangerous appearance, the strange green-gray figure gave a smile that seemed… charming, even goofy. “Oh, right, you’re one of the warriors. Yes, my fault, entirely my fault. Introductions are important. You, of course, are Liwanu and Sonoma. And I am…” He paused, clearly thinking about his answer. “… I suppose, ‘Grandfather’ would be the most appropriate term, in this case.”
“You are not my family,” Liwanu objected, eyes darting between the green-gray figure and the hooded woman.
“No, no, you are right,” the strange man confirmed. “We’re not… technically family. And yet, Grandfather is still probably the closest thing to a word that you would understand.”
Rather than object, Liwanu took a step back while using one arm to shield his daughter in her crow-form. “I do not consort with demons.”
“Yet you would consort with what you call a shaman, or a witch, or the Lady of the Swamp?” the hooded figure reminded him of her presence. “If you wish to protect your daughter, you need both of our help.”
“Yes, yes, yes,” the figure who called himself Grandfather confirmed. “Of course. If you want to hide your daughter’s true nature, you will need my knowledge of umm… “ He paused, looking toward the woman. “What term would they understand?”
“Blood and bones,” she answered flatly. “You will need his knowledge of blood and bones, and my knowledge of magic.” Lifting her chin so that her face was nearly uncovered from its place in the shadows of the hood, she added, “Do you wish to continue, or shall I send you on your way?”
It wasn’t even a question. If it meant protecting his daughter… Liwanu nodded. “If it means that she can live her life without being hunted by every seer, I will do anything.”
“Excellent,” Grandfather announced. And with that, the gray-green man lifted his hand, reached up with a knife in the other, and severed one of his own fingers as smoothly as someone snipping a branch from a tree.
Hearing the squawk of surprise from Sonoma, and seeing the look of shock on Liwanu’s face, Grandfather’s head shook. “Oh. Oh, I’m sorry. No.” Waving his hand, which had already stopped bleeding, he explained, “this is nothing. I removed any–” Pausing, he finished with a simple, “It didn’t hurt. I’m quite all right, I assure you. And you need this,” stripping the flesh and skin smoothly, he held up the bone, “to provide a base for the ring.”
“The ring…” Liwanu echoed, staring at the bone.
“Oh yes, your daughter will need to wear it.” Grandfather smiled then as he continued. “Between my bone and the stone that dear Bastet provides–”
“Bastet,” Liwanu echoed, looking toward the hooded figure.
“A name that I provided,” Grandfather explained when the woman herself remained silent. “I’m afraid that we aren’t aware of what her true parents would have named her, given the opportunity.”
“She is… not human?” Liwanu spoke slowly, looking at the figure once more.
A slight chuckle, dark and humorless, emerged from the woman. Finally, she lowered the hood of the cloak to reveal skin that was so pale it was almost as white as snow. Her hair was as blue as her eyes.
“No,” Bastet announced. “I am not human. Well,” she amended, “my mother was. My father…” Pausing, the woman shrugged. “My father is nothing you would understand.”
“I understand none of this,” Liwanu pointed out. “Yet if you say this will help my daughter…” He looked toward Sonoma briefly before nodding. “Then I will believe you. But,” the man added, “if she… if she dies from this magic you are doing, I do not care what kind of gods you might be. I will find a way to destroy you.”
Bastet said nothing to that, while Grandfather seemed to brighten. “I love it!” he blurted. “I love how much they care for their young, for their own. Do you know that the others thought that they should just–with a hive and…” He made a few vague gestures before shaking his head. “Never mind, it’s depressing. And they’re long gone anyway.”
Focusing on the even-more confused Liwanu then, the green-gray man sobered. “I assure you, your daughter will be perfectly safe. If anything we were going to would endanger her life, Bastet would know.”
“Because she sees the future?” the tribal chieftain, who was far out of his comfort zone, guessed.
“Oh no, well… in a way.” Grandfather smiled. “She would know because, if anyone was close to dying anywhere around here, she would… smell it, in a way. And probably drool a little bit. She does get famished from time to time. You see, Bastet’s father… is what we call a Reaper.”
Over the long, heavy silence that followed that pronouncement, Grandfather abruptly clapped his hands. “So, who’s ready to make a magic ring?”