Written By: Mezopherz Xanzar of Sonoma
As she struggled to pull her head off of the moldy mattress, hair disheveled, body stinking of days without cleaning, empty flasks littered the nearby table and floor. Another wild night in Buc Den's seediest corner of a lawless town. As she had done so many other similar mornings, Zara took a minute for introspection. How did she end up here, working in the world's oldest profession and living such a hollow, meaningless life? Her thoughts turned back to what seemed like ages before. To her small village outside of Yew and the loving family that had trusted her with a simple task. A task that would have been most willingly withdrawn had anyone dreamed of the consequences.
Young Zara grew up in the best of homes. Her father a respected blacksmith and her mother a provisioner who specialized in supplying healers for the area. Her brother spent his days at the bag ball arena while her little sister seemed to be garnering most of the attention and doting love of her parents and kin. This left Zara frustrated. She spent her days daydreaming and wandering the forest of her remote village near the town of Yew. This free time left her imagination with plenty of time to expand and the books the kindly wizardress provided her fueled her spirit and quickly she found herself longing of distant lands and new acquaintances.
The seasons passed and turned into years and Zara soon found herself at the age of 18. Full of life and zest she felt the small town life seemingly being pressed down on her and was obviously not the place for someone as soulful as herself. On family trips into Yew she found herself wandering off from her parents and their reaction was to even curtail her activities to an even further degree. You can imagine what young Zara was going through.
It was at this point in her life when the task was given to her. A seemingly simple, harmless charge to fill the family's store of ginseng for the coming winter. The ginseng, known for its contribution in curing the sick was a common reagent used by many for good. Usually her mother undertook this task but being at an accountable age her family felt no trepidation as they granted young Zara's wish to seek out the store for herself this year. After all the moongates allowed for careful choosing of destinations and all of the children were well versed in the dangers of the strange wondrous place called Felluca. In fact no one in the family had stepped foot in the cold lands for generations and the name itself had become synonymous with evil.
So how was it now, at the still tender age of twenty-one, Zara found herself mired in the heart of this land's most decadent populace? Serving in the role she did at the village's tavern. Putting on a brave face but being torn apart in her soul by the life she led.
The pain of her thoughts quickly caused Zara to jump from her bed and busy herself with the new day. She worked as a blacksmith's assistant during the day – using what little knowledge gleaned from watching her father to make a small wage and pass the hours before the town came to life at night. Her boss, like most others in the town, was not a fair man and often she thought he wasn't joking when he requested she arrive to work two hours before the time she left the previous day! But it was something she enjoyed as much as anything in her life and somehow the familiar smells and sounds of the smithy gave her comfort.
The day wore on and she found herself drifting back to that day she had left her town for the small clearing where the moongate stood. A magical portal that seemingly allowed limitless ventures in larger, more modern towns where her task led her as she visited shop upon shop to gather enough ginseng for the winter. That fateful day she had visited Vesper – the town renown for it's troll population as numerous bridges expansed the waters. She had stopped by the charming Serpents Hold and even the capital city of Britain where she saw people so fat from lack of activity she had to check herself from being rude and staring at all the folk dressed as if it were the King's Birthday…just sitting!
It was on the road from Britain, as she returned up the path to the moongate her seemingly innocuous task turned tragic. As she had done so many time before she veered off the road to frequent the little shops that citizens had their wares proudly on display. Even available for sale! She had noticed however though that people seemed to be greatly fond of their offerings. She wondered to herself at the adventures and dangers endured to bring such works of metal and cloth she saw. Were lives lost and fortunes ruined by those that surely risked all for such treasures?
It was in particularly bland shop Zara's life took its turn. A small unadorned cabin with a sole vendor who stood in the center of the room. Only a table and chest filled the room and there appeared to be a general feel of unease as the trees outside the window blocked out most light. Not scared, but more excited with the feeling of adventure she was feeling she without hesitation asked the vendor to display what he offered.
What Zara saw was a plain simple stone shaped in the form of an egg. A slight tan color led her to believe it was nothing harmful but the smoothness and polish it held took hold of her imagination. Imagine if she could bring such an item home to her little sister and wrap in a tale of a faraway's land myth. Perhaps she would tell her it was the stone that fell from a wicked sorceress's mantle that she had thieved off with. Maybe it was a precious rare stone that would grant three wishes…she could tell her little sis anything and she'd believe it. She started to turn a away and thanked the vendor. As he closed his display and she turned to leave the price of the item caught the corner of her eye.
She couldn't believe it! She looked around to see if someone was watching her – all ready thinking ahead she would quickly take advantage of what must have been a mistake by the shop's owner.
When assured no one was going to see her she asked the vendor if she could look once again. Sure enough, the price had been logged as one simple gold piece. An amount she earned weekly for doing chores around the house and certainly worth having a souvenir from her day abroad. Something she could look at and remember the sights and people she had encountered.
She now without hesitation reached into her pocket and produced a solitary gold coin, simultaneously informing the vendor she would like to buy the stone. Zara fancied the thought of the man vanishing into thin air at the sale of his last item but that was silly she realized.
In an instant the gold piece was gone and she felt a slight tug at her shoulder – the weight of the stone being added to the pack she wore across her back. She turned and steadily made her way out of the dimming room, down the short stairs of the cabin and back onto the path towards the moongate. Realizing she had wasted valuable time and still had two cities to visit before returning to her village's closest gate she picked up her feet a little quicker and skipped down the path. She felt proud she was old enough to take on responsibility for the family's well being!
She entered the gate and quickly chose her next destination, Trinsic. As the sky became clear again by exiting the moongate she found herself well outside the walls of the city and quickly proceeded to make her way up some small hills, all the while thinking someone should really have made this easier for small travelers. It was on one of the larger of these hills she found her footing slipping. She reached forward with both arms to seek hold and in doing so allowed her backpack to slip off her shoulder and it's contents tumbled out and down the hill. She couldn't worry with that now, she'd reach the top and go around the hill to retrieve her items when she had firm ground. She became oblivious to her surroundings as she was determined to succeed – somehow it seemed if she fell her it would symbolize a failure and she was bound to prove her parent's trust well placed.
But the ground was too loose here and she eventually gave in to the weariness in her arms and slid down the hill all ready thinking of what had fallen out and how quickly to gather it and seek another route to the city.
Fate held a different path for young Zara though as whilst she was struggling, the mysterious stone she had purchased earlier in the day had undergone a great transformation. To someone watching the event – it would have seemed as the stone became swallowed up by the very land on which it settled. In it's place a towering green gate had appeared and the girl was struggling not to reach the top – but to avoid the sudden gate of energy below.
Of course Zara had never seen the stone fall or the settling of it on the ground and alas – the magical gate that had formed behind her. She had given in to a slide down a hill, but had she realized the consequence of doing so she would have fought with all her might.
Surprised as she felt the familiar energy of the gate she hadn't the time to be immediately shocked. She assumed it was like every other gate she had been through and no more dangerous than any before. What she didn't know – and what only those who were long dead knew – that the stone she had carried was a MoonStone. A magical thing from long ago that would open up a gate into an ancient world that no one in his or her right mind would venture to alone. Felucca.
Even more tragic was that these stones only worked once. And with the dimming and disappearance of the gate she had fallen into – no means of returning to her family, village, or even world was available to her.
Instantly she was terrified. It was readily apparent where she was now was far different that where she had been. The trees that loomed over her like giants were bare and a chilling breeze rustled their thin limbs that seemed to be reaching for the sky in an attempt to leave this world. The ground was rockier and it was easily felt that uneasiness was settled on everything. In everything.
Zara mustered up the courage remaining in herself to think straight for the first time in what seemed like hours but had actually only been seconds. She looked in her pack she had grabbed as she was moved between worlds and was dismayed to find only the ginseng she had gathered was the only belonging she hadn't lost in the fall. Little good that'd do her she thought to herself, but she secured it in the pack and hoisted it to her shoulders – out of habit more than anything.
As she took note of her surroundings she was pleased to recognize what seemed to be part of an old path….no it was a road! Weeds and other growth she didn't recognize had covered most of its path but it was clearly an avenue to get to somewhere. And somewhere was better than nowhere!
The sun was hidden behind thick clouds and it wasn't apparent what part of the day it was here. She assumed it was the same as her home world, mid-afternoon, and that she had around three hours of light left to find whatever this ancient road led her to. It was her only choice, her only hope that someone kind would be able to help her get back.
I haven't told you much about the land Zara found herself in – Felucca. It being the oldest of worlds it had experienced the most as well and evil had enjoyed many years of growing it's depth - long ago chasing away most of what had been good within it's borders. People were left free to roam the woods and succumb to their basest instincts by killing, looting, and pillaging anything or anyone that came across their path. Sure there were the occasional band of upstanding Feluccians who sought to rid their county of such vile but their successes were few and attempts becoming less frequent. It was the land of the lowest denominator. Unburdened with society's mantle of right and wrong, it was a harsh places and I don't have to say it but, no place for a little girl.
Zara chose a direction and headed off. At times the path completely disappeared under her and she had to look hard to pick up the trail at many points. After about two hours she came to a crossroads that was guarded by a strange stone arch of which inside stood a gleaming moongate. Her hearting leaping with joy at it's discovery and the thought of going home via it's magical door she bolted toward the entrance somehow fearing it would vanish before she could enter. She was inside in seconds, never stopping to read the destination and warning on the moss covered wooden sign above the arch:
"Danger! Buccaneer's Den"
Within the seconds of being transported Zara's thoughts went to how she would explain to her Mother the fact she hadn't gotten all the needed ginseng and of her willingness to go back tomorrow to finish the task. The gate opened up and Zara leaped forward with the uneasy feeling that the gate didn't want to let her proceed. But where she found herself was even worse than the cold woods. Dozens of stranger milled about a town that she had never seen. She should have felt hope that here someone would come to her aide but she instinctively sensed the danger and unwelcoming eyes of those who had spotted her.
Zara ran into the woods nearby before anyone had the chance to speak. She went so far as to put any sight of the town out of her vision. She found an outcropping of stone and cowered beneath its cold shelter. Shivering not from the cold – but from fear. Hitting home was the realization she was very very far from home and utterly lost. She began to sob. Quietly at first out of fear of being discovered, but then openly as the realization she was alone broke down any sense of thinking she should try to remain hidden.
It was this uncontrollable crying that had drawn attention to her from the man she eventually worked for in the smithy. He had been out gathering wood for axe handles and the sound of such childlike distress had touched a long forgotten warm spot in his heart. He had brought the girl to town, gave her food and sent her on her way – that being the extent he was willing to put himself out on a stranger's account, no matter how helpless that person seemed.
Zara had found herself slipping from shadow to shadow until eventually the cold night air was thick with smoke from the town's fireplaces. The afternoon snack from the smithy had worn off and she associated the smell of good food with safety and entered the local tavern that would become her new home.
The tavern's carousers took little notice of Zara as she sheepishly made herself to the back of the building where she imagined the food would be. Not stopping to make a plan – would she steal whatever was there or ask someone for help? She still had a little gold left in her pocket. None of that mattered though as she was immediately spotted by the cook who screamed out for the matron of the house who was relieving herself in a nearby storage room.
The next few years had passed as a blur. Zara learned more about the world than she ever would have dreamed of and most of it was unpleasant, to put it mildly. She became forced to sell herself for shelter and sustenance and soon became numb to the horror of such an existence.
It was only on occasional mornings as she rose she allowed herself to contemplate her situation and her loss of hope. Why had hope eluded her? She could only imagine it was something inherent in this land that drained any soul of it's light and forced a person to accept fate as it existed.
On this morning however, her recollection of happier times led her to a different place. Instead of being drawn back into the pity and self-doubt it stirred up an anger inside her. An anger at her life and its putrid filth and blackness. An anger at those who only used her for their wishes and desires caring nothing about her. An anger that turned to quiet rage as Zara vowed to shake free of her predicament and at least make an attempt to find her lost home. It had been over three years now and she was sure her family assumed she was lost forever. Did they miss her? Was there a funeral? Surely they searched the lands for her but there would have been no chance of success since she entered thru such a fantastic portal.
She bothered not to gather the meager belongings she had managed to accumulate in this world. They would only remind her later of this place and she intended to push the time spent here out of her mind forever. Grabbing and eating a couple crusts of bread from the day before she took only her pack that had hung above her bed all these years and quietly slipped out in the dimness of the morning and was gone and forgotten before anyone realized she was awake.
As she again found a path her heart seemed to lift at just the first step she had taken towards home. It didn't matter she wasn't sure if she was headed in the right direction or not, she was headed somewhere – and anywhere was better than back there. She quickened her pace.
While Zara's thoughts naturally envisioned a home that was bright and cheery, filled with song and mirth, the reality was much different. Yes her family and village had searched for her. For two years they continued to visit the moongates in an effort to search the entire world for a lost little girl. Finally having to concede their loss, a heartbreaking service was conducted in the village cemetery and a marker placed that bore an image of Zara. Those two years had been hard but was only the beginning of their struggles. In fact the whole world was struggling now. A plague had spread across the land and had laid waste to a great portion of man and beast that inhabited to world. Healers were no less affected than anyone else and their passing compounded the sickness as fewer were left to apply the healing arts. Reagents became scarce as once a healer died – his reagents were considered unclean and burned in a uneducated attempt to stop the spread of the disease. For Zara's family the situation was a little improved over most as her Mother had watched the healers in her shop and had a basic understanding of the healing arts and was able to keep small sicknesses from weakening her family, creating an invitation for the deadly plague.
The day came however when all of Zara's Mother's attempts failed and their youngest child, Zara's baby sister, fell ill with the dreaded disease ravaging the land. The small chance of survival was even further diminished by the scarcity of healing reagents. Naturally these had become more valuable than gold and governors of the land doled out rations to professional healers only. Day and night, night and day, the family watched over their weakest in an attempt to comfort, ease, and delay the horrible suffering looming sooner than later.
This is where Zara's family found themselves as unbeknownst to them, their lost daughter had set out to find them.
Zara walked for days. She had gained knowledge of which plants were edible and kept hunger at bay by foraging for such. Her body ached and her mind wandered but her will remained strong. Strong until a horrible realization struck her. She found that she had taken a turn somewhere along the road, become confused, and took the same road back to the town she was seeking to escape. Her mind had wandered her right back to the pit she sought to escape from. She fell to her knees seemingly to give up all hope. She wouldn't go back to the tavern. She would die before she did that. Die. Death. The thought of that seemed almost pleasant to her at that moment. Escaping into the oblivion of the netherworld could surely be no worse than returning to this existence.
That was it. She would leave this world. No one would care. She was all ready dead to her family and this world wouldn't blink at another death. The abusing matron at the tavern had actually given her the answer to her escape. No one could pass through the gate twice. "Enter again and answer to all your sin," she would tell her over and over. It was a common phrase used around the town. The gate she had come thru was a one-way ticket.
She without giving the matter another thought ran as hard as she could – determined not to sway in the task of ridding herself of this world. As she approached the stone arch with the menacing gate, a couple of townspeople saw her and screamed out in horror. No one had witnessed such an event and the shock was immediate. Zara leaped and disappeared through the energy of the oblong field.
As she tumbled to the ground on the other side a sickening truth landed on her full force. The warning of "Enter again to answer your Sin" had been a ruse. Misery loves company and the miserable souls of that town had wanted company. The lie had been perpetuated through generations and no one had ever questioned its validity.
But no matter, that was behind her now. She felt so safe even though she immediately recognized the markings of Felucca and understood that danger was still a constant companion. The first thought that came to her head was if, years ago, she had continued on the path instead of bolting through the archway lined gate she might have yet found safety! She brushed off whatever dirt she could from herself, stood up straight in a show of re-determination and took off down the path she had been sidetracked from years earlier.
Again, it was days she walked. Never seeing another soul. Occasionally hearing a far away cry of battle and then death but sensing it was deep into the forest she never allowed it to alter her direction. Five days and four nights had passed. As she sought at shelter at the waning of the sun's light she began to wonder if she wished the story of the moongate's fatal prophecy hadn't been true. She was never going to find home and a slow death of exposure or at the hands of sickness would be far worse she imagined. Curled up against a large tree she stared out into the darkness allowing the same darkness to creep into her mind and thoughts.
The sun completely set but as it did another light grew brighter far off in the distance. An oddly familiar light that touched a sense of familiarness deep inside. Her eyes squinted and she sought to discern what it could be. Her heart leaping wildly as she recognized the shape of a long since seen blue moongate.
Home. Surely fate wouldn't play another trick on her and this portal had to be the panacea for this lost soul. Disregarding any danger that might lie between her and hope in the darkness she wasted no time in expending every ounce of energy to reach the light as soon as possible. As distances do in the dark it was a greater traverse than initially imagined and the better part of two hours were spent before the familiar clearing presented itself and she stood flush in front of the moongate. This time discretion got the better of her as other leaps through gates intentional and unintentional had led to despair. Deep down though she knew there was nothing that would keep her from the hope that home was very close now and with a deep breath she left Felucca forever.
A wave of relief swept her entire existence as this gate truly was one that was safe and allowed the choice of destinations. With trembling fingers she quickly chose her home's gate and just like that was back in the familiar woods of her village. It was dark here as well, answering a long ago asked question of time, but that mattered little as the memory of this place refreshed itself and Zara made a beeline toward her home.
Thinking only happiness and safety awaited her she imagined herself springing into the parlor of her home. She could guess at the faces that would turn in shock at her presence and the hugs and kisses that would follow the initial bewilderment. This was going to be so exciting!
No one in the streets recognized her and she found her old house without delay. Just as she imagined she flung open the door and stood awaiting the amazement from her family. However, the parlor was empty and only a single candlelight appeared to illuminate a bedroom. Must have gone to bed early tonight and so she tiptoed toward the lighted room with the thought of scaring someone with a ghost such as herself would be too much for anyone!
As she entered the room the scene was disheartening. Her family was standing around her little sister who appeared to have wilted away. Yes there was hugging, kissing, and bewilderment –but the presence of death was too heavy to keep attentions far from the small girl.
Her own story could wait, Zara thought to herself as she asked about her sister and learned of the deadly plague and subsequent illness that had struck their family. Her Mother explained to her she had a deep belief she could heal the girl but the availability of reagents made this all but impossible. She had scraped up the garlic but had failed to obtain any ginseng needed to complete the curing process. Zara shook her head sadly at their plight. She had rediscovered her family, but even in light of all the tragic events of her recent past she felt more helpless at this moment than she had in all her life. The joy of seeing her family after so many years was overwhelmed with the thought of never seeing the light in her sister's eyes again.
Unable to cope with all the sudden and mixed emotions Zara turned to leave the room and return to the parlor to collect her thoughts. As she entered the large room she saw it. Her pack thrown off upon her entrance minutes earlier. The flash of a wonderful thought struck her like a thunderbolt…her task! To gather ginseng…it was still in her bag after all the years!
She scrambled over to the pack and slung open the flap keeping the contents secure. The one thing that had been with her throughout her miserable ordeal – the ginseng she had collected the morning of a fateful day long ago. She grabbed the reagent and sprinted back into her little sister's room. She proudly opened up her hands to reveal the healing substance to her mother and saw in her eyes a hope that outshone even the despair she herself was trying to overcome.
With great care and diligence her Mother took the reagent and pulled the garlic off the shelf above her daughter's head. Carefully mixing the two together and uttering words of curing that she had so longed to speak she applied the poultice to her sick child's forehead. Seconds passed that drug on like hours. There was no response from the child. Repeating the process but this time having tears of desperation mixed in with the healing reagents she again uttered the words of curing – this time with a fervor that almost scared Zara standing close by.
Eyelids flickered. Fingers moved ever so slowly but not powerfully enough to move the hands that directed them. A soft moan from lips that opened slightly for the first time in days. Signs of life! Hopeful glances darted from person to person each terrified to imagine the joy that was trying to return to them.
Before fear had time to take hold of them again the little girl's eyes suddenly opened wide as if a weight had been holding the lids closed. She looked around curiously at her family standing around them and then noticed the addition of Zara in their presence. Had she died and this was the afterlife? The void of pain coupled with the joy of seeing her lost sister seemed worth it if it was so. Zara quickly leaned over and hugged her with all her might and tickled her like she had done so many years ago.
"Welcome Back!" Zara whispered in her ear, finally able to unleash the emotions that had been delayed since she had made her way home herself. After doing some convincing that death hadn't taken either of them, the cured girl had confidence to stand to her feet and the entire family stood hugging each other like they would never let go. Tears of joy overcame each of them as they shook off the worry and pain that had been their master for so long.
Finally happiness ruled, at least in this one home.
Zara had completed her task.