Plucked from the god realm, pryra Caspian is spirited away to the soul realm to care for the World Tree and protect the souls and fairies that live on the realm. Downtrodden and full of anger, Caspian fails over and over in his duty as a threat greater than any of the Ten Realms has ever known moves steadily towards Caspian.
The wing tore from the fairy's back easily, the wound raw and bleeding.
Caspian ground his teeth and ignored the pitiful fairy now that he was done with her. The small effervescent wing glowed with blue specks of dust, simple and beautiful. Caspian crushed it in his hand, the form of the wing crumbling into fine dust, and held it stoically in his palm while he reached for a water pouch that lay abandoned a few feet away, never taking his eyes off the dust. He upended the pouch, where two small drops of russet-colored water slowly dripped out, merging with the dust to create a lumpy paste, which Caspian then * into his mouth, the euphoric effects taking effect almost immediately.
The gusty winds that had settled in Nawala since Caspian had awoken that morning slowed to a gentle breeze, the cool air kissing his face as it went by, the gray clouds thinned, the line of sunshine that was realm's source of light coming into view.
Caspian hated that sun. He had ever since he'd been condemned to live on the island.
"You can go now," Caspian said to the fairy, a petite little creature, the native inhabitants of Nawala, the realm of Souls. The creature stared at Caspian for a while, her almond-shaped eyes unblinking. Wings did not grow back, and doubtless, the fairy would become easy prey for anything that hoped for an afternoon snack. But, she was only a caregiver; it was the most common role a fairy could take, and to be fair, there wasn't really any flying that needed to be done when one was taking care of the Auktross.
Or at least, that was what Caspian told himself when he ripped off their wings for his own personal use.
Caspian leaned back against a boulder, staring out into the sea that surrounded the island.
Occasionally, he'd see a large fin break the surface of the water before plunging back into its depths.
The dust worked its literal magic, Pan's peripheral vision turned fuzzy, out-of-focus. He'd been in a foul mood since he'd lost another of his Wanderers' in the never-ending fight with the mermaids, those ghastly creatures, two days ago, and the dust was doing a great job of relaxing his muscles, slowing his thoughts, his mind.
"Caspian," a soft voice sounded in his ear.
Caspian shot up, whirling to face a fairy, though it wasn't the type of fairy that worked alongside the Auktross. Those fairies had more human-like features, where-as Cobb, and the handful of others like her was a Scout. She had the ability to travel between realms, the boundaries of each posing no challenge for her as it would have any other.
Cobb was tall for a fairy, almost eight whole inches and her body was made up of plates similar to pine cone bristles, stacked closely upon and next to each other over the entirety of her body-except her back, where the plates loosened to allow her wings free reign-resulting in a face that was all angles and sharp corners. Her skin was a mottled purple, a simple design that allowed her to blend in with her surroundings, and her wings were lavender in color, skinny and tall in stature.
She stared at the lingering dust particles Caspian had on his hand, face impassive. "I have something to discuss with you, Caspian," she said, meeting his eyes. If he looked closely,
Caspian could see the crisscrossing maze of yellow and green specks that made up her striking eye color.
"Later," Caspian said as he stood, took a deep breath of crisp morning air. "I have plans for today."
"You assume that your plans are more important than what I have to speak to you about?" Cobb asked, her eyes narrowed to fine slits.
Caspian waved off her anger, threw a handful of dust from the pouch fastened to his waist into the air. He lifted off the ground slightly, the feeling of weightlessness settling over him like a long-lost friend. "That's because they usually are," Caspian muttered, rising higher into the air.
He knew what she wanted to talk about, but the idea of inter-realm travel at the moment caused his stomach to twist in knots. If he dwelt on that subject for too long, the doubts and the worries would fester and cloud his mind.
Nawala was quite large, a great expanse of hills and mountains and trees and streams. It had taken him three weeks to go from one side of the island to the other, albeit walking, and had noted that the Auktross was in the center of everything, its deep-rooted roots literally holding the entire island together.
That magnificent tree rose from a valley in the middle of the island, beautiful and serene in its bid to one day join the sky, strong branches reaching outward as if for the hope to eventually cover the entire island in its rich canopy of thick, rounded leaves, varying shades of greens and browns. It was the center of this tree that he flew towards. The closer he got, the better he could see the deftly built huts of twigs and branches tied together by thick corded vines. There were about two dozen of these structures built into the Auktross, most small enough for two people to rest comfortably, while there was one that was much larger than the others.
It was there that Caspian settled, walking a path of wooden planks he had installed three years ago. Four years in Nawala and he'd hardly made any improvements to his dwelling, as a part of him always hoped that he'd end up back on Arcturus, doing what he had been born to do.
But, that was only wishful thinking.
"What exactly are your plans, Caspian?" Cobb asked, appearing at his shoulder. Caspian jumped slightly, still unaccustomed to the scout's uncanny ability to disappear and reappear.
The annoying little bug had followed him around for the last nine moon cycles, always by him, always listening, always watching. It was unsettling, to say the least.
"None of your damn business," Caspian growled, pushing aside two ten-foot tall leaves that acted as doorways, interconnected to all other huts by a series of walkways and ladder. The room was large enough to house three or four beds, though there were none in sight, in fact, most of the room was almost completely void of furniture. There were various objects strewn about the floor, including a multitude of glass spheres, wherein laid luminescent gray rock, most placed in a large wicker basket, though a few were haphazardly placed around the room.
He kicked one such orb and it rolled to the edge of his room, balancing precariously on the wooden slats. Caspian watched it for a second, wondered if it would fall to the ground, crack upon its surface, the negative emotion of a soul's last thoughts finally free.
It didn't fall, and Caspian turned away from it to focus on a wooden sword, fastened to the thick branch that held together Caspian's rather pathetic home, a dark chestnut color, sharp and lethal. The sword had been made with a root of the Auktross, an old one that Caspian had pried from the ground, snapped, and had then spent the next couple of days crafting it into a weapon of simplicity and beauty. The combination of the Auktross and Caspian's own magic had infused the wood with perfect balance, a blade that never dulled, and though it was wood, it cut through flesh with ease.
Caspian lowered the bokken from its resting place, placed it in the holder on his back. He glanced at Cobb, then sighed. "There's a meeting with the mermaids if you must know."
"Mermaids?" Cobb said, swinging her legs back and forth. "I suppose mermaids are rather important," she sniffed, folding her arms across her chest, eyes never moving from Caspian's face. The way she watched him made Caspian uneasy. He'd never really been truly lonely in this realm, especially after he'd began creating Wanderers', but even with near constant companionship, Caspian found himself feeling alone, abandoned, frequently. Much more frequently than he liked. And here was this tiny creature, watching and analyzing his face, eyes boring into his head, hoping to catch his thoughts, those deep, dark, buried thoughts that
Caspian didn't even want to visit except on his darkest days.
Sometimes he felt like she was doing this intentionally to make him uncomfortable.
And then he remembered that fairies were curious by nature, though only scouts showed the determination to get the answers to their questions even if it meant following their current fixation around and around and around.
"It's the annual Bridge meeting," Caspian said, stepping to an open edge of his room, where no vines and branches blocked his way out. He let himself fall to the ground, barely stopped in time to ensure he didn't end up as a mess of broken bones and blood. The rich green grass greeted him, the tips brushing against his face, the hum of the Auktross filling his mind. Now that he'd cleared his head with the fairy wings, the voice and soul of the Auktross was more in tune with his own.
He could feel its happiness, its despair, its pain. At the moment, it only greeted him with a serene thrum, receding to the back of his mind so that he could concentrate on the task at hand: the mermaids.
The mermaids of Nawala weren't actually native to the realm, that honor belonged to the fairies and the fairies only.
No, the mermaids had come from a realm far, far away guided by an insatiable hunger that led them to feed on humans, sea monsters, even their own kind if the need arose.
They crossed through various realms, gifted with the rare ability to traverse the realms freely without interruption or consequence, coming by Nawala just once, the smell of the souls having been their true quest. Once they had tasted a soul or two, they had gone off again, but quickly changed course and returned, the soul the most intoxicating of subjects they had ever found.
And there they stayed.
Caspian knew he ought to give credit to the mermaids, being-in conjunction with the native Duru Rivos sea monsters- part of the reason the Realm didn't receive outside visitors.
Then again, the mermaids were also the reason he'd meddled in magic beyond his understanding, turning forgotten souls into his own personal army.
"Caspian, thank the gods, where have you been?"
Caspian looked up from the small wooden flute he had been fiddling with, turning it over and over again in his hands. Tamaerean, Caspian's second-in-command greeted him, the boy's appearance taking on more animal-like qualities than human. His face was long and thin, angular, a sharp jawline accentuating the near-face-splitting grin he always wore, his teeth sharp and elongated. Patches of gray fur blended seamlessly with his skin which seemed to grow more pronounced each time Caspian saw him.
Despite his tall, lanky body, Tamaerean walked towards him with ease, his steps quiet, eyes focused. "The mermaids are gathering at the cove."
"Then we should greet them," Caspian said, pocketing his flute, his fingers twitching; from the fairy dust or nerves, who could say.
The cove sat near the edge of the island, near the large ominous rock structure that jutted out from the Duru Rivos, massive and bleak, shrouded in thick fog. It was a place of neutral ground, a crossroads so to speak with the realm's notorious plague. Caspian had been waiting in the tops of a nearby tree, so when the time came, he wouldn't have to fly the hour or so it would usually take him from the Auktross.
"You're not thinking of actually making a deal with them, right?" Tam asked, taking care to keep by Caspian's side instead of his usual long strides.
"I haven't really thought about it," Caspian mused, catching sight of the cove. It was a complete lie, Caspian had spent sleepless nights thinking about the Bridge meeting and what he would do, what he would say, to cause the least amount of damage. In the end, he'd come to the conclusion that neither party would be happy with whatever his decision he made. He caught snippets of high-pitched laughter the closer they neared the cove. "I'll do what needs to be done."
"Are the others in position?" Caspian snapped, interrupting the boy before he could go any further. Officially, it would be just him and Tamaerean that would attend the meeting, but the other Wanderers' would be in the treetops, in the bushes, hiding and waiting in case anything went south. And he fully expected things to go south.
"Of course," Tam grumbled. Caspian nodded, stepping to the edge of the island, where it circled around a piece of land that jutted out from the water.
"Ah, my favorite god," a woman said, her voice guttural, harsh-sounding. She rose from the water, a mass of tangled seaweed and limbs and scales. She gripped the rock face, pulling her body fully out of the water. She was truly a sight to behold, as all mermaids were. Her eyes were large, doe-like, giving an air of innocence, which was quickly dispelled when she smiled, two rows of lethal teeth that glinted in the realm's sun. Salt-crusted barnacles adorned her arms-four of them to be exact-and waist, scales of seafoam green covered her entire body, down to her fins, which slowly broke apart. The mermaid hissed in pain as her fin became two awkward legs.
"Poppy," Caspian said stoically, nodding his head slightly.
"I am rather surprised you decided to show up. Perhaps you are not as heartless as you look," she mused, snatching a small fish from the surface of the water. She bit off its head, the body still wiggling in her hand, her fingernails digging into its soft flesh. "When we last talked, you mentioned a deal? I am rather fond of deals, my dear Caspian," Poppy said. She dropped the dead fish into the water, wiped the guts off her mouth.
Cas stared at her for a long, tense moment before he walked over to Tamaerean, gripped the crude gray spearhead the boy had in his hand. Caspian looked around, towards the tree line, where wisps of ethereal white souls were moving about aimlessly. He arched his arm back and threw the spearhead near the closest soul. It struck something, which let out a shriek of pain. In an instant, Tam had lifted off the ground, snatched the end of the spear that jutted out of the flora and pulled a mermaid in her human form out into the open.
The spearhead jutted out of her shoulder, blood leaking down her pale arm. She gave Caspian a bemused smile. He scoffed and turned away, motioning to Tamaerean to throw her back into the water.
"I don't trust you," Caspian said, crouching down by the water's edge so he could stare Poppy in the eyes. She stared back, unblinking, always smiling that grotesque smile.
"As you shouldn't," she replied.
"You've killed my Wanderers', eaten my fairies, devoured my souls. You and your sisters are a blight in this realm." The words came out harsh and unyielding. Caspian could feel Tam's eyes on him. He swallowed against the lump in his throat as he spoke, "I'm prepared to strike a deal with you, Poppy, but I need to know that you will honor this deal."
The intense dislike that Caspian felt for Poppy was undeniable, but he couldn't quite bring himself to hate her or her kind. They were beasts of the sea, albeit intelligent, conniving creatures, but led by their primal instincts nonetheless. If he brought himself to hatred, then he would ultimately have to condemn himself as well. They were two different evils but in the end, shared more than he liked to admit.
"I will keep up my end in this bargain, granted it's fair, and you will cease your killing of my sisters," Poppy said, narrowing her round eyes. It gave the air of a curious, yet ruthless child.
The scales on her face shimmered as they moved slightly. She sat upright, her legs almost useless as they sat on the rock, unmoving.
"Every moon cycle, I will personally deliver ten souls to you. You are not allowed the emotions, nor are you allowed to scavenge the edges of the island for any souls that may have wandered out there. I will keep my Wanderer's inland, you keep your sisters in the Rivos." Caspian could feel Tamaerean's eyes on him, boring deep into the back of his skull. Ten souls was a large amount, given the fact that so few were making it to Nawala. That, coupled with the frantic rescue and recovery of any and all emotional responses, would mean that he'd have to divert more attention to the souls than to the island's protective perimeter.
"Ten souls? You wound me," Poppy said. Her eyes closed slowly in an attempt to blink. "I require twenty souls. Every moon cycle, no exceptions, and then you have a deal."
Caspian balked, running through the scenario in his mind. He'd have to corral all the souls, choose the ones that had been there the longest, hoping against hope that he would choose the souls that had the lowest chance of rebirth. There was the looming thought of taking a soul and crushing any hope of it ever being reborn.
As he had done to his Wanderers.
"Deal," Caspian said through gritted teeth, clenching his shaking fists. Poppy smiled, threw her head back and laughed. A shrill, ear-splitting sound that rattled Cas's mind, jumbled his thoughts, made him lose his grip on the situation at hand.
He hadn't really agreed to that, had he?
Caspian whirled around and stalked back to the Auktross.
"What the fuck, Cas!" Tamaerean was at his side, mouth drawn into a fine line, eyes blazing.
"Twenty souls every moon cycle, are you kidding me? By this time next year, there won't be any souls left! Because you decided to keep the scouts from crossing realms." He began to pace, back and forth, head down, arms folded across his chest. Cobb followed him, the light of her wings the only thing illuminating Tam and Caspian in their ever darkening surroundings. The streak of the sun had closed in on itself, leaving the Lost Realm in a blanket of darkness, the small pulsing lights of the souls providing very little light.
A fog rolled in, thick and unapologetic in its quest to cover the entire island. The other Wanderers' would be back to their usual posts by now, always on watch, always ready.
"It's not like I want to give them the souls," Caspian countered, ignoring Tamaerean's anger.
"You gave in without even giving it a second thought." And yet, Caspian had given it a lot of thought. More than the Wanderer would ever know.
"Tam," Caspian said, biting his tongue to keep from raising his voice, fighting the dark coils that moved within him, "we'll just have to take the older ones."
There was silence. Caspian chose not to speak; he knew that if he did, things would escalate into an all-out fight. Tamaerean just didn't understand. None of them did, and none of them ever would. There was only one Caspian, and try as he might, there was only so much he could do.
"I refuse," Tamaerean spat, his words clipped and dripping with anger, "to willingly feed these souls to the mermaids. We're supposed to protect them, Cas, that's what you told me when you brought me back. Protection." He enunciated each syllable for emphasis.
"We are protecting them. If we don't do this, the mermaids will keep getting their souls and they'll kill off more Wanderers'. We sacrifice the few to save the many."
"I didn't resign my soul to oblivion for this," Tam shook his head, his eyes downcast. He flew towards the Auktross in haste, leaving Caspian alone once again.
“It is time we talk,” Cobb stated, her voice echoing in the forest. Caspian passed through the trees, touching each as he went, his senses on high alert. “It is time for you to allow me, and the rest of the scouts, to resume our duties,” she said, ahead of him, but still within eyesight. The stream of light from the sun was slowly closing into a fine sliver of silver light lending the island a serene feel as the darkness began to envelop the island.
It was easiest to find the souls at dark when they gave off that faint cerulean glow. Caspian spotted three on his left, wading through the forest without a care in the world. They were scatterbrained, unable to access their former life, their memories. They were unaware of everything around them, up until they were chosen for rebirth.
Or eaten by the mermaids. Which was another reason he was out in the bleak night. He had twenty souls to gather in two days. The thought caused bile to rise in his throat.
“You know the reason for that,” Caspian sniffed, walking in the direction of the souls. He stopped a few feet from them, watching.
“May the gods carry their souls to Arcturus,” Cobb mumbled, hand to her chest. “Their failure to return was a depressing event, yes, but that should not have any effect on myself and the others traveling. I have noticed the decrease in souls. Soon enough, there will no souls left to sustain the realm.” She flew next to Caspian’s face. “Let me do what I was born to do.”
Her resolve impressed Caspian, but what she asked for… was impossible.
It had been almost a year since he had forbidden any scouts from traveling outside of the realm, after the last group he had sent out, nearly all the scouts, had not returned.
He suspected they had died. How, he could never say. Their souls had never returned to Nawala, so he assumed either fairies did not have souls, or they had been eaten.
But, what Cobb said was true. Without the scouts traversing the ten realms, leaving behind spiritual trails for the newly departed souls to follow and eventually make their way to Nawala, the souls would stop coming. Sure, a few would miraculously make their way there, but nine times out ten, they couldn’t find their way without help.
If the souls stopped arriving, then the Auktross would slowly begin to fade, unable to sustain itself without the emotional responses of the souls.
And, if that happened, the realm would cease to exist, and the ten realms would forever be altered in a way that they would never be able to come back from.
Caspian chewed on the inside of his cheek. He could risk the scouts going out again or he could rely on the souls to make their own to Nawala.
Either way, Caspian had a hard decision to make.
“I will have to think about it,” Caspian said, motioning for Cobb to select a soul. She flew around the three souls a few times before she stopped in front of one and nodded to Cas.
“I remember this one, from Belvedere,” Cobb said. The quick, flurried motion of her wings gave away her feelings. Caspian noticed that when she was distraught or agitated, her wings would move at an astounding rate. “Very old, perhaps one of the oldest on the realm.”
Caspian moved behind the soul, unable or unwilling to look into the eyes of the soul, and held out his palm, swallowing the lump in his throat. Ethereal tendrils from the soul began to make their way into Caspian’s hand, his arm glowing a soft, light blue. The soul slowly lost it’s humanoid form as it’s essence coalesced into a small ball of light. Caspian cupped the soul gently, the ball sending warmth throughout his body.
A small glass orb popped out from the soul, dropping to the ground. Cobb caught it before it hit the earth. She looked up at Caspian then, her eyes glassy with unshed tears. “I know,” Caspian whispered. He placed the soul next to six others in a carefully-made basket of Auktross roots, imbued with Caspian’s own nature magic to provide a sturdy yet malleable structure. “What about the other two?”
Cobb shook her head, “too young, there are others that are older around here.” She looked at the orb in her arms. “Tamaerean can do this. I must insist that you allow me to resume traveling. If you deny me this, then perhaps I will go anyway and the other fairies will gather strength from my disobedience and see you for what you really are and cast you out of Nawala.” Her tiny body shook with the intensity of her words, eyes wide with hope.
Caspian cracked a small smile. “You think the fairies could push me out of the realm?” The idea of the fairies attempting to shut him out was almost laughable. He’d been called by the Auktross itself-Burshka of Arcturus had told him so-and he couldn’t think of anything that could override the decision of the World Tree of the soul realm.
“It’s possible,” Cobb said indignantly. “But, I’ve been thinking about this for a very long time and I feel the need to go. Which I will do with or without your say so.”
He stared at the fairy, a sudden rush of anger heating his face. What was the point in being proclaimed the sovereign deity of the realm if he couldn’t really stop her from doing what she wanted? He knew the other fairies were quite possibly terrified of him and they only listened to him because of that fact, but Cobb was the only one that actively sought him out.
“You go with Ebbs and no one else. Two days of travel before you are to report back.”
Cobb placed her hand over her heart, balancing the orb with the other. “Thank you, Caspian, I will bring back as many souls as I can. And if I come upon any clues about my missing brothers and sisters, I will-”
“No!” Caspian shouted, wrenching the rock from her and shoving it into his empty water pouch. Cobb stared, the smile that had started to form halted midway in shock. “Just guide the souls.
Do not under any circumstances try and investigate their disappearance. You go out there and back and that’s final. Do I have your word, Cobb?”
Slowly, Cobb nodded. “You have my word, Caspian. I know you won’t say it, but I have a feeling this is your way of saying you care about me,” she grinned, letting out a small laugh. She flew to his head, placed a kiss on his forehead and then zipped off in the direction of the Auktross, no doubt to awaken Ebbs-a fellow scout-and be on her way as soon as possible.
Continuing through the forest, Caspian nabbed six more souls before he slumped against a small oak tree. He played with the orbs of rock, his fingers restless.
What would he do if Cobb never came back? The thought sent a surge of anxiety throughout his body, his stomach churning. And, when exactly, had he come to care for the annoying little bug so much that her departure had caused a small hole to open up in his soul?
Even the feel of the Auktross, the slow and steady pulse of its soul flowing into him, wasn’t enough to comfort him.
Two fairies flew near him when the sun began to form, a caregiver, wearing a flowing robe made from various flower petals, and a sproutling, barely three inches tall in height, wings flying in uneven beats. He watched them draw closer, the caregiver giving intermittent instructions to the new fairy, and once he recognized the caregiver, he called her over.
She was by his side within seconds, clearly nervous to be so close to him, eyes shifting to the side, unable to make direct eye contact with him. “You called, lord?” Her voice was quiet, docile.
Different from the outspoken and confident words of Cobb.
“I need to refill my dust and need a harvester to take care of these,” he pointed to his pouch, and the fairy nodded. There was the unspoken agreement that Caspian would also be needing a pair of wings, as a handful of dark gray clouds had formed in the distance, slowly making their way to the island. He wanted to be rid of them so that he could perform his upcoming Merge with the Auktross without the distraction of unsavory weather. “I will watch the sproutling for you,” he added, beckoning the other fairy to join them.
The caregiver glanced between the two, twisting her hands, wings beating faster. “Yes, of course, lord. This is Wimm, the newest caregiver.” The sproutling was a male fairy, a rare occurrence within the female-dominant species. Most of the males were, by design, scouts, though there was the occasional male harvester or caregiver. As scouts were different shades of purple, harvesters were red and caregivers were brown. Wimm was a light chestnut, the plates on his body softer and less pronounced than a scout’s, wings smaller and rounder. The caregiver flew off, stopping once to cast Caspian a nervous look before she was gone from sight.
“Lord,” Wimm said, bowing deeply. He met Caspian’s eyes, new and naive.
“How many were born in your clutch?”
“Five, lord,” the fairy answered. Caspian nodded to himself. The lack of souls was affecting the birth of fairies. Usually, the number of new fairies in a clutch was around twenty or so.
“As I thought. Tomorrow I’ll be performing my Merge with the Auktross. Have you been versed in your duties during that time?” At this point, Caspian was just making friendly conversation, something that rarely happened with fairies that weren’t Cobb. It was a welcome distraction and, when the caregiver returned with dust and another fairie, he’d almost forgotten that he was without his closest friend.