She closed her eyes and concentrated, envisioning the sleek lines of her devoted Alaban Kit. As before, her energy merely sparked off her ring, dissipating quickly in the misty air. What is going on? the Arderian Adept wondered. It's like the Dream Plane just isn't there! Shivering slightly in the cool breeze, she determined to try once more. Finally, her energy sank into the ring and she felt the connection open to the world of dreams. With a whirl of shining light and a slight gust of charged air, Yeepo appeared before her mistress. The young Alaban chirped and whistled happily as her form solidified. With a relieved laugh, Shimmer caught Yeepo up in her arms for a big hug; ruffling her iridescent scales affectionately before letting her go.
Suddenly, Yeepo squealed in a high-pitched tone, chiding her mistress. Shimmer smiled up at her favorite dream creature, now buzzing lazy circles in the mist-shrouded air of the starberry forest. "Sorry, little one. I know it's late in the day. But, it's my turn to patrol the North Cloud Forest, and I needed to get the inspection done before dreaming you up."
Yeepo squawked indignantly once more. Shimmer giggled as the little Alaban Kit turned a somersault in mid-air, misjudging the distance between herself and the nearest branch laden with starberries. Bouncing gracelessly off one of the glowing orbs of fruit, she issued yet another indignant chirp. She bounced her soft beak angrily off the nearest glowing berry.
"Don't be silly, Yeepo," Shimmer scolded gently. "You know how important the starberries are to us. We must inspect the groves regularly to ensure they are maintaining their energy, otherwise the whole of Arderial could fall right out of the sky!"
Yeepo suddenly began to buzz in tight circles, whistling a descending trill, which ended as she abruptly plopped herself to the spongy surface of the cloud at Shimmer's feet. She played dead for a moment, eyes tightly shut, tiny little tongue sticking out from beneath her beak. Then she cracked open one eye to look up at her mistress. Shimmer laughed in merriment at the Kit's dramatics. "Yes, that's right. We'll all fall right out of the sky!" Yeepo rose and flitted around Shimmer's head, before buzzing right up to gently bounce her beak off the adept's perky nose.
"You're incorrigible!" Shimmer laughed. "I wanted to see you too, but I needed to save my concentration for the inspection. You, my busy little buzzy-ball, are terribly distracting, I'm afraid." Yeepo pivoted to survey the surrounding forest with her glittering rainbow-hued eyes. She whistled a question.
Nodding her head, Shimmer replied, "That's right, I'm not quite finished yet, but I was getting terribly lonely. Besides, I've almost reached the end of the path. The Source Tree is just ahead. I thought you might be able to help me check its energy level." Yeepo chirped happily and began bouncing from berry to berry.
Watching her little creature's cheerful antics, Shimmer felt the usual warmth of her affection for the Kit sink into her skin and warm her right down to her toes. The long walk through the Cloud Forest had been a lonely, if necessary, task. But now it was almost finished. All that remained was the inspection of the Source Tree.
"C'mon, buzz-butt: time to finish the job!" With that, Shimmer pushed aside a trailing branch laden with ripe starberries and entered the great grove of the North Source.
Before her sprawled the enormous bulk of the Source Tree; its branches soaring high into the sky, its roots tightly clasped around the enormous chunk of solid animite from which it drew its powerful life-giving magic.
Yeepo sailed overhead, zipping merrily between the great branches as Shimmer approached the mighty roots of the tree. The animite stone gleamed with a soft blue light from between the dark roots which bound it tightly. From here, she knew, the roots sank into the soft cloud surface below her slippered feet, spreading out and connecting to each and every starberry tree in the North Cloud Forest, as well as much of the Sky Ring city itself. Animite energy gleaned from the great stone was carried along those roots, powering the lifting magic of the starberries - giving a firm substance to the clouds of Arderial and making life in the sky possible. Without the energized network of starberry roots, the great city of Arderial would cease to exist, and so a constant maintenance of the three great Cloud Forests, each with their own Source Tree, was a routine part of life in the region of sky.
Shimmer held out her hands and placed them gently upon the surface of the great stone, feeling its warmth radiating between her fingers. As she had been taught long ago, she sent out a tiny trickle of her own energy, letting it sink into the heart of the stone. Now she waited. If the stone was fully charged, as it had been for as far back as anyone could remember, then her energy would return to her in a few minutes. If not... well, that had never happened and likely never would.
Shimmer heard Yeepo flitting happily through the branches overhead and smiled as she waited patiently. Her primary task finished, she had been glad to finally call upon her faithful dream companion to alleviate the silence and loneliness of the Cloud Forest. The little Alaban Kit couldn't really help her with her final chore, but because the nature of the task was so simple, she couldn't prove a dangerous distraction either.
The stones and the Source Trees were legacies of the Arderians?Eliwan Ancestors, left behind from the time when the Moon was created. In her experience, Shimmer had never heard of any of the great Eliwan legacies ever failing, and she was certain they wouldn't fail now. In general, the Starbushes needed only occasional pruning, or the removal of the odd berry that had grown dim and withered. Even rarer still, the roots themselves could become tangled and a patch of bushes might lose its connection to the magical flow of energy from the Source Tree, creating a dangerous soft spot in the normally solid cloud surface. But these problems were all dealt with easily enough. The checking of the Source stones had become a traditional ritual more than anything else.
A sudden deep buzzing came from Yeepo. It had the unmistakable sound of warning. Shimmer's eyes popped open, although she had been unaware of closing them. Yeepo was hovering before her.
The deep buzz from her friend continued, growing more frantic. Yeepo's form began to waiver and blur before her eyes. It looked almost as if she were beginning to dissolve back into the Dream Plane - but Shimmer had not yet dismissed her!
"Yeepo!" Shimmer found her own eyesight starting to blur, the Source Tree and her hands upon the stone becoming soft puddles of color. "What's happening?!"
Suddenly, there came a great sound - as of the rending of some celestial bolt of heavy fabric. The noise tore through the Source Grove, shaking the mighty tree and all its roots. Shimmer's hands broke from the surface of the stone and she fell back, her landing cushioned by the spongy cloud surface below. Then, as suddenly as it had appeared, the sound was gone. Shimmer was left breathless, but unharmed. Her vision swiftly returned to normal, and Yeepo solidified before her eyes. "Yeepo!" she cried out. "Are you alright?" The response was a tentative whistle.
She took a moment to inspect herself, before focusing inward to her energy reserves. All was normal. She hurried to the animite stone held in the tight clutches of the Source Tree. Its glow seemed as steady as ever. Then, as she peered deep within, she thought she saw the faintest of flickers. Her hands touched the stone again and she sent a trickle of energy into the surface, willing it deep into the center. Warily, she braced herself for a repeat of the horrible noise and disorientation. Within moments, she was both surprised and greatly relieved as the Source stone gently returned her energy - just as it always had - until minutes ago. Yeepo buzzed behind her left ear, chirping questioningly. "Yeah, I'm okay now - I guess."
Further introspection on the odd occurrence was stopped when, with a flutter of wings, young Kalius came crashing into the Grove - landing with his usual reckless grace before the Adept and her flustered dream creature. "Adept! What happened? You okay?" Shimmer barely began to reply to the Arderian scout's frantic questions when he cut her off, continuing his breathless dialogue. "I saw the whole Tree shake and shudder, and then the Forest was flickering like a flock o' wild lightnin' xyx! You sure you're alright, Adept?" Kalius continued breathlessly, "Oh! And that big BOOM! What was that! The wind picked up and almost buckled my wings! And then..."
"Kalius!" Shimmer's sudden stern command stopped the young Arderian in mid-sentence. "There, that's better." She studied the scout standing before her, still catching his breath, but silent for the moment. "Now tell me, are you alright?"
Kalius grinned sheepishly, his cheeks flushed with mixed excitement and embarrassment. "Who me? 'Course I'm okay! Takes more'n a little ol' breeze to take the wind from my wings!"
"Well, tell me more of what you saw from above. You say the whole forest was flickering?"
"That's right! I never knew the Starberries could get so bright! And the light was brightest just through there!" He pointed grimly back down the forest path which led back to the Sky Ring.
"Perhaps we should take a look over there," murmured Shimmer, her thoughts awhirl. She glanced back at Kalius. "Perhaps you'd better prepare ring or two. This seems all too like the work of the Core!"
She started off down the path, Yeepo fluttering along worriedly just behind her. Kalius jumped to catch up. "The Core? You really think so? But with Agram locked away, we haven't seen hide nor hair of a Core or Shadow magi for more'n three years!"
"Don't forget that the Shadow Magi are still wreaking havoc below," Shimmer reminded him as they pushed their way through the overhanging Starberries. "The Dark Twins still hold Vash Naroom, and just because the other Shadow's have disappeared, doesn't mean they're not plotting something."
Kalius gulped audibly. "Do you... that is, I mean... well, could Harror be back?"
Shimmer repressed a shudder. "Hmmm... well, of course it is possible... but this doesn't seem to be her style." Unhappy memories of Arderial's very own Shadow Magi briefly flickered through her mind's eye. She shook her head to clear it. "This is different... something new, I think."
"Nothin' new from the Core is ever good." Kalius muttered.
Shimmer nodded in silent agreement as they both ducked under several overhanging branches laden with glowing starberries. In the small clearing beyond, they discovered a small form lying upon the ground.
"This is where I saw the big flash... I think." Said Kalius in a whisper, his wide eyes never leaving the strange thing huddled beneath the bushes. Cautiously, Shimmer and the young scout approached the still form.
"Yuck!" was Kalius' comment upon getting a closer look at the thing.
Shimmer silenced him with a stern look and went back to her inspection. The purplish body seemed to be nothing more than a large spherical sack with a long line drawn across one side, presumably a mouth. There was no sign of anything that might be eyes. Scores of fleshy appendages, like tentacles, sprouted from one end, while two prominent "flippers" were joined on either side of the mouth. Even stranger, the "tentacles" seemed to be somewhat shredded, and a thin watery substance was seeping forth to be greedily soaked up by the cloud surface.
"What's that funny smell?" whispered Kalius. When Shimmer still didn't respond, he continued. "Ever see anythin' like it? Kinda looks like somethin' from Orothe - though I never saw an ocean creature quite like this one! What could it be doin' here?"
Shimmer shook her head and shrugged. "I don't know. I haven't seen its like before either." Tentatively, she held out a finger to touch it. The rubbery skin was warm beneath her fingers, slightly pebbled. Now that she was examining the beast in more detail, she noted what seemed to be several long burn marks wrapping around the body. "It appears to have been badly injured." Shimmer turned to look up at Kalius, who still bore a look of faint disgust. "We should try to get it back to the city. Perhaps one of the Scholars will know what it is and where it came from."
Kalius scratched his head, "Uh... I dunno, Adept. I mean, what if it really is from the Core?"
"And what if it isn't!" came Shimmer's sharp retort. "We've discovered an injured creature in need of help. Our duty... my duty... is clear in this. I must try to help if I can."
Finally, Kalius shrugged and moved closer to help Shimmer lift the strange being so it could be carried back to the city. The moment he touched it, however, it writhed violently and fell from his grasp. The tentacles crackled with energy, and the beast slowly raised itself, hovering a few inches from the ground. Fully upright, the creature only reached to Shimmer's waist. The feature which Shimmer had assumed to be its mouth, now popped open to reveal an enormous eye, almost the same diameter as the body itself! With startled cries, Shimmer and Kalius both leaped back. Yeepo zipped behind her mistress to hover, shivering and emitting small hoots of dismay.
The beast glared back at the two magi, and Shimmer swore its gaze was full of fear. The two flipper arms raised slowly before the great eye, held out in what could only be seen as a gesture of submission. In that moment, Shimmer's resolve solidified, and she moved to assist the creature in whatever manner she could. As she approached, however, the beast yelped in unmistakable terror and pain; the sound coming from a previously unnoticed hole below the huge eye. The sounds were a sort of grating buzz, but they sounded like: "El-I-Wan. Please... no."
Shimmer halted in her tracks, her eyes narrowing as she met the creature's gaze. "Did... did you just speak?" The creature made no reply, but floated backward a few inches until it was pressed into the branches behind it. "We will not hurt you," she announced slowly and clearly. "We want to help you."
The purple hide of the beast began to tremble. The small "mouth" opened again. "El-I-Wan. Lie." Then the great eye rolled back in the body, the tentacles fizzled out with a loud 'pop!' and the creature fell unconscious to the ground once more.
Yeepo twittered in distress, as Shimmer rushed to kneel by the fallen creature. Without further delay, she tapped the third ring on her third finger and invoked her Alaban, the mighty adult counterpart to little Yeepo. The graceful serpentine body slid across the sky, disappearing out of sight beyond the tops of the nearby starberry trees. The huge head dipped down into the clearing to gaze upon its mistress. Yeepo squealed in delight and buzzed happily about the great dream creature's head, but the Alaban steadfastly ignored the small Kit. Shimmer reached out to place a gentle hand upon the Alaban's great beak.
"Yarek, we need your assistance. Will you bear us to the city?" The great beast nodded once in acquiescence, then lowered itself until its mighty head rested upon the ground. Turning to Kalius, Shimmer commanded, "Help me get it onto Yarek's neck."
"But what if it..."
"Just do it, scout!" Shimmer rarely lost patience, but she had been overcome with a strange sensation. It was part dread, part wonder, all mingled together with an overwhelming sense of imminent change - as if the world itself was about to alter beyond all recognition. "We must get this thing back to the city at once!"
Kalius helped her lift the purple beast in silence. Its limp body was surprisingly heavy for its relatively small size. Although she had the same power of flight shared by all Arderians, winged or not, she clambered onto Yarek's neck so that she might secure him as the Alaban flew. She signaled her readiness and the mighty Alaban gracefully slipped up and out of the clearing, wending its serpentine way across the tops of the starberry trees in utter silence.
Kalius flew up to keep pace with Yarek so that he might speak to Shimmer. "What was it talkin' about? Sounded like Ell-uh-won, or somethin? And it looked awful afraid!"
"It was afraid, Kalius. Very afraid... of the Eliwan."
"But... what on the Moon are the... uh... Ell-uh-won?"
Shimmer turned to gaze solemnly at the young scout as they flew swiftly across the Cloud Forest. The great towers of the Sky Ring of Arderial loomed beyond a lofty cloud peak, just beginning to turn pink and orange as the sun began to drift downward to the horizon. "We are, Kalius." Her voice was quiet, thick with some unidentifiable set of emotions. "We are the Eliwan."