Elli could hardly believe the smoldering ash before her. The wind caught at it, blowing dust and burnt fragments across the street. There was nothing alive in there anymore.
Uz was actually dead.
Elli spun at her Mother's call. She lingered on the side of the dusty road, near the burnt out trading post building. Her Father and brother, Jeck, carried the traveler woman in their arms awkwardly. Their house was around the corner of the next street. That's where they were taking her.
The rest of the village that gathered to watch the fight stood back from their family. Most had already fled, but a curious few lingered near the pile of ash that was once the demon Uz. Much like Elli had. It was hard to fathom the world without him. None of them offered to help her family carry away the woman who killed that demon.
Elli looked back to Mother, who beckoned to her with a fierce gesture. Elli broke into a run, her old sandals kicking up dirt in the street. She rejoined her family, peering closer at the women in their arms. She didn't look hurt bad. There was a bloody gash on her arm; two scars on her face, but those looked older. Her head lay slack, her eyes closed.
She had to live. She just had to. Anyone who could face Uz and destroy him had to survive a simple knock on the head. Elli wouldn't accept anything else. This woman—this outsider—had saved them all.
Her brother Jeck kicked open their house door with the back of his foot. He and Father rushed inside, heading to Elli's room on the right. No sooner did they have the woman on her bed that Mother had a bowl of clean water and a washcloth. Elli knelt beside her, making sure she had cloth to cinch around the cut on the woman's arm.
"Elli, quickly," Mother command: "bring me the cleanser from the medicine cabinet."
Elli didn't hesitate. She found the plastic bottle and brought it back to her room. Mother held a cloth over the top of the bottle and doused it with the cleanser. She began scrubbing at any visible wound on the woman. Elli knew from painful experience the foul liquid burnt like fire wherever it touched. If it hurt, though, the woman gave no indication. Or she was so deeply unconscious that it didn't matter.
"Jeck, let's go," said Father. "We need to watch for trouble."
Her Father and brother grabbed their guns and stepped outside the house. Elli didn't know what trouble they worried about. Uz was dead. He was the only real trouble in their village for as long as Elli could remember. Now he was dead. Little more than ash and dust in the street where the woman had attacked him. She had to be a warrior from the Far Country. No one else had ever faced the demon and lived.
Maybe this woman wouldn't either.
Mother finished dressing the visible wounds. Then she motioned Elli around and the two began removing the woman's clothing. It was newer material. It felt of no wear or tear like everything else in the village. The trousers hadn't been handed down because there was nowhere else to get new fabric. And the boots! They were the finest boots Elli had ever seen. If she had boots like these, she could walk out into the wastes and never need to return again.
There were bruises and scars beneath the woman's clothing, but no gashes or bloody marks. Her skin was strangely pale. Father said traders from the west had paler skin than was natural in their village, but Elli had never seen them or skin this white before. Was this woman from the farthest civilization in the world? A place where demons like Uz were of little concern to the men or women?
"She's better off than I expected," Mother said. She wiped sweat from her forehead with the back of her hand. "I think bumping her head against the ground knocked her out cold."
Elli reluctantly pulled back one of the eyelids. The woman had light green eyes. Thankfully, her pupils weren't dilated. She didn't have a concussion. But if she had other damage to her head, they wouldn't know until she awoke again. Or if she never woke. For now, there was little else they could do. Uz had burned down their one and only medical clinic years ago. All they had left were the dwindling supplies they had saved from a fire Elli was too young to remember.
Mother handed her the cloth and bandages they'd worked with. "Clean these. When you're finished, you can take a turn watching over her."
Elli obeyed, leaving from the room and heading outside. She found it hard to focus as she rinsed the cloth at the spigot behind the house. Memories flashed in her mind of the woman darting around Uz. She moved with incredible speed. The way she lashed out and attacked seemed inhuman. And yet a bump on the head was enough to send her to the land of dreams. How could she be anything more than a regular woman?
Elli spent the remainder of the afternoon and late into the evening sitting over her own bedside, watching as the woman took slow breaths. Elli was convinced she wasn't that much older than her. She couldn't be past her middle twenties. She'd cut her hair recently, so that the natural auburn locks hung barely to her shoulders. She bore a few scant freckles on her upper cheeks. And despite a couple of scars from previous fights, there was a youthful smoothness to her features. This woman could be Elli's older sister.
Well, if Elli had ever looked so sickly pale. She could hardly imagine having skin that pasty. Didn't it burn in the sun?
Elli didn't see much of her family that night. Though she heard Father and Kolm talking out front through her window. It was late, and Mother had long since brought Elli dinner while she sat watch in her room.
"She's alive," Father said, his voice hushed.
"But will she wake?" said Kolm. He was the closest anyone came to being their village leader. Uz made a game of slaughtering whoever claimed the position. Kolm never bore any titles, but he always made a point of visiting every household and making sure everyone was cared for. So while no one called him their leader, they silently respected him as such. Out of fear that Uz would come for him.
But Uz would come for none of them ever again.
"Meri thinks so," said Father. "She has Elli watching over her when she does."
Kolm exhaled, sounding frustrated. "How did she do it? Why was she even wandering this far out in the wastes?"
"She could have been any of the merchants or traders from the old days. Telia saw them approach from the church roof back when Uz first cut us off. Folks used to seek our wayside out; used to wonder what happened to us. Is it so strange to imagine people from the Far Country haven't looked for us since?"
"Only an ignorant fool would assume there was no danger out here. That's why no one's seen them across the vast wastes in years. They know only death waits for those who stray too close."
"But she is no ignorant fool," Father pressed. "She was prepared for the danger."
"She's at least a lucky fool. I don't know what would provoke a Pathfinder like her to test the old trading routes through the wastes after so long. Nothing perhaps sheer bravado."
"A woman capable of killing Uz? Isn't it obvious? She was searching for more than our lost village. She was seeking older legends. She was probably searching for the Sayer."
Kolm hesitated. Elli scooted closer to her window, waiting on bated breath to hear his reply. Finally, he said, "If the Sayer was anything useful, it would've dealt with Uz a long time ago."
"We can't judge, Kolm. We've not been back into the Bleak Hills in sixteen years. Uz always killed our hunting parties that went that way. Maybe the Sayer is dormant. The legends of the oracles seemed to think so."
"The only thing I knew for certain was Uz's love of mayhem. And I don't have any interest looking for replacement demons now that he's gone."
Elli snorted, turning back to the sleeping woman in her bed.
The Sayer wasn't a demon. And it wasn't dormant. But Elli didn't talk about such things. Before, it meant inviting the unwanted attention of Uz. It wasn't her fault the demon hadn't noticed where she wandered when others weren't looking. She hadn't realized it was so dangerous, either. Why would anyone listen to her now? She would sound foolish; like the child she was. Elli wouldn't be counted worthy of raising her first house for another three years at least.
No one would listen to a girl her age.
The Pathfinder woman had to wake up. If she was here looking for the Sayer, then Elli had to question her. Find out what she knew. Were their opportunities in the Far Country beyond the wastes? Could they open roads again now that Uz no longer terrorized their lands? Were there greater oracles out there? And if she had come looking for the Sayer, what did she expect to find?
Elli stayed by the Pathfinder's bedside for two more days. All the while, scenes of the attack played out in her memory again and again. Most of the time, Elli was convinced she was simply another woman, though she had traveled far across the wastes. And yet, there were times—usually in the latest hours when Elli neared sleep—that she felt this woman had to be something more. Maybe an angel from above. Only an angel could defeat Uz.
Finally, on the morning of the third day, the Pathfinder stirred, rolling on her side. She blinked open her light green eyes, smiling as they rested on Elli.
Elli gasped, leaping to her feet. She carried a glass of water, and the Pathfinder took it gingerly. When she finally opened her mouth, her voice sounded parched.
"Thank you," she managed. The Pathfinder tipped back the glass again. "That's better."
She sat up, wincing once; then swung her legs out over the edge of the bed. Elli watched her reverently, lost for a moment in the reality that she was actually awake. Suddenly she couldn't remember a single question she wanted to ask.
The Pathfinder looked down at her bare legs. "Don't suppose you have my pants nearby, do you?"
Elli snapped out of her daze. She rushed to her bureau across the room where they'd folded the Pathfinder's clothes. She accepted the trousers first, slipping her legs in and then pulling on her shirt next.
"I owe you a lot of thanks," she said, putting a hand on Elli's shoulder. "Were you the one who patched me up after I went down?"
Elli nodded. She squeaked, trying to find her voice. "My family. My family took you in. My Mother is trained in medicine, but she is teaching me. We've watched over you the last two days."
"Two days? Damn. Oh well, I gave myself allowances. I guess it's better than the alternative. No one came looking for me, did they?"
Elli shook her head no. Now that she was awake and moving, Elli realized the Pathfinder was rather pretty. She felt a brief stab of jealousy. She would never be that pretty. She rarely ever attracted the attention of any of the boys in her village. This Pathfinder could easily slay all their hearts.
"I expected as much," said the Pathfinder. "I won't be missed for a little longer."
"Who are you?" Elli blurted out. She blushed, but it felt good to finally ask questions she'd sat on for so long.
The Pathfinder chuckled. "I'm no one. Certainly no one anyone in your village would care about. My name is Ari. What's yours?"
"Ari," Elli tested the name on her tongue. Was that common in the Far Country? Elli knew only the traditional names of her village. But when she realized Ari stared at her expectantly, she blushed again and said, "Elli. My name is Elli."
"Well it's good to meet you Elli. I need to thank you and your family for the bed and roof while I recuperated." She put a hand to one of her temples. She winced, then relaxed, nodding to herself. "I bumped my head harder than I realized. Could I be of a little more trouble and ask you for some food?"
Elli nodded eagerly, rushing out into the main room. Mother was setting the table for breakfast. Father stood by the window, staring out at the dirt road that ran past the front of the house. There were people out there milling in Wes' property. Perhaps hoping to catch a glimpse of the Pathfinder.
Mother paused. "Elli?"
"The Pathfinder has awoken!"
Mother abandoned the table, heading towards Elli's room. The Pathfinder stood on the threshold, smiling politely. Mother froze, her eyes wide. "You are awake," she breathed.
"You must be Elli's Mother. Thank you for treating me."
Father and Jeck stared from the dining room. Elli wanted to scream at them. Why was everyone standing around? Their savior was awake! Had they already forgotten what she did to Uz? Or perhaps was that all they could think about right now?
A few of the people across the street pointed at their house. The Pathfinder—Ari—stepped into the main room proper. If there was any doubt among the rest of the village, it was gone now. They could see her clearly.
"Please, sit," said Mother, "we have food prepared."
The Pathfinder rubbed her stomach. "You have no idea how wonderful that sounds. And smells."
Father pulled out his usual place at the head of the table for her to sit. He opted to sit beside Jeck across from Mother. Elli took her place at the other end of the table. Mother resumed preparations, bringing hog's meat and pan fried cakes for their breakfast. It was a meager meal, considering what they could farm under Uz's games. But the Pathfinder dug into her portion with hearty ferocity. It may as well have been a feast worthy of a queen.
When Mother offered her more, she refused. "I won't eat your servings as well," she said. "Not after everything you've already done for me."
Elli glanced at Father. She could see the unformed words on his lips. You've done far more for us. But either out of trepidation or uncertainty, he didn't say them. Elli wished she had the courage to say them.
It was Jeck who was brave enough to ask the first question. "You are a Pathfinder?"
Ari threaded her fingers together, reclining in the wooden kitchen chair. "That's the general job title. Though the description that goes with it varies from city to city. I think most thought I was an idiot to come out through the wastes."
Was it true? Did everyone in the Far Countries look with disinterest on the wastelands? Was that why so few followed the others Uz killed? Then who was this Pathfinder, to cross any wilderness without concern for the obstacles ahead?
"What route did you come by?" said Father.
"My last stop was in a city four hundred kilometers west called Dervin's Bay," said Ari, reaching for her cup. She tipped back the water; she hadn't stopped since she woke. "I was originally seeking a presence out in these wastes. Something you might call an oracle."
Elli's breath caught. She kept her silence, though. It wouldn't do well if the others heard her speak of the Sayer. It would only undermine every secret she'd kept since she reached the age of youth. But her suspicions were correct—this woman was here for the Sayer.
Father shook his head. "We've been out of touch with the Far Countries for close to sixteen years. My Father spoke of this place, but I've never traveled there. I never thought I would…"
Ari stared at Father, her eyes soul searching. "It was the demon that kept you here."
Elli felt the tension around the table. Jeck shared a knowing look her way and Mother glanced down at her hands. At length, Father nodded reluctantly. "Aye. We were bound by Uz's whims until you arrived."
"Lousy bastard," Ari growled. "I'm glad I veered this far south. I was headed for the hills east of here, but something caught my interest." Elli paled as Ari's eyes flickered her way. It was only for a moment, but she hadn't missed it. "I can only imagine how many more years he would have tormented you."
"How?" Mother breathed. "How could you possibly stand against Uz?"
The Pathfinder looked to Mother, her expression measured. Elli recognized that look; the kind parents held when they weren't sure what to say to curious children. It was the same look Mother gave Elli when she first asked why no one resisted Uz. How could Mother have explained to a child so young?
"I came from distant shores, far beyond Dervin's Bay," said Ari. "A place where others like me have gifts to resist the powerful."
"Are you from another Terran world?" Jeck suddenly spoke up.
Father and Mother zeroed in on Jeck, but neither of them glared. Talk of other Terran worlds wasn't expressly forbidden. But it was discouraged if Uz was nearby. He always mocked the Old Tales. Made a point of torturing any who expressed belief. But Uz was dead. Did the taboos of speaking the Old Tales matter anymore?
Ari cocked her head, obviously curious. "You believe in other Terran worlds?"
Father sighed. "It is an old custom among our people, handed down to each generation, long before we settled this village. I'm sure you've heard plenty like them in the Far Country. The Old Tales of when Terrans first settled this galaxy. Back when we sailed the stars. It has been so long, but the Tales persists that others like us live on other Terran worlds."
"It is hard to speak of these things," Mother admitted. "The demon you killed toyed with us. Even now, I can scarcely speak—I fear he waits to torment us."
Ari muttered a curse under her breath. "Why didn't any of you fight him?"
Father clenched his fists. "If you would walk to the edge of our village, you will find the graves of all who tried."
"And not a single one of you holds the Gifts of Caritas?"
Elli frowned at the title. It meant nothing to her, and judging by the looks from her family, it meant nothing to them either. Ari spoke before anyone could question her: "Never mind. I believe you. I'm only sorry I was the first to stumble onto your predicament. I can't imagine how many others like Uz wander the wastes to toy with settlements like this."
She brushed over it so quickly. The Pathfinder kept secrets. Or tried to distract them from something obvious. It left Elli's mind racing. There was something important there.
"Tell me about other Terran worlds," Ari prodded, turning her focus on Jeck.
"They are places of ancient technology and gifts," said Jeck. "You said you came from a place with gifts. If they are not here, then they must be from other worlds the Terrans settled. Gifts to fight a demon the way you did."
Ari nodded thoughtfully, her eyes distant. "Your people know more than I expected. Even for an isolated village, tormented for so long by a demon." She looked up, her gaze soft. "I am not from this planet, true. I come from a place far more distant than you could imagine. But I suspect we share a common ancestry if we went far back enough. Maybe the same gifts your ancestors once bore."
"The Gifts of Caritas," Elli spouted. "That's what it's called, isn't it? It's what you used to defeat Uz. And you believe our people have that power. Or at least that we should."
Elli ignored the stark looks from her family. She was supposed to mind her place. But Elli didn't care about them. She wanted to know what Ari had to say. Her thoughts mattered more than anything else now.
The Pathfinder grinned. "You're pretty sharp, aren't you Elli? I think the local nomenclature has little meaning for the title. Another one I heard tossed around in passing is Source."
Elli's breath caught. A conversation three years past with the Sayer came back to sharp focus.
Ari's grin faltered. "You've heard that word before, haven't you, Elli?"
Once again, her family stared at her. Things were going to be different after today. Elli only hoped she could make that change in a direction that mattered.
"Yes," she admitted.
Ari didn't say anything for a moment. Her eyes were calculating, but there was a hint of a playful smile teasing at her lips. Elli's revelations fascinated her—there was no hiding that.
"I suspect," Ari began, turning her attention back to the table at large, "that the gifts of other Terran worlds are used throughout the stars. Definitely on this planet, but in places you haven't known before. Or if you have, only in select numbers."
"What does this mean?" Father demanded. "And Elli, how do you know about any of this?"
Elli opened her mouth, but hesitated, unsure of what to say. She was in trouble; she knew that much. But maybe Ari could help her.
"Elli," she said, "you've seen the oracle I'm looking for, haven't you?"
Elli felt her face flush. She nodded, saying quickly, "We call it the Sayer."
Mother's eyes bulged. "Elli! What have you done?"
"You weren't supposed to, huh?" said Ari.
"Only because we're forbidden from going into the Bleak Hills. Uz would kill us if we wandered too far. But I was little and I didn't know. And when he didn't come for me…"
Father massaged his eyes, looking exhausted. Mother's dark skin turned ashen gray. Jeck held a look that bordered between admiration and shock. Yes; she, the quiet one, did something forbidden and wandered out where it wasn't safe.
"You've seen the Sayer?" said Jeck.
"Seen?" Ari said through a laugh. "I'd wager she's done more than see. You two probably had some interesting conversations, didn't you?"
Elli wished she could banish the embarrassment welling up inside. The truth was out, but Uz was dead. What did it matter now? If the Pathfinder had traveled here from a distant planet, it was more important that Elli tell the truth. Because everything to come hinged on that.
"The Sayer is confused," Elli said, unable to smother her discomfort. "It speaks in riddles because it thinks we're in a different place. Or a different time. But it understands the old gifts; wanted nothing but to talk about them."
"When did this happen?" Mother said, tone dripping with exhaustion.
"I don't think that matters anymore," said Ari. "You're only going to worry yourselves sick about old dangers that mean little anymore. If Elli was truly in peril, it would have come a long time ago. What matters now is that Elli knows something important."
Elli sat up straight. "Me?"
Ari nodded, a spark in her eyes. "You not only know where I can find this Sayer, but it likely has something important for you. I would like you to lead me to it."
"Absolutely not," said Father. "I will not allow you to take my daughter into harm's—"
"Sir, I've single-handedly removed the harm you're thinking about at this exact moment. Well, the fear you feel at this exact moment if we're going to get precise. Now I'm sorry if I'm being too blunt. Your village suffered long and hard enough as it is. You have every right to be afraid. But you're afraid for the wrong reasons now. And Elli never would've made it to the oracle and back alive unless she had gifts protecting her."
Elli's family went still. Mother and Father's outrage faded from their features. But Elli's heart thumped loudly in her chest. All of her secrets were out now. And worse, Ari insinuated that there were gifts reaching into her life. Into little Elli.
I'm not the hero you are, Pathfinder. Don't you dare compare me to you. I can never be like that.
"Elli," Ari began, her tone reproachful, "the oracle—the Sayer—has a connection you've probably felt. I didn't notice it before, and to be honest, I can't truly sense it now. But if you're telling me the truth, then you should lead me to it. Because it's likely waiting for you."
Elli set her jaw. "I wouldn't lie to you. I wouldn't lie to any of you."
Ari's expression softened. "Then you know you need to come with me."
"She will do no such thing," said Mother. "I will not have you offering her as a sacrifice to another demon."
Elli grunted, disgusted. "Mother, the Sayer is not a demon!" Then the fire died and she immediately felt shame for challenging Mother.
"No," said Ari. "No it isn't. And I suspect had I not shown up, it would have acted through Elli to rid you all of the demon you call Uz."
"Impossible," Jeck whispered.
"Elli, will you come with me?"
Elli met Ari's gaze. She really meant it. The Sayer had something special in mind for Elli, though she couldn't imagine what. And Ari was offering to bring her there to see it through.
Elli pushed back from the table, getting to her feet. "Let's go."
Ari nodded, grinning. She stood as well.
"Wait!" Mother protested. "You can't just take my daughter!"
"She's not taking her," said Father. His response startled Elli. "This is her choice. And Elli is practically a woman. If the Sayer is an oracle…we should have paid more attention to you a long time ago. Let you speak up."
"Damn right you should've," Ari growled. "You need to learn some gender equality around here. It might save your lives should another demon come along."
Ari made for the door. Elli hesitated only a moment; then tore off after her. Ari held the door open so that Elli could step through. Elli didn't look back, marching purposefully up the dirt road. She tried not to watch as the gathered villagers erupted in chatter. She focused forward, away from their spectacle.
Behind her, she heard a clamor as the rest of her family gathered at the door. "You will bring her back?" said Mother.
Elli could hear Ari lingering near the house. "She will make the decision herself. I suspect she will return eventually. But that's not my place to say."
Part of Elli hoped she never returned. That this was her chance to set out as an apprentice Pathfinder. She would travel the world, and, if Jeck's suspicions were true, many other worlds. The thought sent a burst of emotion through Elli's chest. She wanted to laugh. She could hardly believe a new life began today.
The Pathfinder caught pace with her. The meager homes parted around them. The Bleak Hills stretched endlessly from the west of the village.
Beyond the old established roads, Elli followed a small path padded down by an animal. Or perhaps one of the oldest settlers, long since dead in the years Uz ruled over their heads. It was the same path Elli took in previous years when she first wandered out from the safety of the village. Knowing what she knew now, it was hard not to feel a trill of fear. Uz may be dead, but his impression left a lingering presence Elli couldn't ignore.
She looked over her shoulder once. The gathering of the villagers watched as she and Ari marched into the Hills. Many no doubt wanted to see off the mysterious woman that had saved them all. But there were plenty who couldn't believe Elli went with her. What would they think? Would they assume her departure was recompense for Ari's service?
No. Elli wouldn't care what they thought. They were not cruel, but they were not her concern. Although Elli didn't know the paths that lay before her, she knew things would be better.
"I have earned my rites today," she whispered to herself.
Ari said, "You are an adult in their eyes now?"
Elli nodded wordlessly. It wasn't unheard of for a youth her age to earn her place. But for the girls of the village, that honor usually only came at the end of their teen years. When they either raised a home of their own or united with a young man. There was no strict observance either way, but Elli knew her parents hoped she would marry Mel. He was a decent boy, with a future acreage that would feed their town. But Elli didn't know him that well. And she didn't need to marry him to earn her position.
"It's not a terrible place to live," Ari continued. "But I suppose when you have a demon lurking over your shoulders, anywhere can be a hellhole. Would you have rather stayed?"
Elli shook her head no. "I want to come with you, Miss. I want to travel worlds."
Ari chuckled. "I don't know if that ambition was always there or if you're simply reacting to newfound freedom."
"Miss, I only feared Uz because my parents expected it of the children."
Ari was quiet for a moment. Elli wondered if she would have to explain herself, but no, the Pathfinder was far more perceptive than that.
"You learned to fear him," said Ari.
Elli nodded. She would never have wandered out to the Sayer in her youth if she felt the way she did now. In those days, shielded as a child from Uz's more barbaric tendencies, she only knew the strictness and rules placed by her parents. To any child, those rules would be broken eventually. Only her ignorance and whatever distractions blinded Uz to her wanderings had preserved her. Or, perhaps something bestowed by the Sayer.
"Everywhere I travel I've met souls like yours," said Ari. "Adventurers, explorers, champions, dreamers. Heroes."
Elli blushed. "I am no hero."
"What is a hero? Someone who does what is right? Someone who seeks to protect others? Maybe someone simply with the power to make a difference?"
"You are a hero, Miss."
Ari barked a loud laugh at that. "A hero in your eyes, perhaps."
Elli didn't respond. She felt silly. What did this amazing, powerful Pathfinder think of a girl like her heaping praises on her?
But hadn't Ari cast down Uz? Hadn't she hinted to traveling other Terran worlds? What was a hero if not those things? Someone with incredible power and the will to see all things done.
"A hero," said Ari, "is largely just a figure to be adored by others. To be idolized. And in that regard, I would never wish for that. The place I came from was filled with hollow heroes, honored for the unremarkable, but lauded by the masses for their trivial pursuits."
"I do adore you," Elli admitted, blushing. "I wish so much I could be like you. You are not unremarkable."
Ari cast a sideways glance at her. "Because I destroyed the monster of your childhood."
Elli sighed. "Yes…in the first place. But the stories you tell! I want those stories, too."
Ari nodded. "A hero can also be someone who brings out the best in others. Someone who is there to inspire better things. Virtue. Elli—you can be that kind of person."
Elli looked at her sharply. "How? I'm just a girl. Maybe I did earn my rites, but I'm alone in this miserable wasteland, in a village stunted by darkness. How can I be like you?"
"Don't be like me. Be like you—your best self. And don't underestimate the quiet little acts of heroism you could make in a place like this. It doesn't matter if you have the whole world eating out of your palms or if a simple deed goes unnoticed in the fields where you grew up. If you think otherwise, then you wish only to be as the hollow heroes."
Elli remained silent, her face hot as they walked across the Bleak Hills. Did she want the praises of others? Were her desires as vain as Ari implied? Or was she simply helping her to get to the root of the matter? Was she helping clear away the chaff so that Elli could understand?
"I could've stayed in my village and made all the difference in the world," said Elli.
Ari nodded. "And you would have made all their lives better for it." There was something dangling in her tone; Elli heard it plainly.
"But?" she asked.
"But," Ari began, "I can't deny that this oracle—what you call the Sayer—probably has other plans for you. We'll know soon enough."
It wasn't far of a walk. Before midday, having climbed into the higher parts of the Bleak Hills, they came to a ravine surrounded by bone white rock that was sheer on the east and west. Elli led them down around the south side, where there was a worn path between the ledges. Near the bottom, a thin stream trickled, flowing between the stones and cutting away at the walls.
In one such wall, there was a hollow large enough for a small group of people to stand. But at the far back, there was a glowing mist that seeped between the stones, filling the space with light. Elli immediately dropped to one knee at the entrance of the hollow. Ari glanced down at her, but remained standing.
Out of the mist, a figure took shape. Their features were ghostly, but there was no mistaking the arms, legs, and face of a man. His eyes glowed white, and his hair flowed long around his shoulders.
"Child of Her Grace," it said, "the channels are muddled. I raise comm traffic without any success. Am I trapped here? Forever?"
Elli let out a sigh. More nonsense she couldn't understand. She had hoped the Pathfinder's arrival might spur something more.
"Curious." Ari pulled a device from her pocket; something Elli hadn't seen when they patched up her clothes. It fit in the palm of her hand, a silver surface on the front glowing with unseen light from within. A tablet? Father spoke of them often, but they hadn't possessed the tech in Elli's village since before Uz corralled them in. They might be common in the Far Country.
Ari stepped closer to the Sayer, reading images and text that scrolled across the tablet. Did it help her to understand the Sayer? What kind of tech could teach or understand such mysticism? Elli had dozens of questions, but she kept her silence.
The Sayer rambled on. "They said they wouldn't leave me. They promised. But…I found no favor in the Orgonnel Factions. They turn a disdainful eye to Caritas and the Gifts. They choose to turn their backs on the Outmakers."
Elli watched as Ari walked in a slow arc around the back wall where the Sayer dwelt. She consulted her tablet several times, making notations. Finally, she said, "You are not the oracle I expected."
"How could we turn our backs on our Gods?" said the Sayer. "How could I? I must stay. Even if it means damnation. Even if it means an eternity trapped."
Elli scooted closer to Ari. "What did you expect, Miss?"
Ari said nothing for awhile, staring at the Sayer. Listening to him? Understanding his words? Elli could only begin to grasp some of it, but when the Sayer was a little more lucid…
"It is an echo," said Ari. "A shadow of someone from long ago. It feels like a person, but it is only the remnant of one."
Elli frowned. Was she calling the Sayer nothing more than a ghost? It made sense. But what could bind the immortal soul of one so long forgotten to this world? A curse? A power from the demons like Uz? A gift turned horribly wrong?
"I would spend a thousand eternities if I must," said the Sayer. "For you, Elli. I would do it all again for you."
Ari perked up. "What did it just say?"
"Yes, Elli, how can it know your name?"
"Elli," said the Sayer, "Child of Her Grace, you are the reason I stayed."
"It sometimes speaks to me," said Elli. "They are…one-sided conversations. Only on occasion does the Sayer ever respond to something I say directly."
"But it can respond?" said Ari.
"Yes. Isn't that what you expected?"
Ari didn't say anything for awhile. Meanwhile, the Sayer continued on, oblivious to the two of them. Most of Elli's visits were like this. But on the rarest of occasions, it would listen to her.
"It will not accept me," Ari said at last. "And that's okay."
Elli felt her heart sink. She'd brought the Pathfinder all this way only to disappoint her. Now they would never travel together. Elli couldn't hope to be the hero Ari was.
"Please don't go," Elli suddenly begged. She took Ari's hands, looking up into those soft green eyes. Pleading that she wouldn't abandon her now.
Ari smiled. "Elli, I could never stay."
"And you think I want to?"
"That's not the point. And you can't begin to imagine the paths ahead of you. I am certain of that now more than ever. I must leave, not because there is nothing for me here, but because what is here is only for you."
Elli frowned. Ari chuckled, withdrawing her hands, but using one to ruffle Elli's hair.
"It's going to be all right," she said. "We may yet cross paths again. It wouldn't surprise me with what's waiting for you. But you'll have to trust me right now."
Elli felt tears stinging her eyes. She didn't understand. She wanted more than promises. She wanted Ari to take her across the world; teach her to be a Pathfinder. And she was instead telling her that they couldn't be together.
"I've waited so long for a hero to come find me," she mumbled.
Ari exhaled. "Elli, you never needed me to come find you. You are so much more than that. And you'll see…soon enough."
Ari pulled her into a hug, and Elli sobbed into her shoulder. What would she do now? Walk back to her village? How could she do something so shameful after the finality of walking out?
"Be strong, little one," said Ari. "And I'll keep an eye out for you on the star roads."
Elli pulled back, more questions bubbling within. Ari stood for a moment, winking at her. And then she was gone. The air rippled once around the place where she stood. But it was if she was never there. As much a ghost as she claimed the Sayer was.
"Elli," said the Sayer, "come to me."
Elli turned, wiping the tears from her eyes with the back of her hand. She walked up to the glowing figure from out of the rock. Now it decided to talk to her. When the person it needed to convince was gone.
"What do you want, ghost?" she spat.
"It's time. I wasn't certain until just now."
"Time for what?"
The Sayer didn't reply. It simply extended an open hand. Elli didn't want to take it. It was the gesture she had longed for Ari to extend to her. To let her take her hand and invite her out into the great wilds beyond. Now she was to accept something of lesser value from this ghost? This echo?
But Elli knew that deep down she was being a child. If the Sayer had offered her something like this any time before, she would have accepted without hesitation. Whatever it had for her, it would only be good.
And hadn't Ari alluded that the Sayer was holding things back for her? What if Ari left because she knew this wasn't her place? What if Ari did her a favor, leaving her for the Sayer?
Elli reached out, feeling a solid hand from the ghostly mist. Fingers clasped around her hand, and warmth spread out around her body. The small rocky overhang faded away, replaced instead by a large white room. The Sayer wasn't suddenly a misty form, but a young man with wild hair and a short beard.
He grinned. "Hello Elli. It's so good to finally meet you in this axial."
He let go of Elli's hand. She looked down, confused and disoriented. Where was she? What was this place? How had she gotten here? Suddenly she wondered how Ari managed her vanishing act back in the hollow. But…she supposed that didn't matter at the moment.
"This axial?" she managed to reply.
The Sayer chuckled. "Sorry. There's a lot to explain. And the part of me stuck in your world is a bit of an echo of me, so it isn't the most helpful."
Echo. Ari couldn't have known how true her guess was. Or maybe it wasn't a guess after all. Elli reached out, touching the young man's face. She felt the flesh beneath her fingers; the scratching of his short beard.
"But you are real," said Elli.
The Sayer exhaled. "Not really. I'm an echo, too. Which means the creature you call 'the Sayer' is an echo of an echo."
"So who are you really?"
"I was a Cleric in the Ministry of Caritas. We were a religious order that sought the Source of the Outmakers. The ancient gifts. That was thousands of years ago. Those gifts allowed the man I was to preserve a memory that would last to this day. What you see before you is that memory. Kept and preserved for you to come upon."
Despite the straightforward conversation, Elli felt like she understood less than when the Sayer had rambled on nonsensically. But she supposed that was in part because she lacked the proper context.
"You are a memory," she repeated. "But I felt your hand; your face."
"I'm a very well kept memory. The Grace of the Outmakers is powerful. It created all of our worlds. Why couldn't it hold a single memory for more than ten thousand years?"
"Why couldn't you tell me any of this before?"
"As I said before, we are on a separate axial plane. The Etherium is like a house with many rooms. Your planet and all the space around it in the Dominion are one room. This place where we are now is yet another room. It is difficult for me to transition between those rooms. But more importantly, it wasn't time. The echo of myself—an echo of an echo—was left to watch for you when the time was right. And that time has finally come."
"You knew I would come? Thousands of years before I was born?"
The Sayer scratched the back of his neck. "Well, truthfully, not you specifically. But someone like you. Someone who bore the Source of the Outmakers. The Grace of Caritas."
"You keep saying that word. Source. Someone I…met recently knew it as well. What is Source?"
"It is the name of our gifts. We usually call it Grace. But it is anciently called Caritas by the first Terrans to claim this Dominion. And in all Dominions across the Etherium it is largely know as Source. Power unfathomable. And to a chosen few, it is ours to wield."
"I…I have this power?"
The Sayer nodded.
Elli felt overwhelmed. She didn't feel powerful. She felt the same as she always had. A seventeen year old girl, almost old enough to raise her first home. But the Sayer had guided her here. Possibly guided the Pathfinder to lead her here as well. It had to be true. Or a complete hoax waiting to collapse in on her.
"I don't feel anything."
The Sayer laughed. "Not yet, you don't. There are so many more like you across the Dominion who don't understand. Many who won't for a long time yet. But you are lucky. You were born on a world where the Source of the Outmakers left my memory to teach you. And if you are willing, I'd like to help you. To give you a chance to master it. What do you say?"
Elli felt new tears stinging her eyes. These were far less bitter than the ones she shed when the Pathfinder departed. Now she knew with certainty that they would someday cross paths again.
"I say yes."