Deliphie was humming softly to herself as she strolled past her little garden. She had a small empty basket at her side, prepared to gather flowers and fruit and anything else of use or beauty that she found while walking in the woods. It was a lovely spring morning and her mother had gotten frustrated with her during a lecture on etiquette and ordered her out of the house. Deliphie could not say that she was an innocent party, of course, having instigated her mother for the sole purpose of escaping the agonizing boredom that accompanied any form of propriety training.
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Deliphie was a tall and thin girl who was always tormenting her poor mother to no end. She really had no desire to be a lady, nor did she want to marry a snobby young man with money in his pocket. Her favorite hobby was sneaking out of the house to practice sword fighting behind her mother’s back, and she was very skilled at that too. Her hair was long, brown, and curly. She often had the temptation to cut it off to make it more manageable, but her poor mother would simply die if ever her child were to trim a hair on her beautiful head. Her intention was not to hurt or anger her mother, but the forceful nature with which her mother imposed her feminine activities on Deliphie caused the girl to rebel.
Before she realized what she was doing, Deliphie began to sing. She really did have a lovely voice, one of the few feminine qualities she was proud to say she had. She thought about the lesson from which she had temporarily been banned. It was some silly thing that had to do with balancing books on her head while trying to walk in a dress that pinched her stomach so tight she struggled to breathe and hoisted her breasts up so high that she could hardly see the tips of her toes. Before being banished, Deliphie had been trying in vain to crane her neck far enough forward to see her feet during one of her mother’s lectures, causing the books to tumble to the ground in the process. Of course, the last straw came when Deliphie used her new-found cleavage as a pocket. She explained to her mother that it was only practical, considering the dress itself offered no such convenience, but her mother was not in the least bit amused.
Well, in a fit of rage her mother nearly passed out yelling and the servants had to step in to prevent her from exploding with the frustration. After being coaxed to an intelligible state, Deliphie’s mother quickly banished her from the house for a few hours. Deliphie was happy to oblige, and she heard her mother say something about bringing in a professional before Deliphie dashed up to her room to fetch a more casual dress, one that she could breathe and see her feet in at the same time.
Deliphie’s song gained a bit more force as she continued on. Whenever she was in a hurry, she would cut through the pasture or the orchard, but today she was following the winding dirt path that led into the forest, made for the convenience of hunters but used more by mischievous children and young lovers looking for privacy.
“You’ll attract every dog in the kingdom with that singing of yours,” teased a familiar voice from the side of the path. Deliphie came to a halt and looked, embarrassed, at the gangly shepherd boy leaning coolly against the fence that surrounded the pasture.
“Hah,” Deliphie responded quickly, “the dogs won’t bother with me after they smell you! How long has it been since you last bathed, Sei?”
Sei gave a mischievous grin and a wistful “Oh” as he began to count the days on his fingers and pretended to figure out a complicated math problem in his head.
Deliphie sat on the fence and Sei did the same, flipping over the fence so that he was on the same side as Deliphie. Sei was just slightly taller than Deliphie, with messy brown hair that fell all over his face in the front, but was held with a loose braid in the back. He had a habit of falling in and out of jobs. He was hired because he was a hard worker, but he was fired because he was distracted easily and had failed to come to work more than once, finding street brawls and gambling far more enthralling. Thus far, he had managed to keep his shepherding job for a good week, but it was easy to see by the look on his face that he was not planning to keep it for long.
“I haven’t seen you in a while,” Deliphie said, dangling her legs idly.
“I haven’t seen you either,” he replied. “Has your mother got you holed up in that house again?”
“Yes,” she said exasperatingly. “I honestly don’t know why she bothers. I’m never gonna be a lady. Last night I actually dumped a whole pot of tea into my mother’s lap. You should’ve seen the look on her face! If the servants hadn’t come in, I’m fairly certain she would’ve killed me. I think she’s brining in a professional now.”
“Hm,” Sei was not really listening. Girly matters such as that did not interest him.
“So how have you been?” Deliphie asked. “I see you haven’t been fired yet.”
“This job’s a breeze,” Sei snorted. “All I have to do is watch the sheep and beat the wolves and foxes away. It’s so damn boring, though.”
Deliphie sighed. She knew what was coming after Sei complained of boredom from his job.
“Where are you headed to?” Sei asked.
“Mother tossed me out of the house,” she replied. “I’m going into the woods for a bit.”
“Want me to come along?” he asked.
“Won’t you be fired for that?” she asked.
“Probably,” he replied nonchalantly. “Eh, it was bound to happen sometime.”
“I’m really getting tired of this, Sei,” she said. “Why can’t you just pick a job and stick with it? Nobody’s going to hire you anymore if you keep this up.”
Sei was still smiling that boyish grin he was famous for. He looked at the path that led into the dark depths of the forest.
“Deliphie,” he said sincerely, “have you ever thought of leaving this place?”
She looked at him, but he was lost in thought. Sei was always talking about that sort of thing, usually right before he quit whatever job he had at the moment. Of course he would want to leave; he did not have much to hold onto in this village. He had no family, or if he did he did not know them, and he had been cursed with a bad repute since birth, being a bastard child. Then there was the fighting and occasional gambling, which was never good for anyone’s reputation, and of course one cannot ignore the homelessness and inability to hold a job for more than a week or two.
“I wish you wouldn’t talk like that, Sei,” she said.
“Don’t tell me you haven’t thought about it too,” he said, looking at her.
“Of course I have,” she replied, “but where would I go?”
“You could come with me,” Sei was becoming fanciful now. “We could run away to a strange kingdom where nobody knew us and start a whole new life. You could cut your hair and wear whatever clothes you want; you could even borrow mine if you wanted to. We could get jobs and build a little house and make new friends and start a family. Then, as soon as life got dull again, we could move off from place to place until we had seen the whole world.”
Deliphie laughed. Sei had a very vivid imagination.
“My mother would die if she heard you say something like that,” she said. “She already hates you, you know, and if she ever thought of me cutting my hair and wearing boy clothes she’d pass out.”
Deliphie’s smiled faded and she stared down at her feet.
“I wish I could’ve been born a boy,” she mumbled.
Sei put his arm around her and gently kissed her head.
“Well, I’m glad you’re a girl,” he said. “And I think you’d look pretty damn good in my clothes.”
“You’re a hopeless romantic, Sei,” she teased.
Deliphie noticed something down the path. It was a little figure running towards them, slowly growing bigger as it drew nearer.
“Oh great,” Deliphie snorted, “it’s Mali.”
“Oh really?” Sei asked in mock enthusiasm as he stared down the path. “Now it’s a party.”
Deliphie jumped down from the fence and Sei did the same. Mali came running up as they did so, huffing and trying in vain to spit out a sentence. Mali was about as feminine as Deliphie, although she did manage to look the part far better than her older sibling. Mali was tiny and blonde, much shorter than Deliphie was at that age. She was still young enough for things like freckles and decorative hair ribbons, both of which she had plenty of. Today she was sporting a little green dress and sandals and her hair was spilling out of its red ribbon and draping over her shoulders.
“Let me guess,” Deliphie sighed, “Mom sent you to spy on me again, didn’t she?”
“Well, yeah,” Mali said, regaining her breath.
“Hey, Mali,” Sei said as he fished in his pocket for a coin. Upon producing it he said, “Why don’t you take this shiny coin and go buy yourself something pretty?”
Mali folded her arms.
“I’m too old for that crap, Sei,” she growled. “For your information, I didn’t come to spy on you. I got bored of Mom’s stupid lessons and I snuck out.”
“So you decided to come pester me?” Deliphie said. “Don’t you have friends of your own?”
Mali idly pushed a rock with her toe.
“I hate the girls in the village,” she said. “All they ever talk about is boys.”
“What’s wrong with boys?” Sei asked, folding his arms to look like he was angry.
“They’re stupid,” Mali sneered. “And they’re always bothering me about stupid things. They won’t leave me alone, even after I beat them up.”
“You’re too old to wrestle with boys,” Deliphie said. “They like it and you just egg them on when you do it.”
“Boys like getting the crap beat out of them?” Mali asked.
“You’ll understand when you’re older,” Sei explained. “Now why don’t you run along and play?”
“Why don’t you do the job you get paid for?” Mali snapped back. “I’m not going anywhere.”
Deliphie looked hopelessly at Sei for some kind of plan to get rid of Mali. Sei looked back at her, a wise smirk on his face. He had a scheme.
“Mali, would you like to go for a walk with us?” he asked.
Mali regarded him carefully.
“Where are we going?” she asked.
“Into the woods,” he answered.
“Where in the woods?” she asked.
“That’s a surprise,” he replied.
That settled it. “Surprise” was a word Mali could not resist.
“Okay,” she decided, “but, try anything funny, and I’ll beat the crap out of you.”
“Yeah, yeah, no funny business,” Sei snorted. “Let’s go.”
Sei led the way with Deliphie at his side and Mali close behind. The forest was filled with dirt paths, crushed with the feet of many hunters, farmers, merchants, children, and, of course, young lovers.
To get to their destination, the three were required to crawl through an intricate system of shrubs, branches, bushes, brambles, and a muddy stream. How they had first come across this place was anybody’s guess, but ever since then they had been making trips on a regular basis. It was a place no one else knew of, or if they did the three had never encountered them before, and it was a place almost impossible to find unless you were searching for it.
The place was a small clearing, tucked away in a dark little pocket of the forest. It was filled with flowers in the spring, covered with a lush carpet of orange, brown, and red in the fall, vibrant green grass and fruit ready to eat in the summer, and, whenever it snowed, there was sure to be a wet, white blanket waiting for the children if they ventured to the clearing. There was a statue that stood there, a strange, white stone work that had no origin to speak of. It was a statue of a woman with long, flowing hair and clothing that hardly covered anything but the necessary places. She stood upright and her expression was blank, but peaceful. She had no Human ears; those had been replaced by large, catlike ears that seemed to fit oddly well. She also had a tail to match.
Sei was the first to topple into the clearing, and then came Deliphie, and finally Mali. They took a few moments to regain their composures and brush the grass and leaves from their clothing. Today was a lovely day in late spring, so the flowers were still in full bloom. Little butterflies of all sorts of colors fluttered around from flower to flower, drinking the nectar and brushing up the pollen. Bees were less abundant, though several could be found buzzing along with the butterflies. There were birds as well, though all of them took flight as soon as the Humans invaded their territory. It was a perfect place for young love, spoiled only by the presence of Mali.
“I wonder if my mom is worried about me,” Deliphie asked, glancing over her shoulder at the entrance to the clearing.
“Probably,” Sei said, “but I wouldn’t worry about it if I were you.”
“Obviously you haven’t met my mother,” Deliphie responded.
“Wait,” Sei said suddenly, stopping and putting his arm out in front of Deliphie so that she would do the same.
“What is it?” asked Mali, who was the last in the procession.
“Hush,” Sei urged. “I think I heard someone.”
The group fell silent. For a moment the only thing they could hear was the rustle of leaves as the wind blew through them and the chirping of birds. Sei stepped forward cautiously and peered around a bush to the statue. Sure enough, there was a girl sitting there, her back facing them. Sei could see very little of her, her form being hidden by the statue, but he could see that she possessed the same abnormalities as the woman in the statue.
Sei crept forward a little more. Her ears perked up a bit, but she did not turn around. She was idly picking the petals off of a flower, humming just a bit as she did so. There was something very catlike about her, aside from the ears and tail. She was crouched down rather than sitting, and her tail was twitching convulsively. Her hair was long and silvery, covering most of her back and from what Sei could see she did not appear very old.
“I know you are there,” she said faintly. She spoke in a soft monotone and still she did not turn to face them. “There is no reason to hide from me.”
The Humans stood motionless, though Mali did creep forward to peer around her sister. They did not know how to respond to this girl, and they were quite wary of her origin and intentions.
“I knew you would come,” she said.
“Who are you?” Sei asked warily.
She stood up and turned around. She was not very tall, but she looked older than Sei had first estimated. She had tan skin and long, silvery hair that flowed perfectly down her back. Her eyes were the most remarkable of her features. They were deep pools of emerald green water with blue stripped from the sky and painted in a flawless radiating pattern around her iris. She wore about as much clothing as the statue, if not less, and the amount of skin she had showing almost caused Sei to blush. Despite her many beauties, there was something lacking in her appearance, some sort of empty hole in her character that had perhaps never been filled.
“My name is Kamiri,” she said. “I believe you Humans call my race the Cats, if I am not mistaken?”
They looked at her soundlessly for a moment. She did not try to fill the silence, making it even more awkward.
“I’ve never seen a cat that looked like you,” Mali finally blurted out. “Are you some kind of witch?”
Kamiri tried to smile, but the expression eluded her.
“In a way,” she answered very patiently, “I suppose I am. It is a long story, one that will have to wait for another time. Now, if you will come with me please, we can be on our way.”
“Wait a minute,” Sei growled. “Where exactly are you planning to take us and, more importantly, why should we let you?”
“I have no need of you, boy,” she snapped back, “I need only the females.”
“How dare you belittle me?” Sei boomed. “I’m at least two years your elder, not to mention far more civilized.”
“I have not the time to explain,” Kamiri sighed. “But let me assure you that I am in no way a savage and far older than I look. Follow, if you must, but you must vow to be silent and not get involved in the proceedings. You shall be a witness and nothing else.”
“Where are you planning on taking us, exactly?” asked Deliphie before Sei could break in.
“My homeland,” she answered, “Ryom.”
“What will happen there?” Deliphie asked.
“I am not certain,” Kamiri replied. She averted her gaze, her hand clenching around her wrist. She seemed to be thinking of something, but she did not tell them what.
“We have no time to waste,” she said quickly. “If you do not wish to come along with me, fine, but do not hold me responsible for the destruction of your home.”
“What?” Sei said. “What’s going to happen?”
“If you are concerned, come with me,” she answered. “We cannot stay here much longer. If we do not leave this place soon, we shall all be dead.”
Sei looked at Deliphie. She debated with herself and then nodded.
“I don’t know why,” she said, “but I want to trust Kamiri. I think we should go with her.”
“The female has some sense, it seems,” Kamiri said. “We have wasted far too much time. Come.”
Kamiri motioned them to follow. She rushed ahead, leaving it up to them to follow quickly or get left behind. They exchanged glances, and then followed.
The Cat moved quickly and easily through the forest, as if she had traveled every twist and turn every day of her life. The others had a hard time keeping up with her, and often lost her whenever she would leap frivolously over a bush that caused the Humans a moment’s inconvenient delay or when she would take to the trees to cross a stream that the Humans had no choice but to wade or try to navigate through on the rocks. They eventually lost her and were wandering aimlessly in search of her trail when they finally saw her. She was seated on the ground, her legs folded beneath her and her back resting against a tree, chewing idly on a piece of grass. When she noticed that the Humans had finally found her, she spat the blade of grass out onto the ground and rose to her feet.
“You are very slow,” she commented dully. “I will have to remember that in the future. Come.”
Kamiri turned her back to them and pressed her hand against the tree. The bark shivered under her touch and seemed to melt away; revealing a pitch-black passageway that could have stretched for miles.
“You may still turn back, boy,” Kamiri said to Sei.
“I already told you,” he replied, “I go where they go.”
“As you wish,” Kamiri sighed. “Do not hold me responsible for what you are about to see.”
She turned and entered the passageway. Deliphie looked at Sei and then followed with Mali close behind. As Sei entered, the passage sealed behind them.
It was pitch-black, too dark for the Humans to see their own noses, much less a pathway. It proved unnecessary, however, to seek any passage at all for, within moments of being closed, another opening revealed itself before them. They saw the outline of Kamiri exiting it and followed her example.
Outside, the scenery looked much the same as it did in the forest of Zeboth. Trees were plentiful, and there were no houses or roads. It seemed just like any other forest, until the Humans gazed into the branches of the trees. The trees were filled with people who looked much like Kamiri. Many of them were sleeping, others were quietly eating, and those who were doing neither of those were staring distrustfully at the Humans. Upon seeing Kamiri, however, all distrust vanished and many of them leapt down from the branches to meet her.
“Stay close to me,” she commanded the Humans.
The people who greeted Kamiri were just as perfect as she, and just as scantily dressed. The men wore pants, but no shoes or shirts to speak of, and the women wore very small skirts or long pants and shirts that appeared nothing more than a sash worn about the chest. They all had catlike ears and tails, though they varied in color from orange to black to combinations of different colors in the form of stripes or spots. They did, however, have one feature that differentiated them from Kamiri. Their emotions were painted on their faces.
They greeted Kamiri heartily and she received their greetings gratefully, but she seemed to be searching for one face in particular.
“Where is Marhiro?” she asked.
The crowd pushed a tall boy forward. He, like many of the men, wore nothing but pants and had long, black hair tied back in a braid. His ears and tail were as black as his hair and his skin was slightly paler than Kamiri’s. He smiled gaily at Kamiri, though his smiled faltered when he saw her guests.
“Welcome back, Kamiri,” he said.
Kamiri threw her arms around him in plain view of everyone, something that surprised the Humans quite a bit. The crowd laughed and produced a few adoring and teasing jeers and then began to disperse.
“I missed you, Marhiro,” Kamiri said softly. Marhiro returned her embrace and petted her hair fondly. She broke away from him, and her face lost all emotion again.
“Your mother is not very happy with your leaving,” Marhiro said, his face slightly pink, “and I cannot promise that she will approve of your…guests.”
“When has she ever approved?” Kamiri sighed. She turned to the Humans, who looked upon the proceedings in pure incomprehension, and motioned them forward.
The Humans gawked at this strange society. Now that the Cats had identified their guests and decided they were not a threat, the creatures had come down from the trees and were playing or sleeping or eating or simply watching the others do these things. There were no houses, no roads, no ladders to get into the trees in the first place, no inns, no merchants, no blacksmiths or tailors (though the Cats hardly wore enough clothing to require one), no anything that would mark them as a civilization. They appeared to live as animals, without any order in their society at all. The Cats did what they wanted whenever they wanted and did not adhere to any law or rule. The children played by tackling and chasing one another, and the adults often played in the same manner. They slept out in the open or up in the trees, wherever they happened to be when they got tired, and had no designated eating place. They were truly an unruly, disorganized band of creatures.
Deliphie watched Kamiri and Marhiro conversing in front of her with mild curiosity. Kamiri, who had seemed so cold and inexpressive before, was now laughing and joking freely with this boy. Although she knew it was none of her business, Deliphie wanted to know more about their relationship. Marhiro seemed very black and white, there was not much that could not be perceived from his appearance and the way he moved and spoke. Kamiri, however, was impossible to read and was even more mysterious now than she had been when she first introduced herself.
“Where did you go, Kamiri?” Marhiro was asking.
“I had to venture into the Human world,” she answered. “I had to find the other bearers.”
“They are the others?” he asked.
“Yes,” she replied. “The females are the other two, I am sure of it. The boy was very resilient and I had no choice but to allow him to follow. We may have some use of him.”
“What are we?” Deliphie broke in. Marhiro and Kamiri stared at her.
“I’m sorry,” she quickly apologized, “I couldn’t help but overhear.”
“Do not apologize,” Kamiri’s expression vanished again. “I can understand your curiosity. Everything will be revealed soon, please be patient.”
Kamiri turned back to Marhiro, but this time she addressed him in a language Deliphie did not understand. Deliphie sighed and fell back a little to get even with Sei and Mali.
“What did they tell you?” Sei asked.
“Nothing,” she replied.
They traveled on a little further before Kamiri halted. She held out her hand to signal the group to stop and they did so. She stood a few paces ahead, turned to the side as if expecting something to happen. Sure enough, something did.
A woman leapt out from the trees and rushed at Kamiri. Kamiri stood still as her attacker approached. When the woman came in range, she halted, growled fervently, and smacked Kamiri across the face.
“Where were you?” the woman boomed, ignoring the presence of the others.
“The Human realm,” Kamiri answered in a quiet, bland voice.
The woman slapped her again, this time on the other side of her face. Kamiri’s head snapped in that direction, but she did not flinch or retaliate. She remained stone.
“Where did I go wrong, Kamiri?” the woman shouted. “Can you tell me what I did to deserve a child like you?”
“No, I can not,” Kamiri answered.
“Oh, and I see you brought friends,” Kamiri’s mother said in a dangerously sweet voice as she eyed the Humans.
“Yes, I did,” Kamiri responded.
Her mother hit her again.
“What the hell is wrong with you, Kamiri?” she screamed. “Do you know the danger you just put all of us in?”
“Yes,” Kamiri answered.
Her mother straightened up and glowered down at her daughter.
“Why did you bring them here?” she asked.
“The females are the other two gem bearers,” Kamiri replied. “The male refused to stay behind.”
“How can you be certain?” her mother inquired.
“I can not,” she answered.
“Very well,” her mother said in a softly malicious voice, “we will have to test them, then.”
Kamiri’s mother turned to the Humans. She seized them up with her eyes and then jabbed a finger at Deliphie.
“You, girl,” she said, “what is your name?”
“Deliphie,” Deliphie answered quickly, wary of the woman after what she had just witnessed.
“And you?” Kamiri’s mother asked, turning to Mali.
“Mali, ma’am,” Mali answered meekly.
“Weak little creatures,” Kamiri’s mother snorted. “This cannot be the best the Humans have to offer.”
Sei was ready to say something, but Deliphie restrained him.
“Please, ma’am,” Deliphie began, “could you tell us exactly why we are here? What is this test you want us to take? What are we to prove?”
“You did not tell them?” Kamiri’s mother asked her daughter.
“I did not,” came the girl’s reply.
“Worthless,” her mother muttered and then turned to Deliphie. “What my daughter so conveniently neglected to tell you was that you are the bearers of the Gems of Miran, mystical jewels with the power to purify demonic energy. There are three of these bearers, she is the first, and, according to whatever premonition Kamiri is acting upon, you and your sister are the other two.”
“What does the gem bearer do, ma’am?” Deliphie asked.
“I do not know,” Kamiri’s mother replied. “There is a prophecy that tells us the day will come that we will require their emergence. When Kamiri was born, the gems called to her. She infused with one of them, and in doing so she was granted the ability to see the future. She saw that the time was drawing near, and we began searching for the other two bearers.”
“When we did not find them in Ryom,” Kamiri broke in, “I ventured to the Human realm and found you.”
“Without my consent,” her mother added angrily.
“I did what you were too ignorant to do,” Kamiri said, her face and tone completely inexpressive.
Kamiri’s mother looked ready to hit her again, but restrained herself. She drew a deep breath and exhaled slowly to diffuse herself and then took a small bag from her waist. She threw it carelessly to Kamiri.
“I leave their fate in your hands,” Kamiri’s mother said. “Do whatever you see fit. I believe you are very good at working independently.”
With that, Kamiri’s mother walked away and disappeared into the brush nearby.
“She is going to the Sacred Ground,” Marhiro observed. “She has been going there often since the search for the other gem bearers began.”
Kamiri watched her mother leave and then gently opened the bag. A little light filtered out through the opening.
“I know that I am right,” she said quietly. She walked over to Deliphie and held the pouch out to the girl.
“Take one,” she commanded blandly.
Deliphie peered into the bag. Two little jewels sat patiently inside. One was glowing brightly, beckoning Deliphie to take it. She did so, and the jewel glowed even more brightly as it sat in her hand. She stared at it, waiting for something to happen.
Once Deliphie had taken her jewel, Kamiri allowed Mali to take the other. It too began to glow as Mali held it. The little girl observed it eagerly. What kind of powers did it have?
Mali did too.
The gems were no longer little stones in the girls’ hands. They were sharp knifes, forcefully burrowing their way into the girls’ skin. They did not move quickly, but rather slowly pushed their way through, twisting and ripping at the skin and forcing blood to gush from the wound and onto the ground. Both girls fell to their knees, screaming in agony as tears streamed down their faces. Long, jagged lines like lightning bolts traveled from their wounds to their shoulders and spread through their bodies until they appeared on their faces as well. Sei stared in horror and shouted at Kamiri. The Cat stood still and emotionless, watching the proceedings tentatively.
“How the hell can you just stand there?” Sei shouted at her. “This is your fault! Do something!”
“It is out of my hands, boy,” Kamiri replied. “The Gems are testing them. Even I cannot foresee whether they pass or fail.”
A flash of light set the area ablaze, engulfing everything in brightness. The trees vanished, the people became nonexistent, everything that was became no more. Then, just as quickly as it had all vanished, it returned, blazing in its color and life and motion. The light was gone, and all that remained were two young girls, passed out on the forest floor.
That was when their destinies were changed.
Everything was beautiful and nothing hurt.