He finally came to rest near the center of the continent, drawn down by an expanse of wild grasses that seemed to stretch from below him all the way to the western horizon. He came to ground at the edge of the great prairie, near a sandy stream that rolled musically over smooth river rocks. Kalona drank from the clear, cold water, and then he sat back against the rough bark of a tree.
What could he create from invisible air and Divine power to please Nyx? He searched within and easily found the Divine power that hummed through his blood. Using it, he focused his consciousness outward, and up, far up above the edge of the prairie and the mortal earth. There he found currents of magick, divine trailings of raw and ancient power—the same power that coursed within his blood. Experimenting, Kalona snagged a fragment of ethereal power, pulling it down to him. Then he stood, readying himself, and called, somewhat tentatively, “Air?”
Instantly, the element responded, swirling around him.
“Show me what you can do.” Kalona felt foolish, speaking aloud to an invisible element. He pointed at an enormous tree that had somehow grown away from the timberline, proud and alone, well into the tall grasses of the prairie. “With the help of Divine power, I command Air to create that which can be seen from the Otherworld!”
Air rushed around him, capturing the strand of ethereal power, and with a mighty roar, it blew into the tree, which exploded into an enormous mushroom cloud of wood dust and splinters that shot up so far into the sky that Kalona lost sight of it. Large black birds, disturbed in their perches, croaked and circled, chiding him.
The immortal sighed. He did not think that the explosion of a tree, no matter how spectacular, was what—
Kalona’s thoughts were interrupted by a sudden influx of power—something that poured into him, as if it were a backwash of energy from the destruction of the tree.
Kalona shook his head, clearing his thoughts. His body tingled briefly, but within seconds the sensation dissipated, leaving him feeling empty and confused. He frowned. He must remember that he was new to this world—new to the powers he had been born to wield. Perhaps he was meant to absorb the remnants of unused energy. Kalona ran his hand through his long, thick hair, speaking his frustration aloud. “How am I to know? It is unfortunate that Mother Earth couldn’t allow time for adaptation and understanding before she foisted tests upon me—especially tests that are meant to establish my worth.”
Well, he had successfully used Air and the power of the Divine together. And the result probably could have been viewed from the Otherworld, as well as from the sun and the moon. But Kalona didn’t believe Nyx would find the sight of splinters and dust and annoyed birds very pleasing. It certainly did not please him as miniscule fragments of the tree began raining down. Kalona was still frowning as he brushed the settling wood dust from his wings. “Air is a ridiculous element,” he muttered and then, engulfed in a cloud of wood dust, he coughed and continued brushing dust and shredded leaves from his wings.
“Oh Winged One! Great God! We beg to know your name so that we may worship you and not incur your wrath! Please do not destroy us as you did the Great Spirit Tree!”
Coughing, Kalona looked up from his wings. Squinting through the dust-laden air, he saw a group of natives dressed in leather and feathers and shells prostrating themselves on the opposite bank of the stream. He glanced behind them and stifled a sigh and another cough, tallying one more in his list of mistakes—he’d been so concentrated on the sealike grass prairie and on wielding his power that he hadn’t noticed he’d come to ground not far from a human settlement.
Kalona squared his shoulders. Covered in dust or not, he must say something to these curious and mistaken children of Mother Earth.
“I am Kalona,” he said. They cringed in fear, and he realized he must modulate the power in his voice. He cleared his throat and began anew. “I am Kalona, and I have not come to destroy you.”
“Kalona of the Silver Wings, how may we worship you?” asked the human who had first spoken. He was wrinkled and bent but bedecked in more feathers and shells than the others, and his face and bared chest were painted in ocher-colored swirls.
“No, worship is not why I am here,” Kalona said.
“But you killed the Great Spirit Tree! You are mightier than it. Now you fill the air with evidence of your power, and the ravens call to you. We plead that you not be like the trickster coyote. We will bring you chigustei and the finest of our boiled meat to eat. The most beautiful of our maidens will warm your bed and dance the Sunrise Dance for you. Just do not destroy us!”
“You do not understand. I am not—”
Kalona’s words were cut off as the dust-filled air suddenly cleared and an exquisite woman materialized. She was dressed in the purest of white leathers trimmed in blue stones, round red beads, and carved bone. Her dark hair reached past her slender waist. Her delicate feet were bare, her ankles decorated with ropes of shells so that every time she moved, she made music. Her brown skin was painted with ancient symbols in a blue so dark and rich the design seemed liquid and ever changing. Though in appearance she was totally unlike his first sight of the Goddess, Kalona immediately knew this radiant being was his Nyx.
The humans prostrated themselves again and began to cry, “Estsanatlehi!”
“Beloved Changing Woman!”
“Save us from Kalona of the Silver Wings!”
Kalona coughed once more and then hastily tried to explain, “I did not know it was their tree.”
Nyx walked toward him and took his hand, though her attention, and her beautiful dark eyes, were focused entirely on the humans.
“My people, do not fear. Kalona of the Silver Wings is not a destroyer, nor is he a god. He is my—” Nyx paused, flicking her gaze to him. Kalona was sure he saw amusement in her eyes, though she hid her smile well. “My Warrior, my Monster Slayer and my Killer of Enemies,” she concluded.
“Did the Great Spirit Tree offend you, Estsanatlehi, so that you sent your Killer of Enemies against it?” asked the feathered, painted man.
“No, Shaman. My Warrior was only making way for a new Great Spirit Tree, one that bears fruit. Behold my gift to you!” Nyx loosed Kalona’s hand and turned to face the empty black hole where the tree used to stand. She began moving her bare feet in a dance that had the rhythm of a heartbeat, accompanied by the music of the ropes of shells that decorated her ankles. “Hear me, oh Earth Mother. I am Estsanatlehi, Changing Woman, Speaker for the People. I ask that the Great Spirit Tree be reborn to bear fruit to feed the People. Hear me, oh Earth Mother. I am Estsanatlehi, Changing Woman, Speaker for the People…” Nyx repeated her song over and over, until she had danced around the black hole three full times. With the triple circle completed, she broke off one round red bead from her dress and threw it into the hole with a victorious shout.
Kalona gasped along with the humans when a tree instantly sprouted from the center of the hole, growing up and up, limbs stretching, budding, flowering, then filling out with simple leaves, bright green on the top side and silver on the underside. Kalona blinked, and the entire tree was laden with plump, red fruit.
“Harvest and share this fruit, and remember that your Goddess is not destructive or vengeful,” Nyx said, moving back to Kalona’s side. “As always, I wish you to blessed be,” she concluded. Then she slid her arms up around Kalona’s neck and whispered into his ear, “You should take me away from here now.”
Hardly able to breathe, Kalona lifted his Goddess into his arms and leaped into the air, holding her tightly as his mighty wings bore them skyward.
* * *
“There,” Nyx said, pointing down. The land had changed beneath them. It had begun to roll gently and was covered with clusters of tall trees. The Goddess motioned beyond the trees, toward a wide, dark river dotted with sandbanks and lined with scrub. “You may put me down there.”
Kalona circled until he found a gently sloping bank free of weeds and brush. He landed gently.
“You do not have to hold me now,” she said. Nyx’s head was resting against his shoulder, as it had for most of their journey. He could not see her face, but he could hear the smile in her voice. It gave him courage.
“I like holding you,” he said.
“You are very strong,” she said, laughing softly.
“Does it please you that I am strong?”
“It does when you have to carry me quickly away from a tricky situation.”
Kalona did put her down, then, though he stayed close to her, taking both of her hands in his. “Forgive me for that. My intention was not to frighten those mortals. I was— I was trying to…” His voice trailed off, and Kalona felt his face flame in embarrassment.
Nyx smiled and cupped his cheek with her soft hand. “You were trying to what?”
“Please you!” he said in a rush of honesty.
“You thought destroying a tree would please me?”
He shook his head and tree dust fell from his hair into her face. Nyx sneezed violently three times and rubbed at her watering eyes.
“Forgive me again!” He lifted his hands impotently, trying to help her, and as if it had just been waiting for that movement of his hands, more dust rained from his arms onto her face. She sneezed again and, unable to speak, motioned for him to step back. Frustration blazed through him, attracting wisps of Divine power. With a sudden idea, Kalona blurted, “Air, help create a soothing peace for Nyx!”
He held his breath while air whirled around his Goddess, carrying the luminous fragments of his power so that they gently brushed against her skin, blowing the dust from her face and leaving her blinking away the last of her tears and smiling at him.
“Now, that pleased me. Thank you, Kalona.”
“Then you forgive me for the tree? And frightening those humans? And the dust?”
“Of course I do. You meant no harm with any of it. Though I still do not understand what you intended to create back there.”
“Something you could view from the Otherworld,” Kalona said. Then he added, “My invocation was flawed, my intent muddled. I am not sure what I expected to happen, but I am sure I failed.”
“Oh, I wouldn’t say it was a total failure. You did get my attention, though it was because I felt the fear of the People.”
“Truly, I meant them no harm,” he said.
“I believe you, but I must also tell you what Mother Earth did not fully explain to you or Erebus. Many of her humans are childlike in their beliefs. They are easily frightened and tell elaborate stories to make sense of that which they cannot fully understand. However, I am especially fond of the race of mortals you met today. They have a deep love and respect for the earth, and a loyalty that touches my heart. I probably appear to them more than I should, but I do enjoy the stories they tell about me.”
“Is that why you look like this today? Because they wouldn’t recognize you if they saw you as you were earlier?”
“Yes, partially. I find the different races of humanity are more comfortable if I appear to them looking as much like them as possible.” Nyx smiled, suddenly girlish again. “And I enjoy taking on different visages. I find beauty in all of them. Just as I find beauty in so much of the earth and the mortals who inhabit it.” She gestured at the wide, sandy river. “I love the water of this world, everything from rivers like this, to the great lakes that are north of here, and the sapphire and turquoise oceans that separate continents. Their beauty intrigues me. There is one lake in the northwest of this land that is so blue and deep and cold that it dazzles me each time I visit it.”
“Are there no bodies of water in the Otherworld?”
“Of course! But not like here—not as deep and mysterious and seemingly endless. And here they are not filled with merefolk and naiads. The Fey rarely allow me to enjoy the tranquillity of floating, free of worries and responsibilities, on a cool, clear lake.” Her expression was dreamy and she swayed toward him. “May I tell you a secret?”
“You may tell me many secrets. I would guard them for eternity.”
“I believe you would. Thank you for that,” she said, and leaned forward, kissing him chastely on the cheek. “My secret is that sometimes I alter my appearance and visit earth, pretending to be mortal. I sit and gaze out across a lake or a river or an ocean, and I dream.”
“Of what do you dream, Goddess?” Kalona asked, the skin of his cheek still tingling from her kiss.
“I dream of love and happiness and peace. I dream that there is no Darkness in this world or in mine. I dream that mortals would stop struggling against one another and unite instead. And I dream that I am not eternally alone.”
“But you are a Goddess, immortal, divine, and powerful. Could you not force the mortals to be peaceful, to shun Darkness?”
Nyx’s smile was sad. “I could if I wanted to take free will from them. I wouldn’t like that, though. And I promise you, they wouldn’t, either. And I am beginning to understand that even the absence of strife would not rid this world or mine of Darkness.”
“Explain this Darkness of which you speak,” Kalona said.
“I don’t think I can—or at least not well. I am inexperienced with it. So far I have only sensed its malevolence and witnessed what those under its influence will do. Humans can be very cruel when incited. Did you know that?”
Kalona did not, but he realized he did not because he had not been paying much attention to the mortals that inhabited earth. His only focus had been on winning his place at Nyx’s side. He was just beginning to understand he might need to be by her side for more reasons than the desire he felt for her.