Prologue

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“Gooktos Lundai fell on the Day of the First Flowers—one that only occurs on the thirteenth night of the Mai Cycle. It is tradition that the ceremony is performed at the Sacred Moon Circle set in the heart of the Kaddani Jungle—wher...

“Gooktos Lundai fell on the Day of the First Flowers—one that only occurs on the thirteenth night of the Mai Cycle. It is tradition that the ceremony is performed at the Sacred Moon Circle set in the heart of the Kaddani Jungle—where we are gathered at this exact moment.

“Many wonder why this land was chosen, why we congregate here on this night. It was where the Gooktos Lundai’s light descended upon Thro, a jungle tree demi-god who protected the land from malicious enemies. She gave her devotion to him at a moment’s glance and he, in turn, fell in love with our Goddess and her radiance. From that moment on, they have promised to love one another for all eternity.

“But one night, Thro was slaughtered by his mortal enemies while defending our Shuluan ancestors—the true children of the jungle. When the Goddess descended onto the land once again, she found him lifeless. She wept and wept for her One Love until she was unable to shed another tear. She then touched Thro’s body and transformed his flesh and bone into fine, moist soil.

“She then commanded the earth spirit to utilize the soil to grow a strong, magnificent tree with leaves as green as the moss on stone walls and branches sturdy enough to hold the heaviest fruit. And the spirit complied, giving birth to this mighty creation with a top that touches the Heavens. Though the tree was beyond perfect, the Gooktos Lundai found that the task was incomplete, for the branches were bare. Thus, with the wave of her delicate hand, she decorated the tips of the branches with ripened fruit as white as her halo.

“When the task was completed, the Gooktos Lundai named the tree Thro, after her One Love and the fruit the Halo apple. As one protects the Shuluan tribe from mortal enemies, the other nourishes our bodies with its sweet nectar. Both the Thro tree and the Halo apple represent the eternal love our Greater Beings expressed for one another and the eternal protection of their chosen children, the Shuluan tribe.”

A half smile ghosted Lianna’s lips as she heard her parents take turns reciting the Thro tree legend to the attentive Shuluan villagers surrounding the bonfire. As she and another warrior guarded one of the four secret entrances to the Sacred Moon Circle, Lianna watched in silent awe as they stood before their people with poise. She recalled how, as a child, she listened to them with the same intensity, rarely averting her sight from the ones known as the most powerful High Priest and Priestess in the Kaddani Jungle.

It was they and the tales of Thro’s battles that encouraged Lianna to become a member of the Orlotae Warrior Council at twenty-four seasons. Through rigorous training and support, she was now the youngest warrior in the Council and had swiftly earned the respect of most of her comrades. Though Lianna had often displayed self-confidence as a warrior at her age, she also hoped that she exhibited the same level-headedness and dignity her parents possessed.

Yet maintaining her composure was becoming increasingly difficult as she heard Orktos release yet another exasperated sigh. He was appointed an Orlotae only three months prior and he had already begun to crawl under Lianna’s skin. Though a phenomenal warrior at twenty-six seasons, he displayed neither integrity nor respect for his fellow comrades.

Why the Council had assigned her to guard an entrance with Orktos was beyond Lianna. Their feuds on the field and within the village were notorious; their altercations usually resulted in them nearly coming to blows. Even as she stood near him, Lianna had to refrain from shattering his jaw with one vicious strike.

“This tale is monotonous,” Orktos criticized gruffly, loud enough for Lianna to hear. “I do not understand why we have to be subjected to this.”

Lianna sighed calmly, giving all of her attention to the audience before her. She was very aware that he anticipated a reaction and she was not in the mood to nourish his need to initiate conflict.

“The Oracles retell the same story—cycle after cycle—as if every word were true,” the warrior continued, scoffing. “The Goddess expressing her love by planting a tree? It is beyond nonsensical, not to mention mind-numbing. It is insulting that the Spirit Council play their own people for fools.”

Heat rose to Lianna’s cheeks while she reluctantly listened to Orktos. Her mother and father were the Leaders of the Oracle Council and she did not appreciate where this solitary conversation was leading. “Foolishness,” Lianna finally spoke, her tone even, “is slandering Shuluan leaders as both a tribesman and an Orlotae. It is a violation that results in exile or worse. Also, the recitation of the Thro tree legend is a Gooktos Lundai tradition that empowers many of our people.”

“I suggest we search for another tradition,” suggested Orktos while he released a yawn. “I have to stare into the flames to stay awake.”

“Were you not stalking the winemaker’s daughter last night,” Lianna countered, her glare now locked onto her fellow warrior, “you would not have to scorch your eyes to battle fatigue.”

She smirked after she noticed Orktos stiffen before he glared at her through narrow slits.

“And were your parents competent leaders, they would not have to stoop to reciting childish stories to empower their own people.”

Lianna’s smirk faded as she heard Orktos’s low chuckle. She cautiously scanned the Sacred Moon Circle before she swiftly approached him. “How dare you insult my lineage?” she growled discreetly. “If you were not a Shuluan, you would have met the end of my blade stones ago.”

“Comrades!” She suddenly felt someone grip her shoulder from behind. She turned to see Denush, the Orlotae general and Lianna’s Undu—her brother-in-spirit. He stood in the space between her and Orktos. “What is the meaning of this?”

“Lianna is once again desperate to prove her worth,” Orktos answered defiantly, looking her up and down with disgust. “She threatened to end me with her blade.”

“He slandered the spiritual leadership by deeming them incompetent,” Lianna argued irately. “I will not have this coward insult my parents.”

“Coward?!”

“Enough!” Denush spoke sternly. His gaze fell onto the male warrior. “Answer me, Orktos. Does our comrade speak the truth?”

Irritation flooded Lianna’s entire being when Orktos glowered ahead silently as if he were not addressed. The fucker had also earned the reputation of occasionally omitting the truth.

“Speak.”

“I admit that I have spoken carelessly about the leadership,” he admitted finally, slight annoyance lacing his tone. “However, had she not addressed me to begin with, this confrontation would not have existed.”

“Regardless of what or who initiated this, your reaction was undignified and in violation. You WILL explain yourself to the Orlotae Leaders. Until then, switch posts with Alia immediately.”

Lianna and Denush watched the warrior furiously storm away, his footprints harshly engraving the dirt. She felt her rage slowly subside when her Undu rested his strong hand on her shoulder.

“Are you alright, Unda?” Denush asked tenderly, his teal eyes smiling at her.

“I am now,” Lianna replied as she smiled warmly at the only one allowed to use the title meaning ‘sister-in-spirit.’ “My thanks to you.”

“You are welcome.” His hand slid off her shoulder and fell to his side. “I was patrolling the grounds when I sensed something was amiss. Besides, I am not surprised by the outcome of you and Orktos guarding the same post.”

Lianna shook her head as she sighed. “I do not trust him, Undu. I have a strong sense that he will betray us somehow.”

“You know that I sense the same, but the likes of Orktos is not worth your dignity. The Gooktos Lundai ceremony is not the place for quarrels, but a night to honor our Protector and drink some of the finest Halo nectar in the jungle.”

“I see your priorities are in order,” Lianna chuckled. “On the other hand, after the recent encounter with the Reea tribe, nectar sounds quite app—“ She suddenly grew silent when she heard a clear snap in the distance, as if a twig had broken under pressure.

“What is it?” Denush asked, confused.

Lianna turned her head towards the entrance, straining her hearing. “Do you hear that?” she whispered guardedly.

“Hear what?”

Before she responded, the sound returned, only louder and more pronounced. She glanced over at Denush, whose widened eyes confirmed her suspicions. At her nod, he ran to warn the other warriors of a possible ambush.

Meanwhile, Lianna immediately drew her sword, prepared to pierce the flesh of a Reea tribe member. For five months, the Reea warriors had attempted to invade the Shuluan village for their land. The Gooktos Lundai ceremonies were known throughout the jungle and it would be no surprise if they planned to attack at this moment, believing that the Shuluans were at their most vulnerable.

Yet the sounds of these steps were dissimilar from that of the Reea tribe or any other as they grew more thunderous. The land began to tremble beneath Lianna’s feet and she had to crouch in order to maintain her balance. Her heart throbbed when she quickly realized that the intruder was something they had never encountered.

“Dear Gooktos Lundai,” Lianna prayed calmly beneath her breath. “Protect us from harm and give us the strength and courage to defeat the unknown enemy approaching us. Shine upon us your radiant glow and—“

She stopped abruptly when her gaze caught a narrow beam of light flashing on the bark of the Thro tree. It moved rapidly in circles as if searching for something. She noticed everyone watching in silence as another beam appeared, then another until the beams shone on her people.

Before she had the opportunity to act, the intruders appeared from the shadows. They were not rival tribesmen, but giants. Their bodies were protected by cloth as white as the moon light, their faces hidden behind masks decorated with a clear slit to protect their eyes. Lianna counted at least three of them, each of them holding a device which bathed her people in bright, blinding light.

Instantly, Shuluans began to scatter frantically towards the entrances, shoving each other in order to quickly seek shelter within the evacuation trees. Lianna’s ears caught the screams of innocent villagers as she ran past them, pushing many of them towards the sacred entrances and urging them to hide themselves.

Sword in hand, Lianna and two other warriors moved swiftly towards the giants, who began to hastily snatch up screaming men, women and children before throwing them into metal cages. She noticed that Denush and Orktos were already climbing up the leg of one of the intruders. She heard him yell when her fellow warriors drove their swords through the fabric covering the intruder’s leg.

Hope abandoned her, however, when the giants pulled her brother-in-spirit and her antagonist off of their leg with one hand and effortlessly tossed them into a cage as if they were loose twigs.

Raging, Lianna advanced towards the one giant with her blade raised. She lunged to pierce through its ankle in order to make him drop the cage.

Before she could land her blow, she was suddenly bathed in light, temporarily blinded by its brilliance. She shielded her face with her free arm, straining to look for any sign of the other villagers and her fellow warriors, all to no avail. She could not see anything. But she could hear them, wailing and weeping for the Gooktos Lundai. She closed her eyes and listened, helplessly, to their cries of mourning until, suddenly, she could hear nothing at all.

 

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