The Exiles

The wind hated Zahra, and it wanted her to know. It howled and groaned and shrieked, pushing her down toward the permafrost below against each beat of her great wings. The ground waited patiently to catch her and freeze around her body, immortalizing her in ice with its age-old magics the way it had with her mother and grand-mother and great-grandmother, preserving her lineage all the way back to the first generation that had been banished from their old home.

Zahra prayed desperately to her ancestors that she would not join her icebound foremothers as she continued pushing toward the mountain peak. When she was younger, this might have been easier; now, the ascent was slow and taxing, and Zahra nearly feared she’d tire and fall from the exertion before reaching her destination. This she could not allow to happen no matter what the cost. The 14 other council members each carried a stack of logs in their claws, the very last of the wood they’d brought to this barren land. Zahra alone bore nothing but her own self as offering.

She dared not turn her head to check upon her fellows; one misdirected flap could send her spiraling down, and she would not get back up, dooming her people to an eternity in these frozen peaks that were a terrible mockery of the warm, steamy mountain range their ancestors had inhabited.

The oldest of them all, Zahra reached the flat mountain top last, but did not allow herself to rest. Next came the descent: not a swoop, but a slow glide down to the great cavern in the heart of the mountain. The only way to survive the enchanted chill that would settle deep in her bones was to take it on gradually. The cold first presented itself as nothing more than a slight chill in the air, but Zahra knew it would only get worse. Though she had been barely more than a hatchling a thousand years ago when her grandmother had led this very same expedition and failed, she remembered the stories. Zahra remembered them all, the new ones and the old ones and the ancient ones and the ones from before the Exodus, and she kept them and taught them so that her People would be prepared.

This time, they would not fail.

The closer she got to the bottom of the mountain, the more deeply the cold burrowed within her, and Zahra searched within herself one last time for that lost piece of her soul. She was not supposed to miss something she’d never had, but Zahra had known the moment she’d hatched that something had been taken from her. Before the Exodus, her ancestors had held the Spark, the gift of firebreathing. It had been smothered within them as part of their punishment when they were banished, to be reignited only once they -- or their descendents, millenia later -- were allowed to return home.

Her colleagues, already seated in a circle on the ground, twitched their tails in unease and slid their claws out, scraping the ice in their nervousness. Their bodies radiated heat, though she knew they were as cold as she, and even the warmth of their huge forms did nothing to push back the haunted frigidity around them.

She descended the last meters like a summer snowfall, arriving quietly and coating everything in a blanket of silence. The fidgeting stopped and the room went still, her sharp silver gaze the cutting wind that spread the flakes. Zahra landed in the center of the circle, taking her rightful place as chief, and then the silence was shattered, like a warm tide washing up on frozen banks, as 14 pairs of claws moved to arrange the logs in a second, smaller circle around her. The others began fidgeting again as they sat back on their haunches and left Zahra to do her work. She leaned forward, scraping the dull edge of her claw against the wood to ignite a spark. It felt wrong to do it this way, and Zahra once more juvenilely wished for the magic that should have been her birthright.

The flame caught; they had no oil here, but these logs had been enchanted to catch flame, and the fire spread slowly around the circle. The oppressive cold finally lessened. The noise beyond the fire increased as her compatriots became more nervous, more agitated; the crackling of the fire got louder and louder until she was completely surrounded by a low wall of flame; and there Zahra was, sitting completely still in the center of it all, the calm eye of the swirling storm.

“Wise one,” she heard coming from a place beyond, and Zahra closed her eyes but did not lose her sight. Instead, she was given a new vision: where the other council members once sat were now 14 ancients she knew but did not recognize, and rather than a position of power, the center of the circle was now a place of judgment. The cold was suddenly gone, but the warmth flooding her was only an illusion; she knew when she returned to her body that the shock of the chill would be worse than ever.

A fifteenth swooped down from above to land barely a tail-length in front of Zahra, facing her with eyes she recognized from her own reflection—only these were much, much older than hers, and where Zahra’s scales were a pale blue, fit to blend in with her icy surroundings, the ones covering the body before her were a deep midnight azure, an attractive quality in a time when one would want to stand out.

“Do you know who I am?” she asked, and though she spoke alone, Zahra could hear the voices of the ancient ones surrounding her, adding their force to the words. The sound vibrated through her, sinking and settling into her bones.

“Lady,” Zahra bowed, forelegs together, neck arched downward, head near the ground. Just as Zahra knew instinctively who this was, she knew that this was the correct way to carry out the ritual, even though she had never done it before. “I have never known you, yet you must be my many-times-great-grandmother, the last of my line to die in the old land.”

Zahra was not sure to whom she should pray; after all, the spirit of her ancestor stood in front of her. First Flames help her People; they had called the Antecedents. May they be granted swift judgment and allowed at long last to return home.

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