Forever Gone

Riding the wind above the ocean, her strong wings stroking with power, Sierra raced to make it to the Gathering on time. The elders would greet her with either derision or affectionate dismissiveness if she arrived last. Worse, with disdain or contempt if discussion had already begun.

Even Aevigshon would attend this time. Sierra refused to look bad before the most ancient of all of them.

Sierra plummeted straight downward through the crystalline cerulean sky. She delighted in plunging through the stray cloud or two, so ephemeral as to appear more azure than white. The moisture, however sparse, still caressed her sapphire-blue scales as she dove. Tranquil turquoise waters rushed to meet her. At the last moment, Sierra pointed her snout and stretched her long, graceful neck, pressed her massive wings and four legs tight against her side and belly, and extended her tail out behind her.

Barely had the scent of salt reached her nostrils when Sierra dove beneath the surface. Her momentum carried her deeper than the prismatic flickering of sunbeams reached, yet even in the depths, the tropical waters remained warm.

She rolled, thousands of bubbles rising with her as she stroked with her webbed feet, quickly swimming back to the sun-lit shallows and heading away from the rocky coast.

Sierra took her duties very seriously—far more so than those two nestmates who had hatched with her almost a thousand years ago took theirs. In the next few decades, a new batch of eggs in the nursery would hatch and they could no longer call themselves babies. Sierra thought the others would cope badly with the realization. They cared only about games and dancing and stories.

Not Sierra. Sierra wanted the respect and admiration of the rest of her clan, and even of the other clans! But that would come in time. She knew she needed to keep proving herself.

Even this simple mission would help her do that.

Especially this one.

Simple.

Easy.

Vital.

Absolutely, incredibly vital.

Sierra filled with pride that the elders had entrusted her with the mission.

The water warmed even more as she neared her destination. Illumination ahead came not from the golden rays from above but from a deep red glow emanating from a fissure in the sea bed below.

The Fire Clan reached even deep beneath the oceans, just as water from the Ocean Clan touched the highest heavens before falling back to earth. All interconnected. Everything intertwined.

Soon the fissure would erupt. Lava would spew forth, shooting up and turning the water around it to steam. The magma would rain back down, and would continue gushing from the volcano as well, spreading over the ocean floor for the next decades, eventually resulting in the birth of new islands from the desolate submerged desert.

The elders of the Ocean Clan had ordered Sierra to take one last quick look to ensure no life had swum or wandered into the area and then to report back.

Powerful strokes of her feet and a corresponding swish of her tail propelled her swiftly forward. The red glow suffused the area. In the motion of the water, Sierra could see the heat rising toward the surface.

Fish disliked the hot water and swam well clear of the area. Not even the occasional kelp or anemone or crustacean broke the monotony.

Then Sierra drew up short, recoiling in horror at the sight.

No!

It couldn’t be.

A colony of thirteen-legged shtaernshen clung to the rocky ground few dozen feet from the volcanic crevice. Suction cups on the bottom of their legs gave them purchase. They held tight or walked with three or four of their narrow legs while the remaining nine or ten legs swayed gracefully in the current. They shouldn’t have been there at all.

How? Why?

Why now?

Ocean currents, and certain other sea creatures, transported the shtaernshen all over Teerrock yet they returned to one single place to reproduce.

Why had they abandoned their usual—no, their only—spawning ground hundreds of miles away?

As Sierra looked more closely, her horror and despair increased a hundredfold. The delicate jewel-toned creatures, every glittering shade of blue, had already deposited their eggs on the rocks. Hundreds of them, the entire population in the world, stood sentry over tens of thousands of eggs—the indigo foam jelly more precious to them than anything else in existence. Moving the eggs risked destroying them and wiping out the shtaernshen entirely. The fathers died shortly after fertilizing the eggs. The mothers would guard them literally with their lives, and die as the thousands of babies hatched.

Sierra had to stop the volcano. If it erupted, it would obliterate the shtaernshen forever. They would lose them for all eternity.

Sierra surged to the surface and exploded into the air. As she soared eastward she emitted a roar the likes of which she had never mustered before. She had no idea who might be close enough to hear, but she needed to sound the alarm as early as she could.

The ocean gave way to sprawling dunes of sand which transitioned to magnificent canyons, revealing glorious strata of rock in reds, golds, yellows, oranges and pinks. Gradually, the hardiest cacti and scrub took hold. The desert tones gave way to browns then greens, then to verdant lushness as forest took over the foothills to the mountains in the distance.

Spotting dark flecks in the sky near the horizon, Sierra roared again. Four answering roars echoed over the countryside as she and her clansmates converged on the Valley of the Eternal Gales, the designated meeting place for the current Gathering.

As Sierra flew nearer, the snow-capped mountain turned to look at her.

Not the mountain!

Aevigshon!

The largest, the oldest, the mightiest of them all, if Aevigshon spread her alabaster wings, they would span the entire valley. Her origins lost to all but the oldest among them, Aevigshon had led the clans for only a few hundred millennia.

“Little One, why are you distressed?”

Wind from the elder’s words buffeted Sierra. She imagined she could see the earth tremble with the power behind the statement. Never had Sierra felt so tiny, not even when she had just emerged from her egg and stretched only a foot from the tip of her tail to the end of her snout.

Aevigshon waited patiently, head tilted quizzically to one side and one brow ridge arched high over one fierce silver eye as she regarded Sierra.

Sierra’s voice caught in her throat as all eyes turned to her. Although Sierra had arrived ahead of time, if not by much, everyone else was already there.

The twelve elders, three from each clan, the greatest among them measured only half the size of Aevigshon. Now they all fixed their gazes on her. Some conveyed curiosity or concern; others, impatience, annoyance, even anger.

The leaders of the Ocean Clan, their glistening scales either sapphire or turquoise, betrayed their embarrassment. Sanvell’s face wore its usual smirk, pained at the moment. Shenlon yawned and flexed his turquoise wings, tail twitching restlessly even as he feigned disinterest. Senrae’s silver eyes narrowed as she glared at Sierra and gave small snorts of flame.

The remaining nine elders radiated every bit as much disapproval. Either jade or emerald in color, the three other members of the Earth Clan dwarfed Sierra with their immense size, yet Aevigshon still made them look small. The gleaming alabaster or opal of the Wind Clan stood out most glaringly against the greens and browns of the mountains and valley. Even the garnet and ruby of the Fire Clan blended better with the surroundings.

Sierra gathered her courage and found her voice. “It’s the shtaernshen. They moved…I mean, they changed…I can’t explain it. They didn’t go to the right, to their usual spawning place. They’re next to the fissure. They’ve already laid all their eggs.”

“Ah.” Aevigshon closed her eyes in contemplation and leaned her head back.

No one else among them said a word. Senrae even stopped snorting fire.

The silence grew heavier and heavier, all of it pressing down on Sierra. Not even the wind stirred. In the Valley of Eternal Gales, not a breeze!

“That is sad,” Aevigshon said, deep voice shaking the ground with tragedy as if the whole world were about to weep with sorrow. “It is to your credit that you want to help them. Yet inaction is not an option. We tend to all of Teerrock. The pressure must be released or it will burst forth elsewhere. The waters need the heat. The plants need the nutrients. More than the shtaernshen are at stake. Life will spread to the islands that will be born.”

“But…but…the shtaernshen.”

“All things die, Little One. Nothing goes on forever.”

“I know that!” Sierra huffed, suddenly angry. Did Aevigshon think she was stupid? “But we don’t have to let them. We don’t have to help it happen.” Sierra’s fury grew. “We don’t have to kill them. It’s wrong to do nothing!”

Sanvell roared in rebuke. Senrae blew a plume of fire high into the air. A stern glance from Aevigshon quelled their outbursts.

“Would you sacrifice the forestland instead? Or have the great schools of bluefish die of cold as their waters chill? Or delay the rains that will awaken the desert so that all who live there can survive?”

Sierra’s confidence wavered. “There has to be some way. The eggs will hatch in a month. Just a delay…”

“The delay will destroy the bluefish,” Aevigshon explained gently, her tone full of pain. “Which means the bigger fish, and the eels, and many birds will have nothing to eat. And the bluefish will not spread the kelpin seeds, or the mogs that attach to them and then drop off. And with no kelpin, the whales die. With none of the larger fish, the sharks and other types of whales die.

“Are the shtaernshen more important than all these?”

“No,” Sierra admitted, then found renewed conviction in another flash of fury. “They aren’t less important either! They deserve to survive. We have to help them!”

Aevigshon curved her neck around and swiveled her head to look directly at Sierra. “Then it is up to you to find the solution. We can only wait two days without risking further catastrophe. Find an alternative by then, or we will have no choice.”

Two days! Sierra could scarcely believe it. It gave hope, yet the task was daunting. What could she possibly do in two days? She had to try. Doom and failure loomed inexorably, yet she refused to give up.

Two days. She had to find a way. Anything less would not stave off extinction.

Terror gripped her, and panic.

What should she do? Where to start?

Before Sierra lost her composure in front of all the elders, especially Aevigshon, Sierra shouted, “Thank you!” and flew blindly away, heading in the general direction of the volcanic fissure.

Whoooosh. Womp. Whoooosh. Womp. Whooosh. Womp. Whoooosh.

As her mind cleared and settled into a greater level of coherence, Sierra became aware that someone flew beside her. Sparing a glance, Sierra recognized her companion. Among all the clans combined, only fifty or so eggs hatched every millennium. Everyone the same age knew each other.

Nixel’s garnet red scales glistened like flames in the bright sunshine as befitted a member of the Fire Clan. Not as long and sinewy as most, instead Nixel intimidated others her age with her greater size and bulk. Some others, but not Sierra.

“Where are we going?” Nixel asked. “What are we going to do?” The pauses between the words showed Nixel was expending effort to keep up with Sierra’s brisk pace.

“We?” Sierra hoped she sounded more startled than hostile. Especially since she was stalling and had no better answer than that.

“I can help. Maybe,” Nixel said. “You were so brave, speaking up like that!”

“For all the good it did,” Sierra snarled. Then, contrite that Nixel might think the emotion was directed at her, Sierra confessed, “I don’t know what to do.” She slowed ever so slightly, making it easier for Nixel to keep up. “What’s your idea?”

“I’m the one who found the chasm,” Nixel said. “Before the shtaernshen were there. I’m the one who picked it. When it was clear. But there was a second choice we almost picked.”

Sierra stopped short and hovered in mid-air, wingstrokes swirling the desert sands beneath them. “What? Tell me.”

Nixel wheeled around to face her. “The next best choice—the best choice for the fish, really; the eruption will be more powerful and build an island chain faster, and warm the water more—was a few hundred miles south. There was only one problem. The eruption there would cause a massive wave that would sweep inland and cause great death for miles. Well, and the whales don’t want to leave. But only because they like it there. Nothing is really holding them to the place. They haven’t grazed all the kelp yet.”

Sierra nearly screamed at her in frustration. She barely stopped herself. What kind of solution was a mass drowning? There had to be a better option. An idea began to churn. “Can you get the whales to leave?”

“What?”

“Can. You. Get. The. Whales. To. Leave?” Sierra felt the fire burning in her chest and throat. She swallowed it down and fought back her rising temper.

Nixel regarded her with a deep frown as if she thought Sierra had lost all reason. “Yes, mayb—”

“Good. Do it. I need to talk to my clansmates.”

With the Gathering at hand, many had congregated in the Sea of Great Waves, one of the common meeting places. If she could convince those she found there, they could help her convince the three elders—and Aevigshon.

The Ocean Clan held sway over the water. They should be able to handle a wave, no matter how gargantuan. And if her clan needed assistance—especially from the Wind Clan—well, Aevigshon had emphasized that everything was connected.

She could reach the Sea of Great Waves in a few hours. The true question: how quickly could she convince the rest of her clan? If they didn’t agree, Sierra knew that no shtaernshen would survive.

She skimmed low over the water, the tips of her wings barely touching the surface at regular intervals. Ahead, a circle of towering rocks rose from the sea, perpetually beset by dangerous currents, mountainous waves, and fierce winds. No clan except the Ocean Clan sought out the perilous location. Perilous only to others. The Ocean Clan gloried in it.

Some perched on the rocks, the diameter of the formation over a mile across. Others floated on the calmer waters outside the perimeter and basked in the hot sun. Still others swam and played in the thunderous foamy white waves. A few circled lazily in the sky overhead, or danced or played games of chase.

Sierra roared, and over three dozen of her clansmates rose as one to join those already in flight. They all soared to meet her.

“I need your help!” Sierra called out. “There is word from the Gathering that we need to change the location for the birth of an undersea volcano. Lives depend on it. The new location will likely cause a massive wave. It’s up to the Ocean Clan to prevent it from reaching shore and causing death there instead.”

“What foolishness is this?” Snitfen scoffed. Of course, she would protest.

Snitfen hated anything not her idea, and considered herself an expert in all things. Quite an accomplishment for one of any age, let alone someone not yet ten millennia old.

“Quiet,” one of the older clan members admonished her, before pivoting in air to regard Sierra. “Explain,” he order Sierra.

“The Fire Clan picked a location where they were going to cause an eruption. When they picked it, it was deserted. But Sanvell ordered me to check one final time. All the shtaernshen had gone there to spawn. We haven’t found out why yet, what disturbed their usual location, but it doesn’t matter. They’ve already laid all their eggs. There’s no way to move them without killing them all. But the eruption will also kill them all.

“There is a second choice the Fire Clan can use for the volcano, they’ve already told me. It’s an even better location for new islands, and will warm and revitalize the waters just as well.

“But it will also create a huge wave. We need to counteract the wave and stop it from causing terrible destruction on land.”

Snitfen opened her jaws wide to continue her ridicule, but again the senior clansmate Sonelle forestalled her. “That is no easy thing, to manage such vast power,” he said.

“Yes, you’re right,” Sierra talked fast. “But the entire clan is here. We can do it! And the others, the other clans, they can help.”

Sonelle contemplated, going perfectly still except for the rhythmic flapping of his turquoise wings keeping him aloft. The rest began talking amongst themselves, some praising the idea, others questioning or outright mocking it as they swooped or glided or hovered.

Finally Sierra could no longer hold her tongue, or contain her desperation. “It’s been done! History tells, it’s been done!” They all knew the accounts, passed down to every generation. “We can do it again.

“We have to!”

“What you ask will not be easy. When must we do this?” Sonelle asked.

“Within a day and a half. The Fire Clan can’t wait any longer.”

Again Sonelle retreated into his own thoughts, apparently oblivious to the chaos swirling around him in the form of the rest of his clan arguing and exclaiming over the dire situation. He fixed Sierra with a grave look, before giving a sly wink and letting out a roar of his own.

Sierra could feel its power course through her as it echoed off the rocks and the ocean.

“Come!” he commanded. “We go to the Valley of the Eternal Gales.”

Sierra easily matched his speed despite Sonelle’s far greater size. Some of the others lagged behind, but not her. Despite the urgency, joy welled up in her. She’d done it! She’d convinced them. Surely the rest of the clans would agree.

Back in the Valley of the Eternal Gales, Sierra noticed that Aevigshon had moved to the other side of the valley. And many many more people from all the clans had arrived. They lined the valley walls, high and low, and some had landed on the valley floor as well. The vista sparkled as the sun shone off scales of sapphire and turquoise, emerald and jade, ruby and garnet, and alabaster and opal.

Interspersed, she also spied flashes of gold, silver, copper and iron. Even some of the loners had come! Far fewer in number than the clan members, Golds, Silvers, Coppers, and Irons most often kept to themselves or lived completely alone.

Sierra marveled at the sight; it looked as if a magnificent rainbow had settled from the heavens to enshroud the ground.

She held back so Sonelle could surge ahead by himself. Better that someone far older and more respected than her speak. Sierra settled atop one of the ridges as Sonelle circled the valley, greeting Aevigshon and the rest of the elders.

Sierra watched so closely as Sonelle and Aevigshon fell into intense conversation, that she almost didn’t realize when Nixel landed beside her.

“Have the whales moved?” Sierra asked.

Nixel’s mouth twisted and her golden eyes narrowed. “They were not pleased about it, but yes, they moved.”

“Thank you!”

Nixel curved her neck and swiveled her head toward the elders. “Did you convince them?”

“Yes. My clan, at least. Now he’s convincing Aevigshon.” Sierra dipped her head toward Sonelle. An elder—Sierra didn’t know which one—from the Fire Clan had joined them.

The stiff breeze turned to a steady wind as deep purple clouds gathered on the distant horizon.

Not a portent of failure to come, Sierra hoped.

Leaving the trio, Sonelle flew over to her. “Well done, Sierra. Well done. Stay with the rest and help. I’m going to protect the shtaernshen from the rough waters we’re about to cause.” He flew off before she could reply.

Aevigshon got to her four feet and spread her wings wide, demanding everyone’s attention. The ground shook and the very air vibrated when she spoke.

“The Fire Clan will go to the fissure further north, not the one taken over by the shtaernshen. The rest of us, led by the Ocean Clan, will go to the coast east of the eruption. We must stop the wave from wreaking havoc. It is imperative. Otherwise we will have caused far more damage than we prevented.”

She raised her alabaster wings, and with a powerful downstroke took to flight, trailing a rainbow of color behind her as everyone else followed.

Sierra leapt skyward, weaving among all those others to avoid clipping anyone else with her wings. She soon found herself at the front with only a few elders and Aevigshon herself maintaining the same swift speed.

Aevigshon glanced over at her and smiled. “You are as fast as they say, Little One.”

Unsure how to respond, Sierra smiled back and dipped her head in acknowledgment. She’d always known that. It had never occurred to her that she had gained a reputation for it.

They flew toward the storm, although it remained a ways off when they reached the coast. A narrow beach of shimmering white sand separated the waters from the flourishing tropical forest.

The clansmembers organized themselves, each clan finding its own.

A band of glistening sapphire and turquois blue formed the first line as the Ocean Clan arrayed itself along the coast, spacing out to stretch several miles. The opal and alabaster Wind Clan fell in behind them, followed by the emerald and jade Earth Clan.

A flash of flame shot into the sky far out at sea. Several moments later, the combined roar of the Fire Clan reached them.

They had done it.

The volcano was born. Lava would be shooting up into the water and rushing outward on the ocean floor.

The Fire Clan raced toward them. They would take up a position behind the Earth Clan and lend what strength they could.

Sanvell, and Senrae had taken up position at either end of the line, with Shenlon in the middle where Sierra had made her spot. The three roared in unison, and Shenlon bellowed, “Ahead!”

The further out to sea they met the wave, the more they could disrupt it. So they streaked away from the land and, as the Fire Clan soared over them in the opposite direction, the Ocean Clan dove.

They charged forward, drawing the water with them. Sierra roared as the wave front smashed into her, nearly washing her aside. She pressed forward, battling for every inch of headway as the water bashed against her face and wings with blow after blow. She persevered, roaring again in defiance of the wave and pushing forward.

When she suddenly shot forward with almost no resistance, she knew she’d gotten through the entire breadth of the wave. From her talons to her tail to her snout, her whole body trembled with exhaustion. She could barely find the energy to point herself to the surface.

Her wings felt like they had to be the size of Aevigshon’s, they were so heavy. She could hardly move them. Her tail seemed likewise huge, and threatened to pull her to the depths of the sea.

She refused to sink down there and rest. They hadn’t yet won the fight.

The longer she forced her wings to work, the less leaden they felt. Breaking the surface, she looked anxiously around. She could see Shenlon, Sanvell, and Senrae already making their way back toward shore. One after the other, her clansmates emerged from the sea with the water streaming off of them, rose up into the air, and followed suit.

They reformed the line to make a second run. The Earth Clan and Fire Clan prepared to accompany them.

The Wind Clan remained behind, marshalling their own powers. Hovering in place, the motion of their wings, and their roars, called on the full majesty of the wind. Wisp became breeze became wind became gale that swept out to sea, meeting the onrushing waters.

This time when Sierra slammed into the submerged wave, she could tell instantly it had lost a great deal of its force. The impact wasn’t anywhere near as severe as the initial one.

And the size of the wave had shrunk. She broke free far more easily and more quickly. Still exhaustion assailed her as she struggled to reach the air.

When she did, its hurricane force sent her tumbling snout over tail until she regained her equilibrium. The gales did not relent.

Sierra soared high, high above them to make it back to land. The surf had retreated, leaving only packed wet sand scattered with boulders and driftwood.

Then a wall of water loomed up, surging in toward land with an entire body of water behind it. The fierce winds slowed it immensely but weren’t stopping it.

Not yet.

She looked to her elders, trying to gauge if they should make one last assault in the water rushing in. They appeared reluctant to do just that.

No! Not after they’d done so much and worked so hard. Sierra refused to quit now.

She roared and attacked the wave one last time, heartened to see that the others followed. Yet after their third run, far too much of the deadly wave still remained, and it had nearly reached the shore.

They’d decreased it greatly, perhaps even to a tenth of its original size.

Yet its impact remained inevitable.

Sierra wanted to fly away and hide from their failure. From her failure, as she’d convinced everyone of this action. Her heart broke in her chest, and she felt an epic wail of frustration and fury welling up in her. Her wings barely held her aloft as she glided shoreward.

But then, sparing the briefest of nods to Sierra, Aevigshon reared up and broke from her place in line, circling up and over all the rest of the Wind Clan. She swung around and passed under Sierra and the others to attack the wave.

With a roar the likes of which Sierra had never ever heard before, and never expected to hear again even if she lived to a greater age than Aevigshon herself, Aevigshon sounded as if all of Teerrock roared with her. The gusts, already hurricane intensity, doubled their force.

The thunderous wave slowed and shrunk as Aevigshon bore down on it. The rest of her Clan followed.

And the wave grew smaller. And smaller. And slower. And slower.

And bubbled and gurgled its way up the beach, not even reaching the tree line as the last of the wind faded away.

Sierra dropped to the ground with a thud, landing sprawled on the wet sand and spitting out some grains that had ended up in her mouth.

She wanted to dance and sing with delight and joy.

She wanted to sleep. For a decade. Or two.

Her body ached and throbbed from the beating she’d just endured and, now that the crisis had past, the pains seemed to be getting worse, not better.

But . . . the Gathering!

Sierra hated to miss the gathering.

As she debated with herself, Aevigshon’s tail slid tenderly under her and raised her level with her huge golden eyes.

“You did well, Sierra. The ocean has a most worthy steward in you.” Gingerly, Aevigshon returned her to her spot in the sand, then took wing, calling the elders to follow. “The Gathering awaits!”

After a few minutes, Sierra flexed her wings and decided she’d rested enough. Sleep could always wait.

The Gathering wouldn’t.

 

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