Imagine a civilization with a caste system that is shackled by an oppressive government and trapped by geological barriers, where the only means of escape is to join an underground community, to follow the cryptic guidance of an advanced race that lives on the far side of a perilous sea, which is veiled by a mantle of fog. Whispering Mist is the tale of Rayna, an ironically rebellious young woman, and Nyle, her treasonous yet honorable lover, and their quest for political and personal liberation. Supported by multiple subplots and comic relief, the central narrative is set between the intertwined worlds of Valaycia and Yugatania, which are ruled ambiguously by the alchemistic Vudaki, a godlike race of semi-benevolent beings who swim beneath and fly above the Sea of Smoke. As an epic fantasy, Whispering Mist employs a unique vocabulary to describe atypical creatures that populate an original world with two moons of different colors. If you seek an author who writes concisely with precision, Marley Kin will satisfy. If you seek an unconventional story, Whispering Mist will mystify.
A young girl with blue skin stood on a crooked path that weaved its way through the middle of an endless landscape of volcanoes. Surrounding the fiery mounts was a sea of bubbling lava. Rayna stood, frozen, at the other end of the narrow trail.
The blue-skinned girl called out to her. “You must follow me.”
To no avail, Rayna tried to move forward. “My feet are stuck.”
“Maisun will help you.” She turned away and walked in the other direction.
“Please wait for me!”
A ball of flames rose up from the lava beneath the girl’s feet, lifting her into the dark gray sky. Rayna watched helplessly, her body shaking. The ball of fire became a small star that drifted away. Before it disappeared, the little girl called out again, “Maisun will guide you.”
Rayna’s eyes opened with a fright. She was clutching the blanket, her body wet with perspiration. A dream . . . a premonition . . . my birthday.
She sat up in her bed and leaned against the headboard, pushing her tangled auburn hair from her moist face. The heat from the lava in her dream felt so real. Everything about the dream felt real. Like most people in Jelico, she had heard about the legends of the Distant Land and the people with blue skin who possibly lived there. But who was Maisun? Perhaps he had some connection to the Liberation.
Her intuition told her that having such a lucid dream on her birthday was no mistake, that although she had no experience with premonitions, there was certainly something ominous about the dream. Now that she was officially a legal adult, she would have the opportunity to attend what the government and most people from Jelico considered to be illicit visitations from the enigmatic leaders of Valaycia. Perhaps they could tell her if the dream was a vision or just an illusion.
REACHING FOR THE DOOR
REACHING FOR THE DOOR
Have passion for everything and cling to nothing. Rayna squinted at the blazing sun until her eyes began to water. Her deceased grandmother shared those paradoxical words with her a year ago, and she still thought of them as a riddle. What she wanted most was to live free in Valaycia.
Her attention spiraled back to the lower deck of the two-story river-boat, where she stood, anxious to resume her birthday-tour down Galamar's treacherous Zambori river. She wiped the tears away, leaning against her first and only lover. Not the most handsome man she ever met, Evak was taller than most men and leaner in the torso. In a futile attempt to look older, and wiser, he struggled to grow a beard for the first time. As she nuzzled her face into his neck, Rayna stroked his crooked nose and wondered how painful it must have been to fracture his septum during a rock-climbing adventure. She dreamed about her impending rendezvous with the Liberation, hoping that he, too, would have the faith and courage to become a liberator.
While admiring the wild beauty of Serova's remote location, with its pink-blossomed archtrees, yellow-green featherbushes, and limitless fabric of lofty vines, Rayna noticed a tiny man with an ebony jar chasing some children away from the greenbrick river-dock below. As the youngsters scurried off, he poured a dark liquid from one edge of the pitted dock to the other. She tightened her black, lacy sash. “What’s that man doing, Evak?”
He shrugged. “Spreading some kind of oil across the dock.”
Striking a match, the man dropped it on the oil, igniting a meager wall of fire between himself and the several gawking people on the shore. The smell of smoke blotted out the spectrum of opulent odors that escaped the jungle, transfusing the viscid air with urgency. Numerous birds of variegated colors bolted in every direction, leaving a fallout of feathers in their unified wake.
“He must be crazy!” She rushed to the stern of the blackwood deck for a closer look at the fearless arson as a cacophony of cries flared from the crowd.
Evak was right beside her. “He must be a rebel.”
If that was true, Rayna was eager to hear what he had to say. Until then, she had only heard about the cloaked Rebellion through the smeared lens of Yugatania’s department of Public Media and secondary sources with hazy agendas. She leaned over the rail to get a closer view, tuning out everything but the little man with a fondness for fire.
With liberal gestures and a copious voice, the rebel spoke to the crowd through the taunting flames. “People of Galamar! Lift your heads to see the walls that surround you, the walls that separate you from the people of Jelico who ride this pleasure-cruise down your river!”
Rayna heard deck-hands yelling, and the crew’s captain split the din of shouting by ordering his men to cast off. The boat’s engine roared, shuddering the planks beneath her feet, causing her to shiver with disturbing excitement.
The rebel raised his voice above the commotion. “As you can see, I made sure that no one suffered any bodily harm from my act of rebellion!”
Two sailors jumped onto the dock, scrambling to cast off the ropes. As the sound of a siren cracked the air, a police wagon turned a street corner with a chilling skid, scattering the startled spectators. Before the authorities could reach the raucous rebel, he plunged into the river and swam to the other shore, opting for the danger of the jungle over the punishment of jail. Instead of pursuing the outlaw, the police drew metal buckets in lieu of weapons, and stole water from the river to douse the fire, drenching their silver-buckled boots in the process.
Rayna and her lover dashed to the other side of the broad ship to witness the rebel’s hasty getaway. “The police got here quick.” A gust of pleasure blew a cool sensation through her body. She gaped at the dripping rebel, who stumbled on the muddy shore before disappearing into the dark green abyss. “I wanted to hear more, but I’m glad no one got hurt.” She wiped a bead of perspiration from her brow.
“He knew what he was doing, Ray.” A glaze of humor covered Evak’s face.
Frowning at Evak, intrigued by his emerging facets, Rayna was pleased that the rebel got away, yet it sounded like Evak admired the man.
As soon as the deck-hands bounced aboard, weeping perspiration, the vessel trickled downstream toward the distant ocean, leaving the sweaty town of Serova behind. The rushing channel was a major source of commerce and transportation, and the slippery village of Tulanoke, famous for its exotic oils and spices, was the next stop on their trip.
Although Rayna had promised her soul to the Liberation long ago, she would always sympathize with the rebels’ noble cause. “It’s too bad we missed the big protest on the border.”
Evak chuckled. “Your parents would've loved that.”
A swell of defiance rose from her breast. “I can go anywhere I want now that I’m twenty.” Restless, she veered her attention to the churning water, while the river carved a wide trail through the infinite vegetation of the Bulakon rainforest, welcoming all the sunlight Rayna needed to scrutinize the florid wildlife loitering among clusters of rock on the irregular banks. A crashing roar ripped through Rayna’s head, spinning her body around to see a crimson cat hurdle its sleek frame onto a mossy boulder reclining on the beach. The most dangerous land predator in Galamar, sublime in its beauty and movement, the creature’s ferocity prickled her nerves and intoxicated her imagination. The only rival it had was the spotted milander that stalked the protean peaks of Kryton. As the angular boat slipped around a bend in the river's journey, the flaming jungle feline vanished, leaving its sultry imprint on Rayna’s mind.
“I’ve been waiting a long time to see a crimson cat.”
“I have another amazing birthday treat for you.” He pointed at a tree that drooped over the river. “Look what that cat was after.”
Spotting a gap in a hefty archtree, Rayna saw a Lukanda staring back at her as it plucked a piece of fruit from a branch without looking. Even harder to find than their crimson predators, Lukanda only gave birth to their species after one died, according to legend. “A Lukanda,” she said with awe. “It’s silver fur shines like a star. People say that seeing a wild one brings good fortune.”
“I arranged all of it.” He kissed her happily.
She broke off the kiss and craned her neck to steal another glimpse, but the mythic creature dissolved into the greenery. “I wish the Sovereign’s Lukanda would go back to the jungle where it belongs.” Rayna despised Adison Varacus and his oppressive form of leadership.
Evak shook his head. “I can't kick that rebel out of my mind.” He slid his more bashful hand into the back pocket of his loose trousers. “I've been reading about the Rebellion. They have the guts to stand up to the government. But if they really want big changes, then they better find a great leader who’s willing to die for his people, because that’s what it might take.”
Rayna searched the murky water, surprised to know her lover harbored such beliefs. She met his umber eyes again with conviction. “What about the Liberation Movement? They offer a better way too.”
“I know, but the rebels are trying to change things here.”
With only scant knowledge of the Rebellion, Rayna felt a stronger kinship with the Liberation, and since she wanted to have fun, she decided to let their parley die a rapid death. The days to come would deal a heavy dose of the Movement, laden with mysteries of its own; she could then judge for herself which road had less traps and more treasures to offer.
“Don't take this the wrong way, Evak, but I'm tired of everybody telling me what to believe. Now that I'm officially an adult, I need to make my own choices.” Like every citizen of Jelico, her twentieth birthday ushered in the unorthodox privilege of attending her visitations with the Valaycian leaders and the chance to join the Liberation Movement. Aching for her Aunt Loreen and Cousin Valeena, she wanted to reunite with them, to experience the promises and wonders of Valaycia, and the only way to get there was to choose her destiny freely.
When Rayna and Evak returned from their excursion in Galamar, well past midnight the following day, Celandra was waiting, to Rayna’s chagrin, infected with worry. Her mother was quick to tell the returning couple that she had organized the kitchen twice, trying in vain to let its new pink-orange decor appease her jumpy nerves, but apparently Rayna’s recklessness was too upsetting. The only thing that seemed to ease Celandra’s tension was pruning the dwarftrees and the white ivy in her cherished vivarium. Boasting a zoological garden like every wealthy family or older estate, her mother had to be satisfied with a grand home since her dream of greater wealth would depend on Rayna’s father achieving his true ambition.
Rayna always wondered why her mother had never pursued at least a part-time vocation as a botanist or a landscape artist. Having convened the most colorful committee of trees, flora, vinery, and shrubbery in the district, her thriving vivarium was celebrated throughout Bentara for its diverse array of birds, reptiles, fish, and small animals, all of which had the right balance of plants, seeds and insects for nourishment. Although the solar windows protected the habitat from icy temperatures, every creature hibernated throughout the harsh winters.
Her mother’s favorite achievement was the multicolored stone fountain she crafted at the heart of her organic menagerie, but she once revealed to Rayna that she wished for a family of magical, flying frogs from Phantom Lake, despite knowing that would never come to pass.
With her typical mixture of grace and haste, Celandra smoothed the multi-colored harvest-tone dress she gave Rayna as a birthday gift. “These colors almost hide your dirty feet.”
As a tiny act of defiance, Rayna leaned back against a small boulder and lifted a soiled foot, pressing it against the smooth bark of a nearby dwarf-tree. “You know I don’t like wearing shoes.”
Celandra ignored Rayna’s minor revolt and said, “Now that you're twenty-years-old, you have the legal right to visit the other states, but you two should've never gone to Galamar–The citizens were demonstrating for the past two days along the border. According to the radio news, an arson tried to burn down the town of Serova.”
“That’s not true, Mother. We actually saw what happened during our river-boat trip. He was a rebel protesting at the river-dock, and no one got hurt–You worry too much.”
Anger always diminished the beauty of her mother’s face. “You never got your tattoo,” Celandra objected. “You could've been arrested!”
Her foot fell to the ground. “I got the identification tattoo and my traveling permit.”
“When?” Celandra demanded, dropping a withered dwarf-tree branch into a brimming basket that hung from her forearm by a braided handle.
Evak smiled. “I took her to the Travel Registrar right before we left.”
Her mother had a habit of fabricating hasty conclusions, which often infuriated Rayna.
“Oh. Well, thank-you, Evak.” Using her lacy apron as a towel, Celandra wiped the dirt from her hands.
Rayna exhaled forcefully. “So, you see, I was careful. Why can't you trust my judgment?”
“Demonstrations in Galamar were raging into the night, so leaving Jelico at all wasn't being careful. You could've waited one more day.” She met Rayna’s mutinous eyes.
After rolling up the flared sleeves of his pallid green shirt, Evak took another pass at being jovial. “The demonstrations were peaceful, Mrs. Kressler.”
“We just wanted to know why they were protesting–It's only talk,” Rayna added.
“Dangerous talk,” Celandra blurted with a scalding tone. Just as swiftly, her face softened, as she dropped her gaze with apparent shame.
A pale look of disgust crossed Rayna’s face. “I've never been to Galamar–It was my birthday, and the next boat ride down the Zambori wasn't for three more weeks.”
Celandra set the shears and basket on the ground and slumped onto a wooden bench with a sigh. She looked defeated. “I guess I'm having a hard time adjusting to you being an adult now.”
“I was hoping you'd worry less,” Rayna said with irritation.
“That’s not possible—You'll always be an innocent child to me.”
Rayna pushed herself from the rock and the ground. “I’m sorry for losing my patience, but I'm really tired and I want some tea.”
“All right. I'm tired too.” Biting her lip, Celandra appeared quite weary, as she slowly lifted her body from the hard bench and followed them into the kitchen.
In the upper room of his palace’s highest tower, Adison Varacus scraped particles of marrow from his Guardian’s molted horn into a tumbler of Valaycian water that he confiscated from a liberator. He refused to light the belfry with the new technology granted by his Valaycian enemies. Instead, he illuminated his shadowy lair with several tall candles and the gilyon gas-lamps that poised from two of the four brownbrick walls. A single window stole starlight from the heavens. Inspired by a murky legend that the horn’s inner pulp was the cardinal leaven of a potent elixir, he wanted to take the Lukanda’s magic to an unexplored dimension. He was determined to be the greatest ruler Yugatania ever had, and he told himself the Guardian’s power would guarantee this.
Although Lukanda were twenty percent smaller than most men, they were physically stronger pound for pound, and since a female Lukanda was a little smaller and less powerful than her male counterpart, she compensated for these weaknesses by secreting venom through the tip of her horn, which would certainly kill her adversary, if the blow from ramming failed to do so.
The key to the elixir was the right amount of poisonous marrow. If he consumed too much at any one time, Adison would surely die, but if he elected the ideal proportion, then he could absorb the creature’s unusual power, transfer more of its charm to himself, and magnify the spell beyond what anyone had ever achieved. Not only would he enjoy boundless charisma, but according to the legend, he could increase his life-span by a hundred years or more. With those extra decades, he would experiment with new ways of penetrating the natural borders to reach the mythical Distant Land, or conquer the seemingly invincible Vudaki to invade Valaycia, the land of legends.
Rolling up the sleeve of his purple robe, he picked up the small red glass. He faced his primal companion, who squatted near the window. The Guardian’s prismatic eyes dilated dramatically, becoming wider, then narrow, back and forth, until Adison was mildly entranced. Then, he drank the potion, and the creature wailed with wild abandon, causing him to drop the crimson tumbler, which shattered when it hit the wooden floor. She jumped up and down, howling with frightening force, about to go berserk, but never moving any closer to her master.
The room began to spin, as he clutched the armchair for support, his chest cramping with pain. In a frenzy, the Guardian shrieked and wailed. Weak and dizzy, Adison lost control, his head toppling to the table, as he fell across an unknown threshold, finally losing consciousness.
Anxious to uncover the mystery of Valaycia and the Vudaki with help from the Liberation, Rayna entered adulthood with inordinate zeal. She wanted to follow the radical lead of her Aunt Loreen, a strong woman who represented everything that Rayna wanted to be, so she rejected her family’s material comforts to choose the formidable path of personal and political freedom. Knowing that her choice would defy her father’s wishes, as well as government authority, Rayna took comfort in her mother’s reluctant support and her Uncle Keegan’s brazen example.
She pressed a fist against her forehead, sitting cross-legged on the broad bench that rested near the edge of the vivarium pond, failing to comprehend how much of an ally her mother was. “If she keeps this up, I might have to move out.” She freed her hair from its copper clasp.
Evak sipped his sourbark tea, slouching next to her. “Give her some slack, Ray. She's a mother, and you're just as wild as ever.”
Sobered by his assessment, Rayna allowed the bitter taste of tension to melt away. She gazed at the unruly white ivy that crawled up trellises, bounded over rocks, and twisted its vines around a tall wooden pole before draping downward like tresses of curly hair. As she spoke, Rayna studied the regular green markings that decorated the white leaves. “I wish she was more wild. Sometimes I think Uncle Keegan was adopted—They don't even look alike.”
He grinned, revealing his crooked lower teeth. “You don't look much like anybody in your family. Maybe you're the one who's been adopted.”
The sparkle in his swarthy eyes kindled her laughter. “My hair’s almost as red as hers.” She pushed some of her locks behind one ear. As Evak joined her glee, they watched a pair of silver moonbirds hover above the glistening pond before darting away. She could scarcely wait for the feathery couple to give birth to the three chicks that slumbered in their fragile, charcoal shells.
Evak switched to a somber expression. “Your father's the one to worry about, Rayna. Your mother's on your side more than you think.”
She dipped her eyes in the pool below, tracing the path of a baby bubblefish, as it ventured from the safety of its rocky cave to join its parents in the search for food. “I don't like to think of it that way.” One of the adult bubblefish gobbled up an insect that drifted on the surface.
His words came quickly. “Tell that to your uncle.”
“If I stood up for Uncle Keegan, maybe Father would admit that he’s right about some things. I've never done that before.”
His shoulders twitched. “It could make things worse.”
“I guess that's the chance I'll have to take.”
Shaking his head, Evak chortled. “And you wonder why she worries.”
“I'll start rehearsing my speech. That way, I'll be primed when they have their next fight.”
Now that her formal schooling was complete, Rayna enjoyed a flexible schedule, sitting in the only kitchen her family ever knew, eating a late breakfast and reading The Road to Liberty, an unorthodox, academic volume that her Aunt Loreen gave her in secret before escaping to Valaycia. Although she would never reveal it to anyone, Rayna was much closer to her aunt–in every way–than she was to her mother, a reality that caused her as much sadness as joy.
Still wearing her blue, silk pajamas, Rayna scanned the kitchen, admiring her mother’s new color-scheme. Despite the vintage timber floor with its sporadic marble inlays, the kitchen flaunted all the modern conveniences, thanks to the recent Valaycian gift of electricity. A variety of her mother’s homegrown herbs swung from the long rafters, dripping with zesty aromas. Staring down from a ceiling-high shelf that circled the room, a fertile lineage of decorative plates portrayed the Kressler’s unfolding family tale with colorful, hand-painted images.
Between dry paragraphs and tasty morsels, she hummed a tune while contemplating the rest of her life within the social design of the oppressive world cramping around her. The most subversive chapter of her aunt’s gift criticized Yugatania’s political architecture and how it sheltered a hierarchy of privilege, the greatest of which–reserved for the citizens of Jelico–was voting in the general election of its three governors. Even though the book’s progressive author supported the custom within each state of station-climbing to the next sociocultural tier, calling it “a natural system of checks and balances between the classes”, Rayna rejected the formal Rites of Conversion, condemning them as antiquated and barbaric. A dangerous ritual, the Single Conversion would sanction a citizen of Kryton in winning the status of a Galamarian citizenship, and the Double Conversion would elevate the survivor to the privileged rank of a prospering citizen of Jelico.
Rayna glanced at Celandra, who entered the kitchen, rubbing her face, punctuating the dark rings that were staking a claim under her gray eyes from too little sleep. Although naturally thin, her body looked frail under her baggy nightgown from eating too little. Celandra jammed the last pin in her lengthy red curls. When was the last time she wore her hair down?
“Good morning, Dear. Did you sing to your food today?” Rayna nodded with a smile. “Rayna, there's something we need to talk about.”
She braced herself for the imminent landslide of worrisome advice.
“Please file your itinerary with the authorities every time you travel out of state to avoid any problems.”
Rayna severed eye-contact to snatch a gulp of juice. Just ignore it.
“The consequences for breaking any laws can be severe.” She sat down to pour a glass of juice.
Rayna’s body stiffened a little. “I know this already, so please don’t worry so much.”
“A lot of young people don't know how dangerous Kryton can be, especially at night.”
“Mother, it's not always safe here in Jelico either.” Rayna shook her head, searching for patience. “What I don't understand is why citizens from the other states can never come here.”
“The people of Galamar are allowed to visit Kryton like we are.”
“We can visit either state any time we like, but they can't come here–It’s not fair.”
Maintaining eye-contact less than she usually did, Celandra seemed distracted, despite her definitive response. “The authorities tell us they're not worthy of such a privilege. They need to pass the Rites of Conversion.”
Her mother seemed so weak compared to Aunt Loreen. “But they're just people like us, and life there's harder than it is here. No wonder the laws get broken.”
“You sound more like your Uncle Keegan every day.”
“I wish you meant that as a compliment.”
She looked away again. “In a way I do, it's just that your uncle can be extreme sometimes.”
Uncrossing her arms, Rayna mingled defiance with delight. “I think he's a brave man.”
“A lot of people do.” Primping her hair, Celandra found a disobedient lock and stuffed it back in place. “Secretly, so do I, but don't tell your father I said that.”
“Father acts like Uncle Keegan's the enemy.”
“They take opposite positions about life here. Nowadays, they avoid the subject, which makes me happy. I really . . . I don’t like it when they fight.” Celandra readjusted her nightgown.
“It doesn’t bother me.” When Rayna was much younger, she would often eavesdrop on their arguments at the top of the stairs instead of sleeping. After Uncle Keegan would leave in disgust, she would scurry off to bed where the excitement mutated into disappointment over her father's lack of courage or denial or both. “I don't expect you to take sides, but do you ever disagree with Father?”
“No.” Celandra redirected the conversation. “Are you still going to your visitation?” She took two quick sips of juice.
Her mother’s condescending tone was vexing. “I've dreamt about meeting the Valaycian leaders ever since I first heard the stories about them. It's a shame you missed your visitation.”
Celandra stroked Rayna’s hair. “I can still meet them if I wish.”
Rayna gently pulled her mother's hand away to emphasize her plea. “Then do it, Mother.”
She yanked her hand back. “I'm not ready. I may never be ready.”
“Why can’t you be–?” Despite her fervent wish that her mother had more in common with her aunt Loreen, Rayna knew that expressing this desire would only increase their alienation.
Her hand clutched something in the pocket of her robe. “Please don't expect me to be something I'm not.”
“But people can change if they want to.”
“I don't like change! It–” Appearing to be overwhelmed with internal division, her mother covered her face. Biting her lip, she stood and gave Rayna a look of apology.
Without a tinge of regret for her assertive tack, Rayna reconsidered her stance and debated the virtue of a different strategy for the next time she confronted her mother’s denial.
Celandra pulled a piece of paper from her pocket and handed it to Rayna. “This was delivered an hour ago.” Rayna took the letter. “Gyan’s father was taken away early this morning.”
Like any citizen of Jelico with an elderly relative, Rayna had known about her grandfather’s impending fate, yet the news of his incarceration was still a shock. The horrible Institute of Retirement. She was never that close to her paternal grandfather, but that had little impact on the anger that threatened to overtake her. It would not be long before her Uncle Keegan would reach the dreaded age of retirement. As a liberator, his confinement would be doubly tragic for Rayna, especially since his wife, Loreen, had already found her freedom with assistance from the Liberation, a reality that always fill Rayna with a complex of conflicting emotions, until she rejoined her aunt by fleeing to Valaycia herself.
Rayna crumpled the letter and threw it across the room. “Father better do something!”
“Your father doesn’t have the power to stop this, Rayna.”
“Then I’ll do something.” She stomped out of the kitchen, knocking down her chair.