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.
TO CHOOSE A DESTINY
Rayna waited for her second visitation, meandering along the lake's lapping fringe, her mind preoccupied with the wobbly balance between history and folklore. According to her native mythology, long ago, before the Vudaki emerged from the depths of the sea with their canopy of gloom, the people of Yugatania could safely visit Valaycia, and they lived in harmony with their neighbors across the sea. With the Vudaki’s appearance, such voyages became impossible, cleaving the two worlds, and life became darker on her side of the vaporous, sprawling inlet. The passage of time has blurred the vision of history, concealing this evolution and the truth of its myth.
Many questions swirled through Rayna’s head, and Evak’s indifference to search with her for the answers was discouraging. Squatting, she dipped her hand into the water. The key was out there, and she would find it, even if it meant diving to the bottom of Phantom Lake. She smeared the rusty-colored water on her lips, and its musky taste infused her body with a cool sensation.
It was a sealed mystery why the Vudaki allowed the Valaycians to cross the sea, but after a thousand years of silence, ambassadors began to visit Yugatania, and secrets from Valaycia were smuggled across to guide selective candidates to freedom. Magically, the Vudaki permitted the liberators to cross the sea safely, only stopping those citizens of Jelico who tried to escape without the proper guidance. As the Movement mounted for dedicated liberators, its teachings granted more knowledge and power than the governors of Yugatanian could ever achieve, and it became a heavy political threat. The situation eventually led to a cold war of social pressure, as the government desperately tried to thwart the clandestine importation of influence from Valaycia, forbidding anyone from trying to escape, trapping its people in cultural chains of comfort and control. Truth or legend, the specter of the past left a legacy that was suffocating most citizens of Yugatania, whether they were conscious of it or not.
Her thoughts drifting to more recent events, Rayna paced the tiny beach, trying vainly to exorcize her disappointment over Evak's choice to join the Rebellion. How could he know which path to freedom was better when he was so ignorant about the Liberation? Faith told her that Evak would soon collide with the wall of disillusionment, and that she would tumble that wall with the hammer of truth, urging her partner on that day to walk beside her. For now, her love swaddled him, nonetheless. But who were these strangers from across the sea? What more could they give her that would guarantee her freedom besides transportion on a ship?
When she stopped pacing to consider this, an army of frogs penetrated the surface of the pond to croak in unison like before, but this time there was no wind, only the elusive spark of radiance. She felt a presence and turned to encounter it. Melodius was already standing several feet behind her, wearing a lengthy, burnt-orange cape. Her head jerked when the frogs went mute and sank into the watery shadows.
“These grand entries are a little spooky.”
“It can't be helped,” Melodius said with a laugh. “My name is Melodius. I'm the Chancellor of Manganeer and the Minister of Arts in Valaycia.”
As he moved closer, her eyes adjusted to the moonlight that spied from behind a barricade of clouds. Tall and husky with a bushy beard, he looked more like a lumberjack than an artist.
“What kind of arts?”
“Playful”, was all he said. “I've come to grant your second gift.” He revealed a green bottle. “This is a year's supply of Valaycian water.” He handed her the stout vial. “Only found in one location, it’s a unique compound with healing properties, especially for your people since the ingredients don't exist here. To extract its deeper power, you must have faith in its magic.”
His tenor voice sounded just as magical. She stared at the rare gift. “What should I do with it?”
“Drink one drop every day for the next year, then we'll supply you with another bottle.”
“If I drink the whole bottle, can I leave right now?”
Melodius bellowed with laughter, his merriment both enchanting and unnerving.
“Forgive me if I sound dense, but what's the connection between my liberation and this ritual?” Rayna asked.
“Telling you that would spoil the purpose. But I can promise you this ritual works wonders, especially if you do it once a day along with the other rituals.”
She struggled with doubt. “What if I miss a day now and then?”
“That would just extend the amount of time it takes for you to be ready.”
Confusion possessed her. “Ready for what?”
“Freedom,” Melodius said with a lilt.
She nodded. “Oh. But how will I know when I'm ready?”
“That's our responsibility. If you have a true desire to reach Valaycia, then you need to trust our instructions. You can reduce the training time by using your gifts every day.”
Seized by a streak of angst, Rayna asked, “If I do these things every day, how much time will it take?”
“It takes the average liberator about four years.”
“Four years? But I thought my Aunt Loreen escaped in two and a half years?”
Melodius shook his head. “Because of her dedication, it took her almost three years.”
Her eyes wandered. Three long years.
“The way to freedom is rarely what people expect, Rayna.”
“I guess I had this fantasy of an exciting boat ride sometime in the next twelve months.”
A snicker preceded the Chancellor’s response. “Be here at dusk in two days to receive your third gift from Chancellor Semanni.”
“Wait. There's so much I need to know about you and your people.”
“I'm sorry, but there's a limit to how much knowledge we can share.”
“The biggest complaint I hear is how secretive you are, and I guess it makes a lot of people suspicious.”
The raspy hoot of a blackangel drew his eyes to the creature’s lofty perch. “Does it make you suspicious?”
Rayna hesitated. “A little, but more than anything I think it hurts your cause.”
“Our purpose is to offer you a better life, Rayna, and if you accept it, then the first thing we ask is that you trust us and follow our guidance.”
“Which means what, Chancellor? Following blindly?”
Melodius stared at her before answering. “That's one interpretation. But I would call it faith.”
“Following blindly is what people in the Rebellion would call it.”
“It’s always nice to have choices.” He reached out his hand. “I hope to see you again.”
When she shook his bulky palm, a wave of heat surge through her body with the power of a trance, causing her eyes to close. What a strange sensation. Did he do that? When Melodius released her hand, she detected the portal of light bursting through her eyelids, but when she opened her eyes, he had vanished, along with the marvelous illumination. As Rayna faced the lake, it ignited, surprising her again, transporting her with a brilliance that gave the water an almost gaseous texture. She wondered what could cause the water to emit such a radiant light, since the Liberation folklore never mentioned this mystery. Her body tingling, she stood transfixed, unable to choose among the beliefs that competed for her allegiance. Baffled, she stepped closer to the lake. Something splashed, and her eyes followed the sound. Was it her enchanted frog?
After recovering from his first dose of the Guardian’s elixir, Varacus felt invincible and decided to allow his wife, Sekura, and their son, Kian, to visit his tower chamber. Sekura was plainly troubled by the Guardian’s incessant staring, judging from her awkward demeanor, but the boy seemed fascinated by the animal. As usual, his wife was dressed like she was about to attend a semi-formal gathering. He often wished that she would wear a pair of slacks or a simple skirt at least once in a while.
“What occupies your time up here, Adison?”
“The sciences. How to conquer those vermin below.”
“What does . . .” She nodded towards the Guardian without looking at her. “She do up here with you?”
“Nothing. She’s usually a quiet creature, unless someone poses a threat. Her power lies in her poise and confidence.”
Unless she was sleeping, Sekura almost always had her long blond hair pulled back and pinned up with jewel-studded hairpins, a habit he found a bit annoying. She examined the room. “Does she eat much?”
He perused his wife’s carriage and expression. “Very little.” The Lukanda seemed to frighten her. “You never maintain eye-contact with the Guardian. Why is that?”
Hesitating, Sekura said, “She’s a disconcerting creature.”
“So is the crimson cat and the mountain milander, but you feel at ease around them.”
“This creature is too much like us.” Sekura looked away and frowned. “And she has an unpredictable nature that disturbs me.”
“You like the Guardian, don’t you, Kian?” It always bothered Varacus that Kian looked so much like Sekura, yet it pleased him when the boy smiled at his powerful mascot.
“Yes, Father. Her eyes are pretty like a rainbow.”
“You see, he’s not the least bit frightened.”
Her voice had a tone of irritation. “He’s mesmerized by the beast like most other people.”
The Guardian shifted her stance and fixed her gaze on Sekura, but Sekura never noticed since her eyes were riveted on Adison.
He gave his wife a hard look. “You make that sound like a weakness.”
“Isn’t it?” Sekura asked, turning away.
Still squatting, the Guardian took a graceful step in Sekura’s direction, which brought the creature closer to Kian.
The boy reached out to touch the Guardian’s fur, and this caught his mother’s attention. Sekura rushed over, grabbed her son’s hand and jerked the boy away. Her jarring movement took Kian by surprise, causing him to clutch at the Guardian’s arm. The Lukanda reacted by standing on her hind legs and growling, and the boy instinctively let go.
Sekura screamed, pulling Kian to her bosom.
The Guardian growled again and took an aggressive step towards Sekura.
Varacus moved between the beast and his wife. “Guardian, no!”
“Adison, doesn’t she understand that we’re your family?”
“Calm down, Sekura.”
“I’m scared, Mother!”
“Be quiet, Kian. There’s nothing to be afraid of. The Guardian won’t hurt you if you’re quiet.” He spoke firmly to the creature. “Sit down.”
The Guardian squatted where it was standing and continued to stare intensely at Sekura.
“She reacts to fear as a threat like most other animals. You work with wild animals—You know that. Fear is just as dangerous to her as anger, especially when I’m near the source of it.”
Her eyes dilating wildly, the Guardian grunted.
Sekura’s voice trembled. “Can we leave now? Kian is still shaking.”
Adison escorted them to the door. “I’ll be down shortly.” They left the room.
Relieved to be alone again, he was determined not to let Sekura’s foolishness dampen his diffused triumph. Nevertheless, the Gurdian did seem to lack the discernment necessary to differentiate between innocent fear and the fear that often led to aggression. He wondered if giving her name would somehow make a difference.
The twilight sky was clear two nights later when Rayna returned for her next rendezvous. Anxious, she came early to see if her frog might perform another feat of magic, but the creatures of the pond were silent, and the water's glassy surface was sealed. She sat against the burly cranny tree, under a black cobweb of twisted branches, ignoring her nagging mind, her eyes adrift in the sky’s melting colors. She pretended to be a Vudaki ‘rider, soaring above the clouds to gaze upon her homeland. Snared on every side by perilous borders, Yugatania ran about 2,500 miles from east to west and approximately 3,000 miles from north to south. To the north lay the Frozen Peaks, a dizzy, infinite range of impenetrable mountains extending all the way to Valaycia. The western border formed a searing abyss her people called the Burning Sands, which wrapped around the southwestern corner to meet the tortured beach of the Typhonic Ocean that battered the southern coast with everlasting fury. The eastern rim waxed and waned with the tide of the Sea of Smoke, a pool of purple mystery, which served as the home for the Vudaki, a race of aerial, amphibious beings beyond comprehension. Sea and ocean mirged as one at the southeast peninsula where the former pacified its salty sibling. Where the Frozen Peaks met the Sea of Smoke, the mountains sculpted a sheer cliff that climbed at least a thousand meters, spanning the sea's width from one shore to the other. Trying to reach Valaycia by that treacherous route always failed or ended tragically, and attempting to cross the sea’s seven foggy miles of menacing water was simply impossible without guidance from the Valaycian guides.
The blue moon had fled south to avoid the path of its yellow sister. Their family reunion was a distant celebration, but Rayna could still dream of the glorious lunar fusion that would mark a night when anything seemed possible, even genuine freedom, not just the false freedom of a comfortable life in Jelico.
Nevertheless, she battled with frustration and helplessness, reluctantly conceding the requirement for a long period of preparation as a liberator, but questioning the need for so much secrecy and vague information. A rapid decision pushed the clutter aside: she would try again to get some straight answers from Chancellor Semanni. If that failed, there was always Uncle Keegan, because Aunt Loreen obviously knew more than she shared. Would Uncle be more open? As her question dangled in the cool night air, waiting for an answer, Rayna stood near the water's edge and pulled a sheer white scarf over her face to shield her eyes from the flash of light. She wanted to witness the Chancellor's arrival, to pinpoint the source of power, if she could; then, at least she would know one of their secrets.
To Rayna’s surprise, the wind was so strong on this occasion, she stumbled backwards, tripped on a root, and fell into the pond backwards. Drenched, from top to bottom, she sat up and wiped the water from her face. Chancellor Semanni stood on the shore with a smirk on her face and a hand stretched out.
“Greetings, Rayna. Can I offer you a hand?”
“I never see you people coming but you're all very punctual.”
Despite her long body and wide shoulders, the Chancellor’s laughter was feeble.
As she joined the outlander's amusement, a brazen frog hopped onto Rayna’s chest, croaked her name, then leaped into the water, causing her to flinch. “That was my frog—It said my name again.” She took the Chancellor’s extended hand and heaved her soaked body.
“I'm Semanni, the Chancellor of Kumeron and the Minister of Sciences. I've come to grant your third gift and final lesson.”
“Unless you have some dry clothing, I'll settle for the present.”
Semanni smiled and said, “I’m sorry to say I only have the gift.”
Rayna wrung water from her dress, which now hung below her knees. “Sometimes I swim here naked.”
Semanni chuckled, reached into the pocket of her deep yellow, pleated gown, and handed Rayna a metal pedestal with a stone sphere resting on the top of it. “We call this sweetrock. It's too dark to see it clearly, but the round stone is purple, and it produces a purple flame when you light it.”
“A stone that burns like wood?”
“You'll soon discover it doesn't produce any noticeable smoke, and it never gets any smaller, no matter how often you burn it.”
Rayna rubbed the round stone. “How's that possible?”
With a weak smile, Semanni said, “One of those mysteries of life.”
“One of those riddles of your world, you mean.”
“It also emits a sweet scent that you may find a little stimulating, but it's not addictive.”
As Rayna lifted her gift, she asked, “What exactly am I supposed to do with it?”
“Light the stone every night, then watch it burn for a few minutes as you appreciate the fragrance. And don't underestimate its power. The scent will be a constant reminder of your future life in Valaycia. Using your three gifts on a regular basis will give you a wondrous power that grows stronger. If you miss a day, don't feel guilty, just do the best you can. And whether you move fast or slow, you'll still reach your final destination.”
She dropped her head. “It would be easier to follow your guidance if I knew a little more.”
“Some decisions are more effective if they’re based on trust.”
Although she understood the Chancellor's point, Rayna was still disenchanted. She trusted the Liberation, yet she felt more challenged than ever before. Maybe that was a good thing. Either way, she had to make a commitment to be successful in her quest for freedom.
Semanni touched Rayna’s shoulder. “I understand how frustrating it can be not to know more about your future and how we can guide you, but the puzzle has a worthy design. Every destiny starts with a vision, and that vision has an impact on everyone one around you.”
Rayna held her breath. If they could hold back some of the truth, then it was fair for her to do the same. “I already made my choice. One day, with your help, I'll leave this place forever.”
Semanni pulled a small bottle out of her other pocket. “In Valaycia, we have a beetle called the happy widow who lives in the forsest that surrounds the ponds where the frogs migrate when they leave here each year. When the female beetle lays her eggs, her mate dies shortly thereafter, and the widow happily feeds herself to the frogs as a gift for not eating her before she gives birth to a new generation.”
“So she’s a happy widow. I really like that, and I always loved insects. My mother has a vivarium with a lot of beautiful insects.”
She handed Rayna the bottle, which had tiny holes in the lid to allow the beetle to breathe. “Simply take off the lid and set the widow free. She’ll know what to do.”
Rayna stared at Semanni motionless. Uncle has a lot of explaining to do. Kneeling by the edge of the pond, she followed the instructions, and watched with reverence as the widow crawled out of the bottle and fell into the water. Suddenly, the head of frog broke the water’s surface, croaked Rayna’s name clearly, and then swallowed the beetle. A shiver coursed up her spine, as the frog vanished just as quickly as it appeard.
“Putting the frog and the happy widow in the lake are rituals that protect your gifts and create a stronger bond between you, your frog, and the Valaycian people. A Liberation guide will notify you soon. For your protection, he should be the only person you talk to about your gifts. You won't meet with me again or Chancellor Prime Danar until you're ready to enter Valaycia.”
“Please don’t go yet. How will I know when I’m ready?”
A mischievous smile snatched her face. “Your frog will know. Your readiness depends on how much you desire freedom. You make progress at your own pace, so have faith.”
A pang of sadness crawled into Rayna’s voice. “Please tell my Aunt Loreen and Valeena I love them.”
“I promise I will. Farewell for now.”
The pond fired up again, blinding Rayna. When she opened her eyes, the Chancellor was gone. A tear threatened to squeeze its way to the surface, but she denied it access. Every liberator had to face the same obstacles, and if they could endure them, then so could she. After all, no one said she had to like the conditions; she only had to agree to them. The thing that mattered most was arriving at the final destination, but exactly how long that would take was impossible to know, despite their guidance. She could get arrested for breaking a law or marry Evak or die in some accicent. Along with Valaycia and the Vudaki, life itself was a mystery, which made it unpredictable. A part of her wished that she were a child again, when life was simpler.
The next day ushered in the autumn season, and Rayna woke up early, after a relentless night of grappling with her pillow, eager to watch the Harvest Parade that was about to begin on the busy thoroughfare below. As she sat on the second-floor terrace of her uncle’s antique shop, she read the daily newsprint, which declared that the tenth blistering sandstorm that year had hammered the western edge of Kryton with punishing results the night before, leaving four people dead.
She stared at the picture of the dreadful wasteland that magnified the histrionic caption, an image that would have sadden her, had she not been so confused. Charcoal grey, the desert sand was akin to the sandy beaches of the nearby ocean, which led scientists to believe it was a lost portion of the ocean's floor. Unlike the ocean, the desert allowed no space for life to take root: it was pure like the fiery star that burned above it. Running north along the western border of Kryton, the desert gradually mutated from gray to brown, finally colliding with the Frozen Peaks. Like a legion of sculptors waging an endless war, the sandstorms carved a wavy surface along a seamless perpendicular cliff, which migrated west, vanishing into the gritty unknown, climbing to altitudes that spawned the deadly spires the mountain range was known for. Over the centuries, untold generations of explorers had traveled west along the base of the cliff; many confronted death only to return disappointed; many more were devoured by the sandy void. Rayna wondered if any of the lost voyagers had ever found the Distant Land that filled the dreams of so many of her people.
Disgusted, Rayna dropped the newsprint. Her triad of visitations left her with a biting emptiness that breakfast failed to fill. If she joined the Rebellion, at least she could fight for the same cause as Evak. Rayna wanted the best life possible, refusing to settle for less, but attaining it through a four-year commitment to the Liberation was too long of a wait. If anybody knew a shortcut it was Uncle.
With Sheera in tow, wearing a blue cotton dress with yellow stripes and her second pair of new shoes in as many months, Celandra join Rayna on the external balcony of Uncle Keegan’s shop. Supervised by Uncle, Basha and his best friend mingled with the bustling crowd on the street below, anticipating the imminent spectacle, while expressive merchants peddled food and souvenirs.
It was never too late to convince Mother to join the Liberation; sympathetic at heart, all she needed was a good push. Rayna switched to a cheery persona, as she smiled at her baby sister. “Are you excited, Sheera?”
Grinning, Sheera ran to press her little face against the bars of the balcony’s gylion railing to get a better look at the festivities on the street beneath her. With a serious expression, Celandra asked, “Have you made a decision yet?”
Rayna knew her response might frighten her mother. “I’m feeling indecisive, but if I take that step I want my family and friends to join me sooner than later. I know that’s not realistic for you and father, but . . .”
“It’s not.” Celandra stroked Sheera’s wavy hair. “And we're happy living here.”
“You and Father don't look real happy to me.”
“I know we don't always show it.” She looked away. “But your father loves his work, and Sovereign Varacus has a vision for the future that might improve life for everyone, not just the people who live here in Jelico.”
“Mother, do you really believe that?”
She glanced at Rayna and then nodded slowly. “Yes. But if things get worse, your father and I can always join the Liberation after your brother and sister are grown.”
Discouraged by her mother’s lack of support, Rayna changed the subject to the very thing the Valaycian leaders asked her to avoid. Her mother would never betray her, and she was more likely to talk about this taboo than her uncle since he was a liberator. Sounds of excitement caught Rayna’s ear. The parade was starting. A troupe of sprightly fiddlers and dancers led the procession, followed by an army of laughing jugglers, who wore yellow feathers from head to toe. Amused by the panoply, Rayna asked, “How much do you know about the three gifts?”
The question seemed to cause her mother discomfort. “Not much, but some people believe the frogs are the key.” Squealing and giggling, Sheera clapped her tiny hands with exuberance.
“How much do you think the government knows?” Rayna asked.
Her mother’s tone sounded impatient. “I'm sure they know more than most, Rayna.”
“I don't think they know as much as Aunt Loreen did.”
Her mother’s expression became sullen. “Maybe not. Your Uncle Keegan says the riddle of the three gifts is never solved until someone’s been using them for a long while.”
Several wagons full of fruit and vegetables followed the jugglers. Rayna stood, her mind vaulting back and forth. “If the Sovereign knows so much, why doesn't he stop the visitations?”
“It seems to me he doesn’t need to, like all the sovereigns before him. As you know, most people believe that those who try to escape get killed by the Vudaki or turn back before that happens. That’s what I believe.”
Rayna spoke with angry resignation. “Maybe it’s just a lie to keep us under control.”
Her mother sighed. “Many people we know might have escaped safely, but we’ll never know for sure.”
“Maybe the government put Aunt Loreen and Valeena in prison like the retired citizens.”
“They don't go to prison, Rayna, they retire to the Institute to be cared for when they're too old to care for themselves and they're a burden on their families.” As a generous postscript to the recent Bloodberry Jubilee, a long wagon filled with baskets of bloodberries lumbered by, while several attendants passed out free cups of berries to the emulous bystanders.
“The Liberation says they're forced to do work for the Republic, and if they refuse, then their privileges are taken away, and sometines they're punished and beaten, just like criminals in prison.”
Celandra raised her voice a little and spoke more forcefully. “I've heard those stories, and I don’t believe them. Your grandfather's there. Do you want to believe he's being mistreated?”
“I want the truth, Mother. Why won't they let us visit him anymore?”
“A friend of your father who works there told him that your grandfather’s gotten worse these last few months.” An apologetic expression crossed her mother’s face. “And it's easier to accept the inevitable if all ties are broken.”
Rayna shook her head with force. “That's what they tell us, but they're hiding something.”
Although her mother often became impatient, it was rare for her to get angry. “I won't stand for any more fanatical talk—I want peace for once!”
Rayna was briefly distracted by a team of acrobats who thrilled the audience with amazing feats. Unfortunately, a young performer was injured doing a risky maneuver. She crossed her arms with a look of contempt. “Then maybe I should move out.”
“Maybe you should.” A look of anguish twisted her mother’s face. “I’m worried that you're turning out to be more rebellious than Keegan.”
Frustrated by her mother’s attitude, she blurted, “I'll tell him that when I see him.” Glancing Celandra, she almost regretted her words.
A topless, horse-drawn carriage approached the shop with Sovereign Varacus and his fellow governors, prompting Rayna to lean on the metal barrier to get a closer look. Several armed guards on horseback surrounded Varacus and his precious Guardian. The governors waved, and most of the onlookers clapped or cheered. Then, with perfect timing, two men on the catwalk of the venerable Journey’s Inn, across the street, rolled out a huge sheet of white cloth that hung from the walkway’s railing, exposing a sign that read: STOP OPPRESSION. At the same time, an identical sign appeared above the bookstore on the opposite side of the road. A few of the mounted soldiers veered down intersecting byways, scattering the spooked spectators. The two men dashed along the catwalk down a narrow alley, trying to escape. Rebels. As the Sovereign’s carriage turned off the thoroughfare, apparently as a precaution, the Lukanda howled, frightening many of the children, including Sheera, who ran to her mother for protection.