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Afterlife

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The faint crying of a bird of prey woke Mono. This surprised her, but didn't alarm her. The shamans had prepared her for this. If anyone was ready for this, she was.

At least that's what she told herself as she sat up and took in the view around her. Sunlight shone in from behind her, illuminating an old temple, vaguely familiar in its architecture. Looking over her shoulder she saw mountains and fields, with pillars of light piercing the heavens the only thing to remind her of where she was.

No one came to speak to her. She received no instructions, gained no insight. All she could do was get down from the altar she'd been resting on and...and what?

The temple's walls and ceiling loomed over her, made her feel so very, very small. She had to remind herself of what Lord Emon had taught her, what he and the other shamans had drilled into her during her time at the keep. But left standing here, in a strange yet familiar place, with no instructions, no clues of what to do, she felt oh so lost. How was she to pass a trial she had no knowledge of? Had she already failed?

A whinny broke through her mounting ennui. It was a bit of a shock to see something so familiar come limping towards her. Not only was it a horse, but a horse she recognized. She'd seen it before, while she was alive, in the courtyard of the shamans' keep.

"Agro," Mono whispered, worry and relief flooding through her in a contradictory rush. How was she supposed to interpret this? That the gods would send her a guide in the form of the very horse Lord Emon had gifted his unruly apprentice was a sign. But was it a good sign?

Wordless Mono watched the injured horse approach at a steady, stubborn pace. When there was less than two paces between them the scent and warmth of the creature pushed Mono to move. She reached out to touch, petting the gentle creature's head. It had been so, so long since she'd been allowed to touch another living being.

She choked back a laugh. That wasn't what this was, was it? This was not life for either of them. But she would not be ungrateful to the gods.

Closing her eyes tight to hold back tears, Mono leaned her head against Agro's and took a deep breath. A moment later Agro drew back and, as Mono had expected, began to lead the way.

The infant was not what she'd been expecting. Though Lord Emon and the other shamans had told her no trials ever were the same and that there was no way to predict them, she had tried to. She'd been imagining riddles, or monsters she'd need to outwit, or moral challenges. A newborn child, unremarkable other than the horns adorning its head, was a trial she couldn't interpret.

"But isn't that the perfect trial?" she found herself saying out loud as she held the child in her arms. "One where only the gods know if I'm doing well or not."

No one answered her.

****

The bow rested uneasily in her hands. It had been years since she'd last been out like this, back when she had a mother, a father, and a younger sister. Back before the shamans had brought her to the keep and all she'd needed to pay attention to were the lessons preparing her for this.

"They should have been giving me different lessons," Mono said to the sleeping child. She'd made a sling for him from parts of her robe a few days ago when she'd realized they couldn't stay in the garden forever. The doe's milk would do for the child for now, but she could not live on fruit and water alone.

"Though hopefully long enough for me to regain my skills," she finished her thought aloud. Carefully she unhooked the sling from around her neck and placed the child on the pile of grass she'd arranged for him. With Agro standing watch Mono dared turn her back, if only for a moment.

Knocking the first arrow onto the bow she took aim at the target. "When you're older," she said, willing her hands to stop shaking, "I'll teach you."

She let the arrow fly. It missed it mark by a hand's breadth. Not letting herself be discouraged she knocked another arrow. And another. And another.

Twilight came creeping in before she stopped. Arms weak and drenched in sweat she picked up the arrows and prepared for the long walk back up to the garden.

"I wish you would eat more," she whispered to the child as she put the sling back on. "All children I remember ate constantly. But you're different, aren't you?"

A silly question, but Mono felt better for having asked it. She needed to figure out the rules, after all. You couldn't figure things out without questions.

Agro walked along next to her, back towards the temple. Her hind leg had mostly healed, leaving her to keep pace with Mono instead of the other way around. Mono rested a hand on her flank as she walked, half asleep on her feet.

"Strange," Mono said, stifling a yawn. "I thought sleep was for the living. The gods certainly work in ways unknowable to mortals."

****

"Fast!"

Mono couldn't help but laugh and urge Agro on. The boy was seated in front of her, shielded by her arms. He'd taken to riding like any child of Mono's people would have, as happy on Agro's back as running on his own two legs.

Agro had proven to be a wonderful teacher too. Not that Mono had been expecting any less. Lord Emon did not gift second rate horses to his apprentices, least of all to his favorite one. Agro could run like the wind and still keep you safe on her back, now that her leg had healed completely.

How long had that taken? The thought was brief and quickly pushed aside. Mono had tried keeping time during the first two months, carving dates into the garden's stone walls. It had lost its sense of purpose after she'd gotten to the third row. What was the point of a calendar in a world without true time?

Distracted by this thought path Mono almost tumbled off when Agro came to an abrupt stop in the middle of a field.

"What-?"

The question froze in her throat. Ahead of them near the mouth of a cave a huge pile of rocks and moss dominated the landscape. At first glance it could have been part of the landscape. Mono hadn't dared travel too far from the garden with the child barely able to walk, but she had seen many strange things already. This of all things should not have startled her, but it did. More so when memory caught up with her and she realized this would have been one of the light pillar spots, back when they still were lighting up the land.

It felt as if she were looking at someone's grave.

"Home," the boy whimpered, curling closer to her. "Go home!"

Neither she nor Agro needed to be told twice. They could explore further another day.

****

"Why is the sky blue?"

"Because the gods wished it to be, to mirror the sea."

"But why is the sea blue?"

"Because the gods made it such."

"But why, Mono?!"

Mono. Not mother. It might have seemed strange to an outsider, but to Mono the thought of naming herself the child's mother had never occurred. She was his guardian, yes, but that was not the same thing.

"Mono!" the boy whined, tugging at her sleeve. "Don't be quiet today!"

Mono couldn't help but chuckle. "I've been answering your questions since sunrise, child."

"But I have more questions!"

"I'm sure you do." She turned her attention back to her weaving. The plants had been tricky to find, as always, and the boy needed new clothes. It seemed like he got bigger and bigger for each day that passed.

The boy lasted a moment or two longer before he kicked a rock and stalked off in a huff, Agro close behind him. Mono didn't follow. Argo would keep watch on the boy; at times the horse seemed more dedicated to him than to guiding Mono in any way.

"You're not the only one with questions, child." The words slipped out unbidden. Mono bit her lower lip and shook her head to clear it.

Years. She must have been at this task for years. She remained the same, the boy grew and grew, and nothing happened. Was that because she kept failing? If so, what was it that she'd gotten wrong? Would the gods be so cruel as to keep her here forever without a sign?

"Gods," she whispered, eyes wet with unshed tears, "please, I beseech you, give me a sign! Please!"

****

"Please."

Before Mono stood a young man. She remembered how her mother had joked about children growing up before you could blink. Her mother had been both right and horribly wrong.

"Please, Mono, let us leave this place," the young man said, taking a step closer. "If we stay here we'll both go mad! Or madder than we already are."

Oh how right he was. There were days when she could convince herself it had all been a dream; her life before this, her family, the shamans, the young apprentice who'd sneak her extra meals at the keep and who'd promised to save her. Most days she knew better though, even if the boy-now-young-man resembled that apprentice more and more for each year that had passed.

"Where would we go?"

The young man started, blinking at her. It was a question she'd never shared with him before, despite how it haunted her dreams. She knew these fields, valleys and mountains like the back of her own hand now. There were no people here, not roads, no paths. Only steep mountains, fissures and deep water greeted her if she road too far from the garden.

"We'll find some place!" the young man said, a tentative smile blooming on his lips. "Argo is old, I know, but our legs are strong. We can walk and she can carry supplies for us. We can build shelter for ourselves along the way. Whatever is waiting for us out there can't be worse than staying here. Can it?"

Mono looked into a pair of hopeful eyes and knew what she would answer. Had this been the trial all along? Was this the decision the gods had been waiting for her to make?

"You will need a name. For when we meet other people." She expected him to question this, but he only nodded in acceptance. As someone usually filled to the brim with questions (Why do I have horns and not you? Why don't we hunt the deer? Why are we alone here?) he'd never asked for a name.

Outside the sun shone bright. In the distance a bird of prey let out a cry.

"Wander," Mono said, a lump building in her throat. "Your name is Wander."