He had known since long ago that the winds in the skies were commanded by a man that sat in the trees. The man was muscular, larger than Lance, with a horizontal scar running over his face like an embellishment of war. New, diminutive branches beneath the man impossibly supported his weight and Lance had stared and stared until his mother had dragged him along behind her in the dusty marketplace streets.
“Mama, there’s a man up there.”
She startled. “Don’t look at him,” she whispered. “Don’t let him see you.”
He was certain the man saw him already.
Sometimes, Lance thought he saw the quick movements of a man’s silhouette overhead, blotting out the sun. When he commented on it, the look his mother gave him was all at once scathing and sad, like her heart had become hollowed and tired and she was out of tears to shed.
Lance never forgot those looks, but he never knew why she looked at him like that out of all his siblings.
The man in the trees disappeared for a while and Lance put him into the back of his mind, too preoccupied with growing up and living his childish life, following a hand drawn map of combating sea pirates with broken branches and finding hidden treasures under his bed. Lance fell in love with pirates. He wanted to be one until he found out they were villains of their own making
With the passing of the years and the turning of the seasons, Lance slowly buried the memories of the man with the scar on his face, but it wasn’t until the worst of the drought hit that all that was brought to light again. The whole town remembered for him, uncovering the memories he’s lost, like the precious spoons and forks he would hide when he was five, pretending they were gold.
“Please our God,” the townsfolk begged. Demanded. “You can see him. He chose you.”
“I’m not anyone special,” Lance had responded as his mother clutched his arm, fingers tight as vices, her face set in stone. He realized three things then, about him and his mother: she had long ago come to terms with this. She had known, from the first moment Lance laid eyes on that man in the trees, that he was lost to her. She had grieved for over a decade.
“Fix the drought. Bring the west wind and the rains,” the townsfolk said.
Lance felt the wetness in his eyes, but refused to let them fall. He looked to his sisters, his brothers, their faces ashen and tear-streaked. Sallow and sunken and tired from hunger. His oldest sister’s belly was swollen and heavy, but she was skin and bones.
Lance swallowed around the lump in his throat and looked at his mother. She was older now, no longer the young woman that lugged him around after her in the marketplace. Her hands were cold, the circulation through her extremities bad and made worse from the drought.
“I love you,” he said to her. He kissed her cheeks and turned to the mob. “Do I go by fire or water?” he asked. “Or do I get to choose?”
“You go by knife,” said the mob.
They took him from his mother, his poor grieving mother, and shuffled him off to the sorcerer’s shrine.
Lance was washed and patted down impersonally by the old maids with scented oils. They dressed him in thin robes of white, the color of virgin purity. On his exposed skin, nonsensical markings were placed to indicate him as a sacrifice.
He’d be the only one with a slashed neck; how difficult would it be to identify him? He nearly laughed then, a choking hiccup that caught in his throat, unable to come to completion.
When finished, Lance was led out to the back of the shrine. An altar of stone carved with care and precision sat overlooking an empty riverbed. The smell was something putrid, of rotting fish and sulfur, but Lance refused to show weakness, no matter how much he wanted to gag.
Lance looked frantically around at the audience that gathered. His friends, his family; he picked them apart from the crowd, saw their drawn and sullen faces. He saw the mob, wanting their sacrifice, violence and fear tearing at their hearts.
“You are a terrible god,” Lance whispered before he was forced to sit on the altar.
The priest came forward with a river-lion cub, a tiny young thing with strangely patterned skin; healthy and hissing, looking for her mother. The priest ran a hand over her small muzzle and with a single stroke of his knife, slit her throat. Blood flowed like a geyser and the carcass of the cub was thrust into Lance’s lap, staining his white robes the color of death. The cub’s body twitched, the last synapsys of dying nerves firing, and Lance could no longer hold his breath.
It came out stuttering and haltingly, like his lungs were no longer in working condition. His fingers were buried at his side, digging so deep and so hard that he was certain he was drawing blood--not that he could tell, not with the dead cub on him. His nose was drowning in the scent of blood, his thighs were sticky with it, and his heart was pumping so hard that he wondered if it could be heard by all the audience.
“These offerings are for you, O Great One of the Skies,” the priest said. “We ask for forgiveness in our tresspasses. We ask for a boon for we are suffering. Heed our prayers and we beseech you to bring the storms of harvest.”
Lance looked to his mother, saw the naked devastation in her eyes. He didn’t feel the grip the priest had on his hair until his head was jerked back, his eyes meeting the blue of the skies. There were no clouds overhead, just as there hadn’t been for the past four years. He scanned the treelines and found no silhouette of a man.
He hoped his mother looked away. She shouldn’t see this.
Overhead, the sun blinked from existence for a fraction of a moment, a shadow passing by.
Lance felt the coldness of the blade against his neck and the pain of destroyed muscle and tendon and skin; he couldn’t scream and cry if he wanted to and his last thought before a dark grey overtook him was:
Don’t let me die in vain.
Lance woke with rattling in his brain and cotton in his mouth. He opened his eyes and was met with grey, stormy as the heavens on a cloudy day.
It was the man in the trees, the man with the scar. Up close he was young and handsome, something Lance had never considered before. His forelock was a startling white, but the rest of his hair was black as pitch. The beginning of laugh lines were painted into his skin, only noticeable under the light of the sun.
“You’re awake,” the man said. He smiled.
On Lance’s chest, the river-lion cub yawned.
This was the ruler of wind, Lance thought, the man that commanded the fate of his family.
“Please,” said Lance and he was startled that his throat was intact. He remembered the feel of a blade running across his neck and the numbing nothingness of death after. “Could you bring the rain clouds for my family?”
The man’s smile faltered and then he reached over to brush a hand over the crown of Lance’s head. “I’m sorry,” the man said. “But there’s no water anywhere. The water spirit is gone. The storms I can bring will only be lightning and thunder, useless for crops.”
Lance blinked as the man retreated from sight.
They were high up in the boughs of the tallest tree outside the town. He saw the empty valley the river had left, skewering downward from the barren mountainside and onto the plains. On the dusty streets, Lance could just make out little figures of people as they moved about their daily lives. Was his mother amongst them? His brothers? Sisters? How long has it been since his sacrifice?
“I died for nothing,” Lance said. He was deceased, but he felt his heart clench and beat faster at the thought of his family dying a slow, hungry death. Tears burned behind his eyes, but he blinked them away, refusing to cry. There was nothing to cry about, no regrets to be had. He didn’t fight the sacrifice because his family needed his death to live.
Now, in death, he would find a way for his family to live.
The cub on his chest pulled away, leaping over Lance and onto another branch, chasing an invisible string of light. Lance sat up and nearly overbalanced, but a steady gust of wind helped him right himself.
“I’ll go find the water spirit,” Lance declared.
The man shook his head. “I’ve tried,” he said. “Your town is where the tracks lead. The water spirit came here and,” the man made a face, “disappeared.”
“Then, I’ll go find water.”
“All the wells have dried. The springs are dead and the lakes are gone. You’ll find nothing, little one.”
Lance glared. The man before him was a god--he had to know something; how could someone so powerful, a man that never aged, a man that traveled in the wind, sat on thin, new branches--how could someone like the commander of wind not know? He was hiding something. He had to be.
“I’m sorry.” The man truly did look sorry.
“Why are you here?” Lance asked. “You disappeared for so long, I forgot about you.”
The man was silent for a moment, his head bowed. “I went to convene with the other gods,” he said. “The water spirit is gone and the sky goddess is in mourning. He was her father.” Then, his gaze sharpened as he looked at Lance. “We determined that a new spirit must be found. I think I may have just found him.”
Lance snorted. Were all gods so strange?
“I was sacrificed to you. I have no godly powers.”
The man smiled again, more peaceful and serene than the softest midday breeze. “You can see me,” he said, stating the fact as plainly as day. “That is already a skill beyond mortal men.”
Lance was no one special, just a boy on the cusp of manhood, dreaming of old hand drawn maps with X marks the spot, dreaming of hidden treasure and adventure on the high seas. The fact that he saw gods meant nothing. As this one before him proved, they were not all-seeing, all-knowing.
“Do you have a blessing?”
Lance shook his head. “I don’t know what that is.”
“Something that came with you here. It is only visible to your eyes.”
Lance glanced over to the river-lion cub scratching at empty air, her tiny paws outstretched as she did her best to maul something that he couldn’t see.
“Yes,” he said, throat constricting around his voice.
Their blood had mingled and pooled together; they were forever tied. The rattling in his head was the thrum of excitement from the cub, from her enthusiastic elation, something that Lance didn’t understand and couldn’t translate. It was primal and visceral, joyous and rapturous and simple; of finding a friend in a lonely place.
“I think mine is playing with yours,” Lance said finally, tearing his eyes away from the cub. She was ignoring him completely, focused on her invisible friend.
The man smiled. “I think so,” he said.
“Do you have a name?” Lance asked.
The man looked for a moment hesitant, and then as if coming to some personal conclusion, he nodded. “You can call me Shiro,” he said. “And you?”
Lance knew Shiro was only being polite. Shiro knew exactly who he was.
“Lance,” he said. “My name’s Lance.”