As Luina marched up the mountain path, her eyes lingered on the ocean, rolling in gentle red waves as if caressing the base of the white stone spires jutting out from its depths. The sky was a clear blue, with soft sprinkles of white clouds. Luina swallowed down the bitterness in her mouth and stared hard at the horizon where the sky met the ocean. Three nights ago, this same sky had ripped itself open, pouring a deluge of red sheets of rain. This now peaceful ocean had risen up like a smiting hand as if to wash the Nimin islands away. Luina stopped walking and wiped the sweat from her face as a struf flew low over the water. The bird’s lustrous green and pink feathers shimmered and reflected in the crimson water. A picturesque moment, tainted by the thought that her cousin’s soul was somewhere trapped underneath those red waves, looking up at the bird flying freely.
Her cousin, Tima, had been on a fishing expedition when the storm started. His ship returned a day later, but only Tima’s coral necklace made it back in broken rope and loose beads. Those beads were in a pouch, hung at her waist. She brushed her finger over it, steadying her tumultuous emotions, and resumed her ascent.
The trail up Mount Algamar, known as the path of tears, was well worn, not by feet but by the tears from thousands of years of mourners climbing up to perform rites or pay respects to the dead. Traditionally, Tima’s closest kin, his mother, should have made the climb, but her aunt was already frail from old age, and the emotional blow from the loss of her son had wakened her even more. Luina couldn’t bear the thought of her climbing up here alone, so she’d volunteered to go in her place. She was not the first to climb up Algamar today. Rita from Ulsin, the smallest of the islands, had lost a sister in the same storm and had made her ascent earlier that morning to perform Hwilis, the rites to help guide souls lost at sea. Luina would be performing the same rites, so she used the hike to think of what image she wanted to create to help guide Tima’s soul.
Luina stood on a ledge just below the summit of Algamar. There were no special markings or statues, just a rocky ledge overlooking Nimin. Her mind felt like a glass vessel. Every action had to be executed perfectly so it would not shatter. She inhaled a shaky breath, then took off the pouch containing Tima’s beads. Her eyes began to sting.
Hold it together… Just a bit longer, she thought.
Small green, yellow, and blue beads rolled around in the cream pouch. She had brought the beads to help her focus as she performed the rites, but the sight of them was too much. It felt like she was being handed the pouch again. Yil, Tima’s best friend, had walked into the living room alone, and Luina had known. She heard no words as he gave the news. She saw her aunt crumple and her mother trying to hold her up. Yil’s face was a mess as he handed her the pouch, and she didn’t know what her expression was as she accepted them, but Yil began to weep. She knew she’d smiled as she placed the pouch on the table and helped her aunt up.
The next two days were a blur. Then she was climbing up Algamar, each step taken with the resolve to see things through properly. Whatever that meant. But as the first tear rolled down her face, the fragile hold on her emotions shattered. Luina moaned and crumpled to the ground, clutching the pouch of beads to her chest. Beneath her fists hung her own necklace, made of beads carved from the same coral.
“Why?” her voice was a wail. Her cousin, her friend, her brother.
Tima was only two days older than her. A mere two days, but he had taken on the role of a protective older brother. Every child on their small part of the island had known not to mess with her for fear of his retaliation. Luina’s lips cracked into a pained smile as memories of their childhood rose in her mind. Even after they had both left to go to separate secondary academies, her off-world, and him in another city, somehow, on the same day, they’d decided they preferred their island’s slow rhythm over the bustling metropolitans. She remember how surprised she was to see him at the ITS that day three years ago. She hated herself now, recalling that hint of annoyance she’d felt that her homecoming would have to be shared. Now, there was nothing she wouldn’t give up to have that day back.
Her tears fell on the rocky ground like rain. The small pebbles and stones dug into her knees, but she could hardly feel them. Luina knew she had to pull herself together. Her mother and aunt were waiting to see the Hwilis, waiting to begin the first step of healing. She exhaled shakily, gripped the pouch tighter, and raised her eyes to the red ocean. Her body quivered as she forced her tears to stop. Still kneeling, she raised her right hand, palm facing up. Power pulsed through her body from the small well of mana in her psycor, and gathered in a yellow sphere at her palm. She filled it with her grief and pain, her love, and her regrets. She put strength into her legs and stood. The Mana exploded in a blaze of gold and soared into the sky in the shape of a struf. A symbol of defiance and hope, a bird that could fly through any storm, dive into the turbulent ocean, and rise out victorious. The yellow struf dipped and flew just above the ocean surface before rising up into the sky one more and vanishing. She hoped it would be enough to guide Tima’s soul to peace.