Tales of the Ailendar, Volume 3: Breaking Storm – Part 1

Avin sighed. The debate had stretched interminably into late morning. He listened critically as his debate partner, Lonam, launched into a second windy discourse on the precepts of ancient tradition without noticing that his argument was little more than an elaborate rehash of one that had already failed to sway the minds of their opponents. The Three, floating above the empty dais where the Breath of the Sky had sat since time immemorial, did not even attempt to bring this to light. They merely listened as Lonam, with growing embellishment, put his knowledge of air sohntar lore on display for anyone within earshot.

“What is he doing?” Faela hissed in Avin’s ear.

“Making a fool of himself,” he muttered, eying the light, almost identical expressions of amusement borne by each member of the Three. “And undoing my groundwork in the process. I can’t let this go on!”

Faela passed her arm through Avin’s roiling chest in a gesture of cautioned restraint. “You know it’s bad protocol to interrupt your own debate partner. They’ll use that pretext to dismiss your argument out of hand.”

“I am not going to let this catastrophe devolve further just for the sake of protocol,” he fired back incredulously. “If so, what would be the point of any of this?”

She had no response, and Avin gusted forward from his seat behind Lonam. “Elders, what my excitable associate is trying to—” he began.

“Speaking out of turn, young Avin?” Yilev questioned. Of the Three, his form was the most indistinct, the sole mark of his incredible age. “This is most irregular.”

“Quite,” Lonam added, shooting a gray glare Avin’s way.

“Is that not why we are conducting this discussion, elders? To debate the question of what regular is? To challenge the longstanding notions that we have, as a younger generation of our people, accepted at face value?”

The Three wafted together, their forms breezing through one another, and Avin could only catch snatches of their rapid conference. Lonam glided backwards, doubt clouding his features.

“Your point is in keeping with the arguments you and your compatriots have brought before us,” Minyu, the female elder, conceded. “What have you to say?”

“Only to repeat what I have stated from the beginning,” Avin replied. “We have entered an unprecedented time for our people. For reasons yet unknown to us, the ancient responsibilities that were placed on us have been removed.” He stretched his hand toward the empty space where the Breath of the Sky once roiled. “We are not beholden to the traditions that once chained us. Why should we continue to fear the surface world when there is no longer anything for this fortress to protect?”

“You mistakenly assume that this city was built to safeguard the Breath alone,” Hahal interjected. “Here, our people are safe from the tribulations that surely ravage the surface world even now. It was never our place to stand against Dar’Thasjz. Our wills…” He shook his head mournfully. “While powerful in logic, we are not anchored to physical form like the rest of our brethren. As such, in the presence of the Prime Ailendar, even our strongest minds would be subsumed in an instant. Would you have our people risk their very essence for the sake of idle curiosity?”

“Idle curiosity is a flippant way to describe the search for truth,” Avin challenged, “an ideal that the air sohntar have embodied since we were given form and purpose.”

“First you claim that we must question our oldest traditions, then admonish us to hold fast to them.” Yilev’s calm voice somehow cut through the courtyard like a gale. “You cannot argue from both positions, young one.”

Avin sighed, feeling his body’s currents mounting at the same pace as his frustration. “We do not know for certain that Dar’Thasjz has arisen! Is your plan to just linger in the heavens for all time and never look on the surface world again?”

“Trying to brush past a point for which one has no reply,” Hahal remarked, “is the hallmark of a weak foundation.”

“And yet you leave my own point unanswered!” Avin soared upward to bring himself to the level of the Three, another break in protocol, but he was beyond caring. The elders looked at him coolly as his figure caused the nearby air to writhe and fume. “Staying within our fortress isn’t safety. It’s stagnation! Surrounded by nothing but our own element, there will be no new experiences for any of us. Our histories from this moment forward will be filled with nothing but endless doldrums and tedium!”

“You would risk all merely to alleviate boredom?” The matronly disappointment in Minyu’s tone was like a blanketing fog.

Yilev held up his hand. “I believe it is time to bring this debate to a close,” he pronounced. “Young Avin, we Three thank you and your compatriots for the spirited discussion, but unfortunately your arguments were inadequate to sway us from our current course. The city will continue its journey to whatever end awaits us.”

The Three turned away and rode a passing breeze toward the eastern battlements.

“Are we not even going to attempt to discover why the Breath of the Sky has vanished?” Avin called desperately after them, but they did not pause as they departed.

Faela and Lonam drifted up to join him.

“You should have left it to me, you clod,” Lonam grumbled. “A few minutes more—”

“—and you would have had them all turning vaporous with sleep.” Avin rounded on him. “Were you planning to quote Eneval’s entire treatise on ancient oaths of fealty, or did you select only the most obtuse and verbose passages?”

“I was drawing a parallel to your argument! If you’d showed just a modicum of patience, you would have heard—”

“Gentlemen, enough, please,” Faela sighed and flowed through Avin’s substance, radiating warm comfort that did little to stem his surging gusts. “We did our best. Perhaps the Three are correct and at this moment it is simply too dangerous. They did not bar us from revisiting the idea later. We’ll let it rest for now, wait for boredom to take root in the others. Eventually, we won’t be the only ones who feel this way.”

“And until that time, what do you suggest we do, Faela?” Avin sneered. “Read through the library’s contents for the sixth time?” Exasperation surged through him, and his body condensed into a vibrating ball of air. “If I don’t get out of here, I’m going to fly apart!”

“So go!” Lonam huffed. “Take a few laps around the battlements. Maybe that’ll bring some sense back to you.”

Avin stared at Lonam, and his churning slackened just a little.

So go…

The Three had declared that the fortress would continue its drifting journey, but they had put no strictures on its citizens. Though still considered young, Avin was no longer under his parents’ guardianship, which meant he was free to make his own decisions, so long as they didn’t countermand the directives of the Three or endanger the city.

Tossing Lonam a victorious smirk, Avin launched himself high into the closest breeze. A swift and crisp stream, it cut a path southeast away from the fortress walls, straight into the open sky. Faela was by his side in seconds, but she stayed clear of the air current’s grasp. “Avin, don’t be a fool!” she called.

“I’m ready and willing to put my beliefs to the test, Faela. Did you mean what you said before about wanting to reach beyond the bounds of our stifling duty, or was that all just lip service to stay close to me?”

Her expression swirled with doubt and distress. Her flight came to a halt, and with a cold headshake, Avin leaned into the breeze. He soared away from the city, leaving her and the elders far behind.

For the first time in weeks, he was completely unfettered. He breezed along with the wind itself, dancing, gusting, tumbling his way across the vast sky and tearing holes in the clouds like an arrow. Pockets of warm air lay in his path, and he bounced from one to another, higher and higher, then arced and plunged headfirst down the invisible cascade of air.

The ground stretched beneath him like a painted carpet, looking the same as it always had. Green patches of forest met the splotched gray of the mountain ranges. Plains and meadows of tan soil spread across the land, with curling ribbons of rivers cutting through them, turning lighter until they joined the sea. Where was the devastation that Dar’Thasjz was supposed to bring? Where was the darkness that the Three had been so fearful of? Had he broken from his prison at all?

Avin released a rolling laugh at the thought of traveling the width and breadth of the surface and finding that all was well. What a shock that would be to the traditionalists back in the city, to find that all of their fears had been for naught. Or perhaps he wouldn’t go back at all. If they were so faint-hearted, then perhaps they deserved to spend the rest of their lives inside their floating fortress, protecting nothing except their own egos.

He was in no rush to make such a weighty decision. His time was his own, and he could spend it as he chose.

At present, he reasoned that it would be well to check in on more familiar environs before he turned his sights on the rest of the world. The people of Bisalos surely must be wondering where the air sohntar had disappeared to. He was certain they would appreciate a bit of news, and perhaps he could get some of his own. Hooking his left hand into a passing air current, he turned eastward. From this height, the mountain range looked like a loose clump of rocks. Pumping his arms like wings, he raced the breeze to see who could reach the peak of Bisalos first.

It took Avin long minutes of steady flight to reach the mountain, but as he drew closer, a frown grew on his vaporous face. The shape of the range seemed different. He wondered if a few weeks away had somehow chipped away at his memory of the mountain’s features… No. Impossible. The jagged edges around the peaks were new, he was certain. He slowed his pace and flew closer, his frown deepening.

A gasp broke from Avin as he hovered above what remained of the human city. It was less than half the size it had once been, and what remained was little more than a ruin. He surged down with the wind until he nearly reached the foot of the mountain. A vast, jagged path of broken, gray stones stretched down the slope, intermingled with chains and the occasional chunk of rock that hovered a foot or so in the air. Avin guessed that a significant portion of the mountainside had broken off and taken the settlement with it. He soared back toward what remained of the city, determined to learn more.

As he floated through the shattered remains, he caught sight of rust-colored splotches overlaid with dust. A bit of whitish material that didn’t look like rock protruded from the piles, and he drifted close to get a better look.

It was a human hand, stripped of flesh by the great birds that nested among the crags. The arm bones disappeared beneath a pile of rock while the fingers stretched upward almost beseechingly.

He laid his breezy hand against them, but his substance couldn’t grasp them. “Lord of Wind, what happened here?” he murmured.