The moonless night opened its velvet wings over the land, muffling sounds and filling every corner with shapeless, crawling shadows. In the dim light of the stars, the groups were gathering in the specially chosen points outside the Citadel. The earth was trembling imperceptibly under their feet as the Moon-thorn bushes were pushing towards the surface.
When the night reached its apex, the powerful vegetal hands dislodged chunks of the white walls, opening the way for the outcasts. They quickly spread on the streets, trying to go unnoticed as far as they could . The aim of the group lead by Satoru, which comprised Cora too, was to reach the Sanctuary and save the Silver Tree. They managed to get far enough when they bumped into the White Guards. After the first moments of shock, both sides engaged in bitter fight and chase in the streets of the City.
People woke up to the noise of the battle and running. At first, they weren’t keen to intervene; but soon, some of them decided to help one side or the other and step into the fight. Above them all, the angry growl of clashing Shadowcats and ferdogs filled the air with chilling sounds…
Up in his residence, Asterius woke up to the sound of a heavy fist knocking on his door. He jumped out of his bed and listened intently: there was a strong rumor coming from the streets.
-Commander!-shouted Rolf Asterianus, knocking nervously at the door of the main entrance. We’re attacked by the outcasts! They are everywhere in the streets!
Asterius opened the door with an angry move and grabbed the young man.
-How could that happen?! Were you all sleeping in your posts?!!! Incompetent fools! You practically invited them in! What is your excuse, you…you idiot!!!?
But the young commander was not keen to take the bash and he dismissed the angry shouts of his uncle.
-We were not sleeping! They broke into the city by the breaches in the wall opened by the thorn bushes that grew overnight! There was no sign of them yesterday evening! You know very well that we had burn them to the ground. How could I know that they can grow at such speed and damage the walls?!
Listening to him, Asterius calmed down instantly. He already knew where his true enemy was lying: in the Sanctuary.
-The Tree…..-he growled. The Silver Tree…
But Rolf misunderstood his words and he quickly reassured his uncle.
-No, no, don’t worry! The Silver Tree is safe. I’ve placed my best squadron there to protect it.
-The bastard….-Asterius spew the word, without further explanation. He opened the drawer of his desk and took out a vial. He slipped it in his pocket with a smirk; the Silver Tree was as good as dead. He then turned to the young commander and barked a few orders, then dismissed him. Rolf Asterianus left in a hurry.
-So you are here, my rebellious son!-murmured Asterius , looking outside.
Soon it would be dawn and he had to go and reach the Sanctuary. He has ordered Rolf to move away the squadron of White Guards and send them to protect the Council of Elders. He needed to get to the Silver Tree undetected, if he wanted to finish his work. He took his hooded cape and left the house.
At the same time, Gondwana was ferociously opening way for Satoru’s team. The young leader knew that his father was not sleeping peacefully in his bed. Oh, no! He was sneaking somewhere in the streets, trying to do as much harm as he could. Cora was focusing on both the dangers of the battle and the faint call of the Silver Tree. Ogren was backing them up, pushing back any attempt of hurt against his friends. In the heat of the action, he sometimes changed into a big brown bear, sending the attackers to the ground with one hit of his large paws. They’ve got at the Sanctuary at the same time with Asterius.
Satoru and Cora confronted Asterius atop of the circular row of stairs. They have cornered the self-appointed ruler of the Citadel and he was enraged. Where was that stupid nephew of his when he was needed?! The White Guardians were fighting the Invisibles in the streets and the members of the Council were hiding, waiting for the outcome of the battle. Satoru and Asterius were facing each other for the first time after many years. Despite the strong, slender features of his son, the cold hearted father could see only a crippled youth challenging his authority. The veins of his neck were bulging of fury as he spat his words towards Satoru:
-You!!…You’re nothing but a petty criminal in cahoots with the enemies of your own people! These freaks of Nature have poisoned and almost destroyed the Silver Tree that is safe-guarding our lives!
-That’s a lie!-shouted Cora.
-How do you know?-sneered Asterius, turning to her. You’re a foreigner in this land! What do you know about us?!
-I know because I am an Arberian and my people has its own Tree Guardian. There are many such trees in the lands around us and they are all connected through their roots. I am a chosen ambassador of my people and I was taught to connect to the Tree so yes, I know that you are lying! The Silver Tree has finally shown me the face of its longtime tormentor and that face belongs to you, Asterius! You are the one causing the demise of your Tree!!!
Cora pointed her finger to the Chief Guardian and suddenly, everyone in the City Square froze in action,turning their attention to him. Asterius reddened in anger and with an inhuman cry, he jumped forward to slay the girl defying him. But Satoru lunged swiftly in his way and took the blow without blinking. He fell to the ground, heavily bleeding while in her rage, Gondwana, the Shadowcat mauled Asterius to death. As Cora was kneeling, holding Satoru in her arms, the fight around them ended and citizens, Changers and White Guardians gathered in silence, forming a large circle around them. Ogden was shattered by pain while Cora was choking on her streaming tears.
-Don’t leave me, my love…-she whispered. Please…I need you by my side. How can I go on without you?
-I’m…not…leaving you….- Satoru articulated the words in pain. You’ll see….I’ll be with you…always…just call me…when you need me….
She caught his last breath was caught in a kiss. Releasing her beloved, Cora stood up silent, numbed by the pain. How was she supposed to move forward? How can anyone live with such a hole in the heart, such throbbing void of loss? All of a sudden she felt the need to run wild and never stop…Run, run till she would drown in her tears ! She choked on the pressure of the tears left uncried….OH!!!!
She felt the warmth of a tiny hand trying to cuddle inside her closed fist; it was Avik. Left with Petunia in the safety of the forest camp,he could feel her pain. Cora sighed and sent him a reassuring smile. The moment of personal anguish was over. The Invisibles were waiting for her to lead them and she wasn’t going to let them down. So she bent over Satoru and kissed him once more, then cut a strand of his hair, hiding it next to her heart.
The Invisibles took Satoru to the Sanctuary while Cora and Ogden followed them in silence. Moments later, Elders of the City arrived in the square and Rolf Asterianus joined them. They entered in the Sanctuary to talk with the leaders of the Insurgents, while outside the people were slowly assessing the damages, some of them emerging from the houses, looking for their long lost relatives among the Invisibles. Despite the tragic end of the clash, the moment Asterius met his demise under the paw of the Shadowcat, the spell making the Changers invisible broke, and those unjustly torn away from their loved ones could be seen and see each other. Sounds of joy, sighs, cries and tears filled the air as people embraced and kissed.
Inside the Sanctuary, the Elders, Cora and Ogden, the Changers and Rolf Asterianus were facing each other. The young Captain of the White Guards was torn between his duty towards his uncle and the feeling that the ugly facts delivered by the girl before him were true. Nonetheless, he challenged her:
-Why would we trust your words, young lady? Your claims about our respected leader Asterius have no proof!
Cora took a deep breath before answering him; this young man was both the aid of a man she loathed and the close relative of the man she loved.
-Revered Elders and Commander Asterianus! I have been in contact with the Silver Tree ever since I was in my own country. She has sent out a call for help and I have followed it until I got here. You can believe me or not. But I know that the custom of this land is that before dying, the Tree leaves behind a seed and only her Trusted One can find it. I will step back and leave it to you to find that seed. If you fail, it will be my turn to do the search.
She bowed and joined the ranks of the Changers, next to Ogden. On the other side of the chamber,the Elders and Rolf were having an animated.talk.
-The girl is right, Commander-said Matriarch Arantha, one of the Elders. Only the Chosen One can find the seed of the dying Tree.
-But how do we know our Tree is dead? I see it standing!-protested Rolf.
-You have a point, Commander-replied Elder Comino, head of the Council. As the closest person to Asterius, we appoint you to do the search. If you fail, we will allow the foreign girl to try her luck. May Truth and Justice be with you!
So they returned to the Changers with the offer and Cora and Ogren agreed, opening the way for Rolf Asterianus to do his search. The young man approached the battered Tree with deep emotion. There was so much at stake…and even his own peace of mind stood in the outcome of this task. He stopped before the huge trunk and touched it gingerly. In a fraction of a moment, the Silver Tree disintegrated, turning into a dense mist spreading under the dome of the Sanctuary. When it finally condensed, it became a silver cloud, levitating far beyond reach. In the place where the Tree once stood nothing was left, except for the barren soil. A murmur of surprise erupted from the audience and Rolf staggered, emotionally shaken.Resonating to his inner turmoil, Cora touched his shoulder.
-It’s not your fault, Commander. The Tree has gone through much lately and it has put its trust in me. It’s nothing personal in its reaction.
She stepped forward, eyes closed and the palms of her hands open. She focused on the search for the small voice of the Spirit in the Seed. The cloud of silver dust descended upon her, shrouding Cora in a glowing cocoon.
“ I’m here…”-said the little voice and the seed materialized in the palms of the girl. It was warm and silky, with the rhythm of life throbbing inside it, like a heart.
“ You’re safe with me.”-murmured Cora and she opened her eyes, then turned to the others around. She showed the heart shaped seed, then walked out the sanctuary and stood on the top of the stairs:
-Citizens of the Silver Tree Citadel! I stand here before you, holding the seed of your future Tree, as it was handed out to me by the one that has guarded your life for such a long time. This seed is the promise of a new era, one where there’s no place for division and suffering! You have been cheated and lied and driven to hate your own kin. The Silver Tree died of broken heart and before that, I made a promise that I would protect its child and its beloved people from repeating such a sad history!
No one should be invisible ever again! No one should be denied the beauty of itself! No one should become an outcast for being different! Hate breeds only more hate and that endless spiral of hatred would eventually bring down and destroy us all! We cannot build our happiness on the misery inflicted to others! Such an edifice will only fall to pieces eventually.
You have built such a magnificent city, you have poured the beauty of your souls into the magic of your creation. But once you have allowed fear to live inside its walls, you’ve stripped of the beauty, emptied your lives and deprived the Silver Tree from the wonderful emotions that kept it alive and healthy. The Changers were your beautiful, unique children, brothers, sisters, friends, neighbors and you allowed a hateful, maddened individual to trash them, to wrongly accuse them, to demonize them! But not all of you….
Luckily there were those who saw that this is terribly wrong. They have put their lives in jeopardy to save the innocents and ultimately to save you all from becoming the real monsters. I bow before them and I bow before you all. Please accept my humble offer of help in healing your wounds and in rebuilding your lives!
Finishing her speech, she looked around, trying to read the faces of people listening to her. She saw hope and support, she saw acceptance and deep relief. Some of the bystanders started to cheer and soon, the whole city square was booming of the joyful voices. That evening, the former Invisibles took Satoru’s body to their camp in the forest and incinerated their beloved leader under the moonlight. Cora stood there, holding Avik’s hand, supported by her friends, Petunia and Ogren, Savian and all the others. Satoru’s Shadowcat was sitting at Avik’s feet, guarding him closely. Cora took Satoru’s ashes and the next morning, she travelled to the highest point of the region to plant the Silver Seed.
She took out her knife and dug a hole in the ground. When it was deep enough, she took out the small box from her pocket and opened it. The Silver Seed was softly shimmering in the morning light. Cora carefully removed it from the box and gently placed it at the bottom of the hole, like she was laying a child to sleep. She then wiped clean the crystal knife and made a small cut on her palm. Three drops of blood sealed the connection between the young Queenie and the future Tree. But there was yet something else to do. She took out another little box and removed the strand of black hair from inside. She closed her eyes and kissed it, breathing in the painfully familiar scent, then placed the final gift next to the magical seed. With a quick move of her wrist, she cut her long , braided tail and placed the fiery-gold strands next to Satoru’s. She sprinkled the ashes of her beloved in the hole, then fill it up with soil.
“ Farewell, my love…”-she whispered as she pressed the ground firmly. She stood up, drew a protective circle around the place and walked away slowly. She has buried her heart along with seed of the new Tree that would grow and protect from now on the Land of the Invisibles.