There was something eerie about the bamboo forest as it pulled Treke in that night. The air was thick and humid, but there was no buzzing of insects nor calling of birds that normally filled the forest. Dark clouds smothered the sky, forbidding the stars and moons from offering any light. Treke's long, coily tail could only illuminate a few feet in front of her before the pale blue light at the tip was swallowed up by darkness.
An unfamiliar trail snaked through the bamboo and trees before the fuglan. It stretched on endlessly, but she was compelled to know what was at the end. She knew this forest well, so why did it seem so unfamiliar? She pressed on, keeping her reptilian eyes on the overgrown path.
The further she ventured, the more confusing the trail became, splitting into several more paths. Not knowing which direction to take, she chose at random. It only led to more. She chose again, and again, until she could no longer remember which direction she came from. Unable to back track, she had no choice but to continue until it ended.
It seemed like there was no end to this puzzling forest, until she discovered a small clearing that broke the monotony of towering bamboo. A large stone slab stood upright in the midst of the clearing, the surface covered in a blanket of thick moss. She recognized it as a shrine for an ancestral spirit, but of which one she was uncertain. As she reached out to brush the moss away, she heard a voice behind her.
"Don't touch it!"
She whirled around to see who it was, but no one was there. Her eyes snapped open, and she was no longer in the forest.
"I said don't touch it!" the voice repeated with a hiss.
She blinked, taking in her surroundings. Treke was in her hut again, seeing two figures across from her cot squabble over a woven mat in the dim glow of their tail lights. Sighing to herself, she realized the voice belonged to one of her younger sisters. Despite this, something still felt off. She needed to visit the forest.
"Stop that, both of you! You'll wake the spirits with your squabbling." She sat up and flashed her tail light at her sisters to grab their attention.
Tirine, the youngest sister, huffed in annoyance. She was less than half the age of Treke. "Fralau keeps interfering with my weaving!" She held out a mat woven from bamboo strips that was partially completed.
The other sister, Fralau, retorted, "Because your weaving is uneven." She was several years older than Tirine and more experienced. "Just look at that." She highlighted a section with her tail light. "I'm trying to show you how to fix it."
"Enough, Fralau. Let her weave in peace. She'll get better with practice."
Fralau sighed and shook her head. "I'm only trying to help."
It wasn't even sunrise yet and her sisters were already getting to her. Treke yawned and pulled on a cream colored robe that faded to cornflower blue at the sleeves and base. "I need to visit the shrines today, so I'll be back later," she said.
Her sisters gave her a nod of acknowledgement before returning to their disagreement. Treke was grateful to have an excuse to have some time alone in the forest. Her entire family shared a single hut that was built into a large tree, and while she loved her family, she desperately needed a little time to herself out in the forest.
Taking a rope ladder, she climbed down into the lower level of the hut, where her parents and uncle slept. Her uncle was already up and awake, preparing some tea. Her uncle was not bothersome like siblings were, thankfully.
"Good morning, Treke. Off to somewhere?"
"Good morning." Treke gave her uncle a respectful nod. "I'm going to visit the ancestral shrines today."
"So early? Have some fruit and tea before you go."
She thanked her uncle and had some nangangu fruit with a steaming cup of sahaun mint tea before leaving the hut. The tea helped with combating some of her anxiety, if at least temporarily.
It was still dark outside and the sun would not rise for a while, but her tail light made a fine natural torch to help navigate through the darkness. A light mist of rain dripped from the overhead forest canopy, just enough to get a fuglan damp if caught without an umbrella. Fortunately she had one of her own, crafted from bamboo and waxed paper, which she held up with the end of her prehensile tail.
Walking on all fours, her back hunching due to her large forearms, she carefully crossed a suspension rope bridge that stretched across to another tree. The entire village of Nuekrin consisted of wooden thatched-roofed huts that wrapped around the trunks of old forest trees. Each hut was connected to at least one or two others by suspension rope bridges, creating a network of pathways in the understory of the forest.
The system of bridges extended far into the forest, beyond the village itself, until there were few large trees left. Going as far as she could, she reached an elevator with a rope pulley, which was the only way down to the forest floor. She slowly lowered herself until she was level with the ground.
Beyond the forest of trees, a path opened to a grove of bamboo and smaller trees. The edge of the grove was frequently cut and harvested, preventing it from spreading too far towards the village. The bamboo itself, at least twice as tall as her, was fairly dense and blocked out most sunlight during the day. It was here that having a natural torch was especially useful. She pushed through into the grove of bamboo, the cyan-blue glow of her tail illuminating the tall shafts of bamboo. Although she liked walking on all fours up in the canopy, it was better to walk on two legs on the forest floor so that her robes wouldn’t get damp.
Unlike in her dream, she knew all the trails of the forest. She’d gone down them hundreds of times before to visit the village’s ancestral shrines, often leaving small offerings of fruit and incense for the spirits to enjoy. Even if they could not physically eat, the spirits appreciated the gifts.
After a short walk, Treke reached a single tall slab of stone standing alone in a small clearing. The area was kept tidy, clear of brush and weeds, with only selected flowers growing near the base. The call of morning birds echoing through the canopy of the forest and the drizzling rain gently hitting her umbrella gave her a sense of contemplative serenity as she looked at the erected stone. She had visited this shrine many times before, but never communicated with the spirit that inhabited it. She hoped that would change soon.
Hearing a rustling behind her, Treke’s long ears twitched and swiveled towards the sound.
“Treke? What are you doing out here so early, child?” said a soft, elderly voice.
“Elder Vrenik.” Treke turned around and bowed her head instinctively.
An old fuglan, dressed in black robes with cyan trimming, smiled back and returned a bow. His periwinkle skin was fading and wrinkling with age, but there was still a twinkle in his kind green eyes.
“I had a bad dream,” she said, fumbling with the umbrella in her paws. “It involved the bamboo forest and a shrine I’ve never seen before, so I wanted to visit.”
“A bad dream you say?” Elder Vrenik stroked at the spines on his lower beak. “Enough to visit the shrines before the sun rises?”
“Well… That, and my sisters were being loud. I wanted a little fresh air.”
Vrenik laughed. “Fair enough. Siblings can be quite a nuisance sometimes.” He gave her a knowing wink.
Treke looked back at the stone slab. It was well kept, scrubbed clean of moss. This was not like the shrine in her dream.
“Elder Vrenik, does anything seem off to you this morning? I could just be worrying over nothing, but…”
The old fuglan’s tattered ears swerved back and forward once, jingling the jewelry that hung from his ears. “You have a keen sense of energy, Treke. I don’t believe you would come out here for no reason.”
Treke wrung her hands, bowing her head again. “I want to speak with the spirits… I believe only they can reassure me. Can you teach me how?”
“Of course, my child. I was hoping you would be ready for this soon.”
“I’ve been ready for some time, to be honest, but I wasn’t sure how to ask.”
Another chuckle from the old fuglan set Treke at ease. Elder Vrenik was very patient and understanding, which Treke appreciated very much about him. He gestured to the stone beside them. “I don't blame you for being so eager to speak with an unesudrat. I believe Ancestor Klaiune would be an appropriate match for your first spirit bonding. I learned a great deal from them during my youth.” He placed a clawed hand on the surface and traced over an engraving. “You know, they were ruksala too, when they were alive.”
Treke nodded, eager to learn more. She was aiming to become a ruksala herself. She would have to take on an enormous responsibility to protect the clan, heal the sick and injured, speak with the spirits, and to teach other fuglans about compassion for other living things and the world that surrounded them. With enough experience, Elder Vrenik believed Treke would become a fine ruksala like himself.
Vrenik stepped aside and gestured to the shrine. "Pray to Klaiune, child, and let them know you wish to spirit bond. If they feel you are worthy, they will answer."
Treke took a deep breath before stepping up to the shrine, her heart pounding in her chest. She didn't understand why she was so nervous, as she had been doing everything she possibly could to win the favor of the spirit. It was perhaps that she feared the possibility of failure and letting her whole clan down. She knew it would only get more challenging once she bonded with an ancestral spirit.
"Ancestor Klaiune, can you hear me? I… It's Treke. I need your help."
She waited for a moment, unsure what to expect. A slight tingling sensation shot through her body as she could feel a vibration through the air.
"I think they’re here, Elder Vrenik! I sense their presence."
"Very good, Treke. Concentrate on calling out to them with your prayer."
As Treke's desire to commune with the spirit grew, so did the intensity of the tingling sensation. As she concentrated on her prayer, she felt an odd pressure behind her forehead where her parietal eye sat. The pressure increased until it felt as if her head split wide open.
An ethereal glowing figure appeared before her. The form was serpentine with the vague shape of a fuglan's head, but there were no facial features that she could make out. Tiny pinpoints of light glittered within the spirit's blue gaseous form, which Treke could only compare to stars. The tingling now felt like a warm glow. Her senses now appeared to extend beyond the space of her own body.
“I can see them,” she whispered, almost too awed to speak.
Elder Vrenik stayed silent. There was nothing he could say now.
The spirit spoke with a voice that emanated inside Treke's mind. It was clear and rattled her brain, catching her by surprise. "Hello, my child. It is good to finally meet you.”
Treke bowed instinctively in response, despite that there was no one to bow towards. “Hello, Ancestor Klaivun. My name is Treke, a member of the Nuek clan.”
“Greetings, Treke. What can I do for you?”
“I feel something is amiss… A bad dream led me here.”
“Tell me about your dream, child.”
"There was an abandoned shrine in the forest… with an unknown spirit. It felt… ominous.”
“I see. I can sense much rranha within you, Treke.”
Treke cocked her head. “Rranha?”
“Yes. It is a negative energy that poisons the consciousness. You can sense it too, yes?”
“I do… It’s a terrible inkling that brought me here.”
“You are quite sensitive to it, if that is the case. You are a sensitive soul, I can tell.”
Treke nodded in contemplation. Her intuition was correct after all. “Do you know of this shrine I saw in my dream? It was covered in moss, untouched by fuglans, hidden deep in the forest.”
“The shrine you speak of belongs to Ludaru, a banished ancestral spirit. They are, however, no longer on this island.”
Turning to Elder Vrenik, Treke gave the old fuglan a look of concern. “Have you heard of a spirit named Ludaru?”
“Ludaru…” Elder Vrenik closed his eyes in thought. “I’ve not heard of that name in many years. Our clan has tried to forget them.”
“Who are they?”
Elder Vrenik shook his head. “I’d rather not get into details right now, but…” He paused, apprehensive, “they are not a benevolent spirit. The fact that you had a dream about their shrine is concerning.”
“Ludaru is a dangerous one,” Klaivun warned. “They were once sealed away, but their shrine has been empty and abandoned for some time.”
“That’s strange… If it wasn’t recent, why am I now just sensing it?”
“I could not say why, but if you choose to locate Ludaru, you may be able to find a trail of rranha left behind at their shrine.”
“Where is this shrine?”
“It’s hidden somewhere in the bamboo thicket, the path long overgrown by now,” said Elder Vrenik. “Be careful, Treke. Dealing with a zreusudrat should not be taken lightly. They are ancestral spirits that have become corrupted.”
“I understand, Elder, but…” She paused and smiled warmly at her elder. “I think it’s time for me to take on some greater responsibilities. This seems fairly important, and a ruksala should protect our clan from any potential dangers.”
Elder smiled back, proud of how brave Treke was becoming. "Very well. You are quite committed, I see."
“Your dream is a promotion, child,” the spirit hummed. “If you wish to take on such a burden and seal Ludaru, I will help you. We will start with locating the shrine.”
Holes in the clouds glowed a greenish blue as the sun prepared to break dawn. The rain was just a faint mist now. Treke stopped and took a deep breath of the fresh morning air before continuing.
"I will do it," she said with determination.
"It's settled then."
The serpentine form of the unesudrat dissolved away, leaving a nebulous cloud that surrounded Treke before absorbing into her body. It was startling at first as she felt the tingling sensation flow through her. The splitting in her head subsided as the spirit exited again, extending from her back, its snake-like tail anchored to Treke like a shadow.
"I am now bound to you and can accompany you wherever you go, my child. My kenha, spiritual energy, is yours to channel."
Treke stood still and closed her eyes, taking in the moment of her new title of ruksala. From this point on, her life would change, no longer just attending shrines and assisting Elder Vrenik with making salves and herbal teas. She opened her eyes again and looked at Vrenik, who smiled back at her proudly.
"What do I do now?"
"Listen to Klaiune and they will guide you," said Elder Vrenik, resting a hand on her shoulder to reassure her. "There are many more spirits you will be able to commune with, but Klaiune will be your main connection to the spiritual realm."
The sun finally broke over the horizon, flooding the sky with warm light. Dew on the grass and leaves sparkled brilliantly, the dazzling display putting Treke at ease. She was now ready to undertake her new responsibility.