The Last Barishin
Ishanti looked at the vast, seemingly endless desert that lay ahead of her as she looked out of her window while getting ready for what she would be up against in a few hours. There was nothing but sand as far as her eye could see -- mounds and heaps of it. The magnitude of some of the sand dunes was impressive enough that they appeared as small hills on the horizon, though they were miles away. To someone who had not lived in the desert all their life, it would appear as if nothing was amiss.
The desert Aisha, however, had lived in the desert city of Raegis all her life and would continue to until the sands claimed her, depending on how she fared that day. She could see the signs of the drought as clearly as she could see the sand around her and the blue, cloudless sky above. Oases no longer dotted the desert like jewels studded on the rich, exotic cloth brought to the city by merchants from far away. In fact, without the oases, the merchants had been unable to make their trips through the merciless sands and scorching heat to Raegis. The few palm trees, scraggly bushes, and many, many cacti that should have been visible, standing straight and proud against the adversity of their environment had long ago browned, withered, and turned to dust.
Ishanti's gaze lingered on the outside, even when she had properly put on her headdress and the five gold bangles on each of her thin arms. Raegis really was in the middle of nowhere. She would not last long if she chose to run away from her fate, and she was sure the desert would not claim her quickly. Oh no, it was a cruel master indeed; it would toy with her until she was walking around in circles, unimaginably thirsty and on the verge of insanity from seeing things that did not actually exist. The Aisha blinked and shook her head. It was no use thinking about that, for it was probably the way it would end if she failed that day. No use at all. She needed to be strong.
The little Aisha turned her back to the view offered by her window and headed toward the large dresser made of dark, polished wood that stood by her bed. It was where she kept all her accessories, namely jewellery. At the moment, the gleaming wooden surface of the dresser was visible, since Ishanti was wearing most of the things that usually burdened it, save for a ring, which sparkled brilliantly. Ishanti picked it up and twirled it around with her fingers. It was, unlike most of the jewellery of the desert, made of platinum. The silver metal was cool against her skin. It was a simple ring, not more than a band of polished metal inscribed with ancient runes. And yet it was precious -- so very precious -- and not just because of what she could buy with it; it had more value than that. A single sapphire of brilliant cut sat atop the ring, shimmering blue. Blue like water, thought Ishanti.
Platinum rings in Raegis were more than just mere adornments. They could not be bought or sold, taken forcefully or given freely. Only those belonging to the Four Cardinal Houses wore them.
It was then that Ishanti realised she was running late. Hurriedly she put the ring on and, moments later, it struck her that it was the first time she had done so -- she had never needed to before that day. Despite her conscience telling her to not tarry, the Aisha spared herself a few minutes as she scrutinised her now be-ringed hand. A feeling of awe flared inside her. She had been promoted quite some time ago, but only now did the truth sink in. She was a Novice no longer. Pride washed over the Aisha, but she bitterly quelled it when she realised that it could be short-lived.
The incessantly ticking mechanical clock on the wall, all cogs and gears, told Ishanti that she had best be on her way. She heeded the device's sage warning and left her room just after picking up an off-white shawl. Dressed as she was, she did not want to attract undue attention. She would much rather march unnoticed to a mission she felt she was destined to fail.
Outside, the scorching sun greeted her with as much passion as it would on any other day. In defiance, the Aisha readjusted her shawl around her head so the cowl shaded her eyes and began to make her way to the Sun Dais.
"Good luck," said a weary voice from somewhere.
Startled, Ishanti turned more forcefully than she had meant to, her bangles clinking crazily from beneath the cover of her shawl, to see a green Ruki beggar. He was old, extremely old, and had a deathly emaciated look about him. His wrinkled skin seemed more grey than green and looked as if it would crumble to dust at the slightest touch. A white, fibrous beard sprouted from his chin. He sat cross-legged under what little shade the skeleton of a tree could provide.
She had always seen him there, under that tree; day in and day out, he sat there. She realised she didn't even know the name of her one well-wisher.
"Thank you," she said softly.
"Most Neopets don't believe in omens anymore, but if it's any help…" The Ruki pointed at one of the branches of the dead tree. Ishanti's eyes followed, and she almost gasped. At the very end of a branch, a tiny, emerald green leaf swayed in the slight breeze. "You'd best be on your way; it is almost noon."
Ishanti nodded, murmured another thanks, and walked off, making a mental note to reward the Ruki with, perhaps, some of her jewellery, for the much-needed boost of hope.
The desert Aisha, like any other member of the Cardinal Houses, lived in the Wall. Raegis was a fortified city and the Wall was its shell. But it was a dual-purpose structure, for not only did it provide protection, but it also was the permanent residence of the Houses. Ishanti lived in the western quarter of the Wall, the quarter belonging to House Barishin, the Raindancers. For centuries, every mid-summer, the Barishin had summoned the rains with their magic to water the crops, rejuvenate the oases, and replenish the underground water reserves of Raegis.
But the magic was changing. Ishanti could feel that it was… different somehow as it throbbed through her. It was said that, at one time, there used to be hundreds of Novices of House Barishin, and many of them would go on to become Raindancers, most of whom would have to do nothing at all throughout their lives save for live a comfortable life; only one Raindancer was required for the Summoning. Now, however, fewer and fewer young pets were being born with the spark of Raindancing, and more than half the Novices weren't fit to be promoted. There had been only four other Barishin Novices from her entire birth year. And only one other had been promoted.
Overwhelming bitterness washed over the Aisha as she remembered the look on Anura's face when she realised she had failed. Only a year ago, the beautiful royal Elephante had danced. She had danced, and she had not been able to call forth the rains, so she had been cast out of the city. That was the law laid upon the Houses years ago during the very birth of Raegis. Those of the Houses who could not protect and nurture the city would not be nurtured and protected by the city. It was harsh, yes, but so was the desert and only hardened Neopets survived in it.
Now she, Ishanti, was the only one left. She was the last of House Barishin.
Ishanti quickened her pace; she still had a substantial distance to cover, and she would not make it in time otherwise. Living in the Wall meant having to traverse almost half the city to make it to the Sun Dais, which was located right at the heart of Raegis. On her way she noted, with a sense of pride, that although business in the city had been subdued by the drought, it had not, fortunately, died out completely. There was still some hustle and bustle to be seen amidst the bazaars. Raegans were, after all, hardened people.
At long last she reached the Dais, her heart quickening at the sight of its white marble. She drew her shawl around her closer and flashed her ring to a pair of guards, who quietly let her through. She could feel their eyes on her back as she climbed the stairs and wondered what they were thinking. Before reaching the top stairs, she took off her shoes and went on without them.
The Dais was a large raised disc of brilliant white marble that shone blindingly under the desert sun. It was also incredibly hot, and it took all of Ishanti's willpower to keep herself from hopping from foot to foot or even running to get her shoes. Slowly, she walked to the very centre of the Dais. A member of royal blood was already sitting on each of the four points at the edge of the Dais, which represented the four cardinal points on a compass.
Ishanti took a deep breath and cast aside her shawl. She raised her arms and closed her eyes. Drums started beating from somewhere. Without a second thought, the Aisha leapt into the air and began to dance. She jumped and pirouetted, swayed and gyrated. With each movement the magic that had been building up inside her since the start of summer grew. The drum beats became faster, and her feet quickened to match the pace, and the magic grew and grew. The throbbing magic became waves of some almost palpable substance that crashed into her, threatening to overwhelm her. But she knew she had to keep control until the time was right. She had to.
There was a large roar, the kind made by wind during a sandstorm, but it was only audible to the Aisha. Mountains of magical force pummeled her, and soon she lost control of her limbs. Her body was now the instrument with which the soul of the parched earth would plead the cruel, blue skies for forgiveness, for mercy, for rain.
She was not sure how long she had been dancing when she regained control of her body. She couldn't tell how much time had gone by as her eyes were still closed, and she was afraid of what she might see if she opened them. She was still dancing. The drums were still beating. Her arms and legs had never been so sore, but she continued to dance.
Something wet fell on her face. She opened her eyes to a sky bruised with shades of grey and purple and smiled.