Our carriage arrived early in the morning. Mae was hopping around next to me, excited about the three day long journey. It was amazing to me how much energy she always had, even despite the early hours. I for my part couldn't sleep much last night...perhaps one of the reasons why my body was stiff and aching now. Evelyn on the other hand looked much better - much to my relief.
Stepping inside the black carriage revealed a few seats covered by soft red cushions. Alan stayed outside next to our carter, who whipped the ox-beasts, causing us to slowly roll away. Soon, the little town which I used to call something like a home grew smaller and smaller. The watchtower as well as the wall of houses that embedded him remained in sight for a long time, but they too vanished eventually.
"Is everything fine, Nathan?" Evelyn asked me with a concerned look on her face.
"Huh? Ah, yea, I'm good," I answered, pulling out the book she had given me since I had finally time to read it now. A few hours passed. Evelyn and Mae were playing some kind of environmental guessing game while I reached the last pages of the book.
It was a collection of short stories titled ‘Tales of Old’ in which different children experienced a multitude of adventures. The current story was about a girl named Lily who ran away from her abusive home and met an etyan boy. Together they overcame all kinds of hurdles, until a human scout-squad crossed paths with them. They mistook the boy for a kidnapper - or rather accused him of being one. Given no choice, he fled into a nearby forest, never to be seen again. The heartbroken girl soon again escaped her home and searched for him. The boy in the meantime got lost and wandered around helplessly in a dark forest. Without any idea where to go, he took a wrong turn and soon stumbled into hell. Lily followed his steps through hell and back again, but once she found him, it appeared to be only his shell.
All these imaginary worlds suffered sudden death when I finished the book by nightfall, sad about the fact that there weren’t more pages. I took a peek out of the window. The landscape outside differed significantly from the one around our small town. The sheer endless cornfields and rolling hills got replaced by a wild grassland with a thin forest and rougher hills that merged into a distant, growingly menacing mountain range to our right - as if they were the remaining fangs of a long-dead beast.
Everything around us was quiet, just the occasional groaning of our ox-beasts and the constant spinning of wheels on the smooth street cut through the silence. The mildly cool night air carried the smell of dry grass. “Mhhh, we’re still not at our first stop?” Evelyn stretched her arms as she woke up from a short nap. Resting her head on Evelyn’s shoulder, Mae was still asleep. I continued to watch our changing environment and noticed something conspicuous - a light that shimmered through the meagerly spread trees. A few seconds later, there appeared another one...and one more. Soon after, I could see one long trail of floating pale white lights. Evelyn followed my gaze, then gently jiggled Mae awake.
“I don’t believe it!” she shouted out in excitement
Countless tiny silhouettes were hovering just a few inches above the ground, slowly moving forward on a path between the high grass. They seemed to have extremely short limbs but a relatively large head, and were barely taller than my forearms. Mae’s eyes were piercing through the window, silently screaming to be let out so she could chase after these little things.
“What are they?” Mae asked, stunned by the sight.
“Moonsouls. Many people pass their lives not even seeing them once. Some claim that they appear out of the blue, wander on unknown paths and then disappear. Apparently no one has ever seen where they go, or where they come from. Some even go as far as calling them spirits.”
“Do you also think that?” I asked.
“No, these are just rumors I’m sure.”
“No mom, they are definitely ghosts!” Mae vigorously corrected her mother. I watched the lights float up and down, always in the same rhythm as if it was their way of breathing. There existed no hectic in their movements and no disruptions, just them and the thin path they followed along. We continued to watch, until they disappeared into the dark.
The clock hand of my pocket watch striked ten when we came to a halt. I jumped out of the coach and stretched my stiff legs, which had been begging me for a few steps. Inhaling the fresh air, I noticed our resting place for the night was a small farm. More precisely - a three storied manor made out of bricks that shimmered red under the light of a nearby lamp. A wide pasture surrounded the house and another weak light highlighted a little barn in the back.
“Did you see the moonsouls?!” Alan jumped casually from the seat bench, “That was the first time I have ever seen any!”
Our carter, who appeared to be rather content with how this little journey was going, walked up the few stairs to the house and knocked on the door. Soon after, an old man, who had eaten one or two dishes too many in his life, stepped out and greeted us. He let out a sharp whizzle, causing two scrawny figures to come running towards us. One was a girl, slightly taller than me, the other a boy, who was around my height. They took a quick peek at our faces, then focussed their gazes on the ground again.
“These two will guide you to your quarters,” the old farmer informed us with his raspy voice.
We stepped inside and followed behind them. Our rooms were located on the third floor. It was a tiny, but neat apartment with a small living space and two separate sleeping rooms. A few portraits decorated the light-blue walls, in a corner stood a small chimney with a fire already cracking and flickering as we entered, and some shelves were filled with old tacky puppets and other figures.
“We have provided you with a small basket of ingredients so you can have a small dinner and breakfast,” the girl told us with a bow. I now realized under the light that their skin was a tad paler, slightly grey even. The girl must have felt my gaze as she looked up to me for a split second. Her eyes were different too - they were completely dark blue with multiple black rings that surrounded her pupils.
“Thank you very much,” Evelyn responded softly. The two of them bowed again, then left the room.
“Are they humans?” I asked curiously after a few seconds.
“They are Etyans. Haven’t you heard about them?” Evelyn tilted her head.
”I have, but Miss Cera hasn’t told us much.”
“Hmm...well, Etyans are a bit shorter than the average human, and as you’ve just seen, their skin and eyes also differ from ours. They prefer a life in the dark - in their large void-city...” she noticed my muddled expression and elaborated, “There are huge holes spread over our continent and some of them contain enormous cities which reach deep into the earth, maybe you’ll come across some of them one day.”
“Is every Etyan so emaciated?”
Evelyn exchanged a short glance with Alan before letting out a heavy sigh.
“You are too sharp for your age...many Etyans in the areas we occupied after the war get enslaved even to this date.”
Her words caused my throat to dry up.
While Alan and Evelyn were preparing some dinner, I sat down next to Mae on the window ledge which was reworked into a small sofa. The view out of the window offered an overlook over the backside of the farm. That in itself wasn't helpful since it was night - until I spotted a single moving light and three shadows that were heading to the barn.
“Hey look! That’s the two from earlier!” Mae pointed excitedly in the direction of the shadows as if they were old best friends.
“You can see them?” I frowned, surprised.
“Heh, mom says I have eyes like an owl!” she crossed her arms and her lips curled into a proud smirk.
The silhouettes disappeared inside for a short moment before the larger shadow returned and moved back towards our house.