“Stay away from her, kid. She’s bad news,” a man said.
“How come?” a boy asked.
“You’re new here. You ‘aven’t saw what happens to people when they get involved with her.”
The first replied, “They go missing, and no one can find them for months, until they show up out of nowhere, ravin’ mad. Can’t e’er get ‘em back to normal, neither. Never works. No matter what we do, they’re completely crazy. No one can reason with ‘em. Talking about anvil tea, the lot of them, and no one knows what they’re sayin’.”
“What does she do to them?”
“No one knows. Some say she’s a witch. Just stay away from her.”
“Man, you’ve got a lot of questions, kid. Just stay away from her and you’ll be safe.”
The girl - or what looked like a girl - heard the whispers following her. She tugged on her sleeve and tried to ignore the people behind her. She knew things that they would never, could never know. She turned off the main road, like she always did, and headed out of town.
Out there, beyond the city limits, no one dared venture on foot. Occasionally, the girl saw a rancher - commonly referred to as a cowboy - riding home after a long day of work, but they never bothered her. Most of the time, they steered clear. There were no houses, no shops, no rivers, no trees. The land outside of the town was an endless expanse of flat desert, with only cacti, rocks, and tumbleweeds to break the straight line of the horizon.
Hidden behind a particularly large rock was the entrance to the girl’s home. She found the rock, climbed around it, and ran her hand over the base of the rock until she found what she was looking for. She pulled on a little stone handle and the ground swung back, revealing a dark staircase. She climbed down into the silent darkness.
As she descended, she reached into the fabric of reality and pulled out blue fire. She lit the wall sconces with a wave. When she reached the bottom, she froze. She spun around, listening.
No sounds reached her ears.
The girl shook her head and muttered to herself, “It was nothing. Just the wind. I’ve grown so… suspicious of everyone and everything. If anyone finds this…” She didn’t finish the sentence aloud, but she didn’t have to.
If anyone found her, they would turn her in. They would hand her over to the sheriff. They would take the power for themselves. That amount of power in human hands would destroy their universe. She might even be forced to let the stone have them, like she had so many others.
The girl shivered at the thought. The haunted screams of insanity filled her ears, the pleas of the mad to put them out of their misery. She never had. She could never take a life.
The girl stopped her train of thought before she could think of the horrible things that would happen to her if she abandoned her post near the source of her power.
No one would ever find her.
No one would ever take the power for themselves.
They would only ever take it over her dead body.
“Come on! Get your head out of your stomach with the butterflies! You’ll drive yourself crazy with these types of worrying thoughts!” She told herself. Frustrated with herself, she stomped over to a hammock hung between two pillars of rock. She ignored the rest of the cave where she had built her home, even the glowing blue and purple orb that cast the image of a vast galaxy over the white-ish red stone.
The girl closed her eyes and was about to fall into a restless sleep when a crash sent her leaping to her feet. She stuck out her hand and twin daggers materialized in them. “Who’s there?”
No one answered.
“Come out! I’m warning you!”
Slowly, a little boy crept out of the shadows and into the light of the glowing orb. The girl recognized him as the little boy from the street. He was shaking with fear at the sight of her.
“P-please don’t kill me. Papa said you’d take off my head. He said you were a witch,” the little boy trembled.
The girl put herself between the little boy and the orb before lowering her daggers. “Who are you? Why did you follow me? Who else is here? If you’re here to take this from me, I’ll… I’ll… I’ll have to protect it, no matter what. Do you understand me?”
The little boy shook his head. “I’m alone. My papa doesn’t know where I am. I shouldn’t ‘ave come here. Bad idea. Sorry, ma’am.”
“Who are you?” The girl asked.
The boy cowered. “I’m Austin. My papa owns a ranch. One day, I’m gonna be like him. I’m gonna be a cowboy! What’s your name?”
The girl scowled. “Name’s Willa. You’ll be like your dad, alright. A drunkard, a greedy rogue, up to no good. They’re all the same. That’s why I’m here. I gotta protect it.”
“Protect the glowy thing?” Austin asked curiously.
“It’s called an Adziil Tse, or a Strength Stone. They have the power to destroy the universe if in the wrong hands. I keep that from happening,” Willa crossed her arms over her chest and wondered whether she should be telling the boy anything, “Don’t touch it.”
“Why would someone want to destroy the universe?”
Willa shrugged, “I don’t know. I don’t pretend to understand human minds. Maybe they want to reach a different universe by tearing down this one.”
“What do you mean?”
“I don’t know!” Willa threw her hands into the air in exasperation, “Just promise me that you never tell anyone about this or come back here ever again. If you do, the Adziil Tse will take over your mind. Most can’t deal with that kind of power. They try to take it for themselves and lose everything they ever had, including their identity.”
“I promise!” The little boy squeaked.
“Good. That way, I can let you return to the surface alive. If I hear even a rumor spreading about the Adziil Tse…”
“Get out of here.”
The boy ran towards the staircase, but froze and turned back. “Willa…”
“What you said about my papa… and not understanding humans… what did you mean? Are you…” Austin lowered his voice, “are you a witch, like Papa said? And Papa… he isn’t mean. He’s really nice. He’s a good Papa. I have an easy life, compared to the other boys in town.”
“Is that what he told you?” Willa mumbled. She kneeled down and looked into the boy’s eyes, “Listen, Austin. There are bad people in this world. I never know who they are, but I have to defend against them. I don’t think you are a bad person, but you might make a bad decision. Your papa… he has made bad decisions. Maybe they were good for him and your family, but they were still… bad. Bad for everyone else. He hurt people. If your papa or anyone else came down here, they would have the opportunity to hurt me. To hurt you. And I wouldn’t be able to go home.”
“So… you’re not human.”
Willa sighed. “No, Austin. I’m not human. I am Skali, what you would call an alien, or intelligent life from another planet. You can’t tell anyone, though. They would kill me if they knew. The Adziil Tse allows me to look human and disguise any features that would mark me as… other.”
“Wow…” Austin looked at Willa with awe, a look she hadn’t seen in many human years. No terror. No horror or fear. No disgust. Just awe. “Can you show me?”
“What I truly look like?” Willa asked. She looked over her shoulder at the Adziil Tse and said, “alright.”
She flicked her wrist and her disguise melted away. Her curled hair disappeared, replaced with white feathers from the top of her head to her shoulders. Her nose grew pointed. Her fingers changed, from five to three on each hand.
Austin’s eyes grew wide.
“Do you fear me?” Willa asked, already knowing the answer, “Everyone else does, when they see my true form. They run away. Will you?”
Austin silently shook his head.
Willa pulled away in surprise. “You must be terrified. Humans always are when they see something different from themselves. What else would you be feeling? Why do you not run?”
Austin stuck out his bottom lip. “I’m not scared, Miss Willa. I don’t need to be. You don’t want to hurt me. I can tell.”
“No, but I’m… different.”
Austin shook his head. “I’ll keep your secret. Is there anything I can do to help protect the… the… Advil Tea?
“The Adziil Tse… you want to help me protect the Adziil Tse? But… no one has even offered that before. They all try to take it for themselves.” Willa pressed her three-fingered hand to her heart.
Austin shrugged, “I guess I’m not normal. When I grow up, I’ll make the world a better place. No one will even want to steal your glowy thingy!”
Willa laughed. The idea seemed preposterous to her, but she knew… “If you did, I could go home. I wouldn’t have to stay here, hidden, protecting. Please, Austin, please live out that dream. I want to go home.”