She was on a mission. Determined strides over the thick, cold snow covering the mountains took her toward an honorable endeavor, serving to spread her people's name, their good cause. It was to be a long journey, months easily, a year possibly, to her goal. It was a necessity, as much as it was worthy. Her people didn't act purely out of the good of their hearts, but they depended on the other clans' support, if their own undertaking was to continue for as long as necessary. Even if it was prophesied to be fulfilled in merely a few years.

A harsh winter cut deeply into their supplies, so they made a decision. Before the rations wouldn't allow them to keep up the clan, feed, house and warm everyone without worry, they would offer their services to others and, if it was possible for those others to bear it, ask for aid in return. Be it simple manual labor, purely knowledge, medicinal care, negotiations or fighting, the clansmen spread into the lands and sought out or were approached by the needy.

But, if she was honest with herself, the sole reason she left was to flee.

Flee their sneers – directed only at her –, their hushed comments – only when she was around – and their open resentment – so long as her father wasn't near. Nariko grew up in the clan that protects the Heavenly Sword, she was hated at first, barely tolerated the older she grew. Of course, they were never blatantly obvious, her father wouldn't have allowed it, but she knew. She always knew what they were saying behind her back, because it was always the same. They fear what I represent. They fear, because they based their entire lives on and around the prophecy. And then I was born, completely untrue to this prediction from times long gone.. And she suspected her father knew just as well.

The clansmen had no other choice but to believe Nariko was the one in the prophecies, as there had been no other newborn, nor any dead, on that day, the day of the flaming mare in the year of the firehorse. No other dead, except for my mother. Who died because of me, or so they keep reminding me.

This unusual occurrence was first discovered by the clans living in close proximity, a few traders talked about how in those clans they visited, a few, immediately expecting women suddenly paused in their delivery when the previous day ended and the new one began. And when they went to the settlements further away, they found the same situation there. The news spread like wildfire, but Nariko's clan receiving a child on that same day never made it beyond the clans' walls.

For eighteen years, ever since she began to understand why none of the other children would be allowed to play with her, why no one ever visited their – her father's and her own – home if it wasn't for brief business, she tried to turn around the thought of their fear, if only in her head, to fuel her desire to live on. She tried to make herself believe they feared her because she might, in the end, still be the one to fulfill their divine duty.

Sometimes, though, it became too much to bear, but she didn't have any way out without appearing weak, defeated. One of the few things she wouldn't have allowed to happen, at any cost. I will not give them the satisfaction. Never. Finally, however, at now twenty two years old, she had a way to leave for a while. She didn't volunteer, especially not on that first moment's impulse she felt when they decided to go ahead with the plan of securing supplies. Thank the heavens I had the patience.

No, it was them who sent her away, just how it needed to happen. And when she protested, if only to reinforce her resolve, she was delighted to see genuine fear in their eyes. They grew wary with the what ifs that plagued their minds since my birth. Those minds that twisting their thoughts around until they believed their worst nightmares more likely to happen than their greatest hope. She guessed it was because she protested that they sent her to one of the furthest clan settlements in the lands, but she kept quiet and accepted.

Seen this way, it couldn't be called anything but running away. She halted in her trudging through the thick snow on the mountain pass that she was just about half way across, many paces upward from her home's level. The deep breath she took from the crystal clear, ice cold air hurt in her lungs. A welcome sensation that successfully shook off the thoughts that entered her mind; the very thoughts she was here to forget about. As it is with these things, hm? They always return when you least expect them.

The sun glared into her eyes as she walked right in the direction of its setting and it reminded her that she would need to set up a camp soon, or the night's coldness this high could freeze her to death. The easy way out. I hate it.

She spotted a cavernous indentation just a bit further up, perfect for shielding her from the quickly increasing winds that already blew about large clouds of loose snow. Shaking once in a shiver, be it of anticipation of another night out under the stars or the freezing cold, she wasn't able to tell, she resettled the packed covers, food, drink and lamp oil, tied to her back in a neat package and pulled the thick, warm bearskin jacket tighter.

The fire, created with the lamp oil and dead wood from the mountain, crackled in front of her. The wind blew fiercely around her cover, but the indentation was deep enough into the rock that not even the fire got disturbed, the warm light flickering over her only by its own nature.

Sated by the dried food, warmed by the fire and tired from the climb up the mountain, she felt her head fall to the side as she leaned against the strangely warm rock at her back. She tried to keep herself awake, knowing that the recently returned thoughts of home would undoubtedly recall the dream as well. No! I don't want to see it! Not today! But, despite her strength and endurance, the journey took its toll and she was unable to resist the lure of sleep.

And so she saw them again. The pictures produced in her mind that showed her father on the verge of ending her life. The tremendous sword in his hands lifted above his head, far enough to provide the speed to end it quickly and painlessly. Even in her dreams, as the sword descended on her, guided by her weeping father's strong arms, even as she feels the need to call for him to stop, one betraying thought, like always, made its way into the foreground of everything.

Finally.

It was the first time in a very long while that she awoke with a start. The first lights of the day made their way over the edge of her cover, illuminating the entire mountain, giving the pristine, white snow a glaring glow. It made her close her eyes as she stretched out the kinks of a rather uncomfortable night, even though she had her long, red hair wrapped around her neck, as a scarf and cushion.

That was...unusually intense. The possible reasons why the dream always end on that kind of emotional note eluded her and she wasn't willing to ponder it. It isn't like I want to die, so why... But thoughts had a habit of coming full circle and thus the contradiction always kept her head busy, confused for a while. At least it distracts from other thoughts as well. Though she sighed at the obvious path her mind took yet again. What's with me at the moment?

Luckily she had a way of distracting herself entirely, having to pack, put out the fire from her day's first meal and covering the ashes with snow, finally continuing on her way over the pass.

The path Nariko took toward her goal was a detour along a part of the lands that, to her knowledge, no one had visited so far. She could only wonder why, because the breathtaking scenery that started to spread in front of her made the side-trip worth all on its own.

The mountain pass, though not the range, ended a little over a day ago, her journey interrupted by another night of fitful sleep, but at least without the dream. The intense cold and snow had let up even earlier, so the pack on her back grew, as she shed a few layers of warming cloth. At first, she wandered through a barren land, barely any other colors than the gray of the rocks and the brown of the soil, dead trees and unhealthy looking bushes.

A little further, rocks and boulders burrowed even that little sign of life, narrowing the path to barely four feet wide. But when she rounded the end of an offshoot of the mountain, protruding a few paces into the land, it brought her to the end of the mountain range itself.

The steep, but manageable way down opened up a view onto a very green forest stretching far up to the horizon. Dotted with clearings that varied largely in size, some of which filled with small water bodies and a few of them filled entirely by large lakes, glistening in a rich blue under the late morning sunlight. The clear sky and only very little snow made Nariko assume that the worst of the winter weather was trapped on the other side of the mountain.

What caught Nariko's attention immediately, however, were gigantic, very obviously man made stone columns, that reached almost twice as high as the trees. Between almost two dozen of them were a few dome like buildings, by the looks of it made of the same stone, which looked like they could each house entire clans by themselves. They seemed to form a path, veering to the right, in the direction of another arm of the mountain range, but she couldn't tell exactly how much further they reached there.

The longer Nariko looked over the area, fascinated, captivated, the more she noticed the damage those towers and buildings further away seemed to have suffered. Is that the reason no one went here in such a long time? Because they knew and along the years it just settled in peoples' minds that this area is no good? Before she started to speculate, guess or worry, Nariko climbed down the steep path, making her way into the forest.

As she passed one of the lakes, much bigger than what they seemed like on closer inspection, she found the water bodies were submerging trees' roots on large parts of the forest. It made her path much harder to navigate, since she had no desire to swim. A bath would be very welcome, though. But not before I checked the area. Wouldn't want to run into anything that caused the people to move and buildings to partially collapse.

It took her half a day to make her way to the spot she chose to go to from up above, an area where a half dozen domes and three of the towers stood in close proximity, unlike the rest of them. The reason for which she could see when she walked closer to the largest dome, the first of the buildings in her path. They were, apparently and logically, built on the patches of dry land that were surrounded by the submerged forest. And this was simply the largest dry area.

The patches of well worn ground told a lot of how busy it must have been at some point, if it hadn't even regrown weeds, whereas other patches showed overflowing greenery in symmetric fields that clearly served to grow crops, but had long since been abandoned. Nariko also found a few symmetric fields within the submerged area, making her wonder what kind of crop was cultivated there, since she had never seen such a thing. Leaving that aside – it didn't help her any, to know what these people grew – she made her way closer to one of the domes.

The closer she got, the more obvious it became how much work was put into these buildings. Otherwise silky smooth surfaces were carved into, to form artwork of inspiring detail. If Nariko would have had to guess, the pictograms seemed to display historic events. When she compared them to another building's carvings, it appeared to show the history of each group of people living in the individual dome.

As she lacked reference to any explanation of events that were depicted, she couldn't even venture a guess how long these kinds of records were kept, but seeing how the pictograms were continuing up the building at least as far as she could see, she assumed they collected them for a very long time. I have never seen such a thing before. Why go through all the trouble? Why not just record it on paper?

The inside of the domes were almost empty, barely any scraps of decayed cloth that had served as curtains to the entrance dangled above the doorway. A few shelves, tables and chairs could be identified from the rotten remains. So they didn't even bother to pack when moving..wherever? Though there was no pottery, cutlery or other kinds of every day necessities, so they had to have packed at least some things.

The other domes had the same decay, only the biggest still had a bit of complete furniture left. It seemed to be a gathering point for the people, judging by the arrangement of things it might have served as a hall for festivities or other, more important conventions, providing seats for at least a hundred. Nariko was a lot more interested in the damaged buildings she could only see in the distance from above, though, so she continued through the forest in their general direction.

Her way along the dry paths led her past more of the buildings, the further she went towards the other end of the mountain range, the better the state of the buildings turned out to be. So they spread this way, setting up new housings along. That means, since those even further were damaged...it must have been something relatively recent. Though the structures looked very old still, that thought was enough to put her on her guard and from then on her hand rested on the hilt of her sword.

The sunset made her wonder why she bothered to continue her current course. It's not like I'm a historian. I have no actual incentive to go on further, do I? But still...I want to see what damaged these magnificent things that no one seemed to know about before.

She had had enough time on her way through the forest to think about if she ever heard any indication of what she found here, but her clan was tight knit and somewhat unsociable until they decided to venture out to the people. However, it wasn't like they never heard, or shut out anything about the outside world, so it was unlikely for them to not know about this if there were others who did. It is possible, though, that those who knew kept quiet on purpose. Her grip on the hilt tightened.