What? What’s that? When did the dreams begin? Why didn’t you come to me when the Shrouded One first spoke to you? You of all people should know—no, no, I’m not angry at you Kishet, it’s just—well now you have to go.
Best leave at dawn. The way is long, and the desert is hungry and undiscerning. She does not care that we are her children—birthed from the heat of her womb, cut our teeth on the granite of those hills. She has not forgiven our ancestors for leaving her to make their homes in this valley. The desert is majestic and disorienting, stay vigilant. Make your camp well before sunset. Leave enough time before nightfall to cast your protections, and time still for meditations to clear your heart. You must do more than survive the night, you must approach the Three Sisters pure in spirit, and beseech them for their song. Their song is shield and shelter, the only surety against the Shrouded One—that is, should they choose to gift it.
You’ll want to take three sorts of bark with you. Yes, three. The berrywood is best burned as an offering—its smoke curls into plumes thick and wine colored, sure to attract Mmbek Moon’s attention. Peels of longola, if for some reason you find yourself needing aid to stay wakeful in order to finish your invocations—steep for a half-turn of the sand glass and no longer. The drink is habit-forming at full potency, and what good will you be to the coven if you return to us eyes open yet unseeing? The last—well, chew on strips torn from the heartshade tree if you find it is not the Three Sisters offering their song. Chew until the bark is a bitter pulp between your cheek and gums and swallow. There are worse fates than an untimely call from the Shrouded One.
At sunset, expect the winds—they will be the first to tempt you to return home. The winds will buffet you viciously, whipping fine granules of sand against your skin. It will sting your face, burn your throat, your eyes. They will be the coldest, loudest winds you’ve ever known; roaring against you with a voice that calls up every lonely, anxious lie your mind has ever whispered. But you must not leave. Once you enter the basin of the Three Sisters you must stay until they have given you their blessing, or until the sun rises and the Shrouded One rides the daybreak to carry your spirit onward. As I said, there are worse fates to consider.
If you see lights flashing among the black rocks of Sister Eldest, do not go! If you see blue smoke rising from the flat plateau of Sister Middle, do not go! And if you hear the call of the long horn sound from the red caves of Sister Youngest, I repeat, do not go. Aht—Aht! They are our coven’s signals, yes, but this is no trade route you are on. There are mimics in those hills who only deal in cuts of flesh. No, you want no part of their commerce.
Kishet, sit my child, you have gone ashen. Of course, of course, but this could have all been avoided, you know, if only you’d come to me sooner. There are bindings, talismans, but now? Naught will do to keep you from the Shrouded One except the sisters, should they choose.
Expect this night to be the longest of your young life. There will be no sleep, no reprieve. Only prayer, and with any hope, a blessing. At the bottom of the night, when you are weakest, when the hairs on your nape prickle from the rake of eyes unseen, and you begin to hear wordless susurrations against the shell of your ear exposing your worst transgressions, taunting you with your deepest fears, do not leave.
Instead, light your offering to Mmbek Moon and look for his Winged Child. Oh? Trust in me, you will know when they arrive. Winged Child is larger than any golden owl you have ever seen—what? For Dream’s sake, Kishet, they glow! Their luminescence will rival anything you should see that night save the sacred face of Mmbek Moon himself. And Winged Child is fierce! Though they are frightful to behold, do not despair. They will grant you comfort and protection from the unseen threats. But know that should you survive this, you will be indebted to Mmbek Moon and his Winged Child. And there will be no refusing when they come to collect.
How I wish I could bear this trial instead of you, sweet one. But you are strong, Kishet, you will survive it, you must. You are shored up by an earth-old bloodline, guileless in heart, you must believe the Sisters will bless you with their song for it to be so. If you fail? If you fail, then you will die forlorn, Kishet. Without the comfort of your mother-father or your siblings, without the honor of the bells. After the Shrouded One carries away your spirit, the scavengers will gorge on your flesh. The sun will bleach your bones by day and the fleshless ones will curl around your remains, contorting your discarded vertebrae in a dance most vulgar by night. You never should have sought to interpret the dream alone. Did you not trust in the wisdom of your Elder? Ego is the first indication of the usurper; careful not to reach for what is not meant for you. Consider this a lesson, Kishet, if you fail it will be with the knowledge that you alone brought on your early demise. Hubris is a sin and interdependence, our salvation. Learn this well, and we’ll never speak of your heresy again. Do everything in your power to return to us. I would be most displeased to lose yet another coven-child in the basin of the Three Sisters.