"A little dworno?" asked Tironi, dangling a small piece of meat in the air. "This is all I get?"
Tironi's friends didn't respond. They were sprawled through the camp site eating heartily, for they had not eaten a regular meal for days, only the canned food they had in stock and the rolfberries they picked on the side of the road as they traveled. Next to the campsite sat their blue and silver painted wooden wagon, filled with clothes, art supplies, musical instruments, tools, and just about everything they had in the world.
"We have plenty of luptuck and curlybread," Bonicee said. "The villagers have been very generous."
"Generous?" Tironi said. "We entertain them and their children for hours and what do we have to show for it? A little food and a lovely invitation to sleep in the woods."
"I thought you liked sleeping under the stars?" asked Chetin, who was resting with a cup of blopnectar at his side.
"At least I don't have to smell them anymore," Tironi replied, looking away.
"Yes, but you still have to smell yourself!" Bonicee said, making Chetin chuckle.
Tironi sat down, his teeth pulling on the taut, flabby slice of dworno. Tonight he was in another mood, a mood that has increased in frequency the past month. The life of a Swoople, especially the life of a Swoople artist, was hard in a country controlled by the Wretons. The Swooples are small beings with slim bodies, high eyebrows, bright green eyes, and thin, reddish purple skin that makes their bones appear to bulge out. Their legs are wiry, often vibrating like jelly, and when one looks at them, one wonders how they can remain standing. They are the original inhabitants of Swooplia, a small country surrounded by sea, except for a land to its north named Guirodana. Most of the Swooples live as peasants, farming the rich land, mining trocolite, a yellow violet gem embedded in the tiny, dirty caves of Swooplia, and building and maintaining roads and homes for the Wreton soldiers, who constantly travel through the country, overseeing the hard labor, patrolling the villages, and training new soldiers.
The Wretons are a group of barbarians who escaped from the prison island of Lonstoc by stealing silver vessels from the Goddess of the Heslian Sea, vessels she crafted with her divine touch for her servants, who patrolled the islands of the sea, bringing gifts to the natives. The Wretons survived the attack of hundreds of sea snakes sent by the vengeful goddess and sailed to Swooplia, where they destroyed the boats, turned the silver into guns and swords, and conquered the peaceful Swooples. The Wretons are a deformed race; they have a fat girth attached to thin legs, with arrow shaped humps protruding out of their sides; their faces are oval, with thin skin by the nose and mouth, next to bulging cheeks, creating the appearance of a flattened pig's face; and they wear dark brown leather uniforms to cover the hundreds of rashes on their skin. They are ruled by the Council of Wesa, the four most powerful Wreton soldiers, who live in a iron castle lined with trocolite, making the interior glow as if hundreds of sunbeems held up the roof.
"I can't stand to watch their misery," Tironi said, breaking the silence. "Why can't they do something? Anything is better than the way they live."
"Don't go on another rant," said Sliusk, who was the eldest member of the artists. "We need to relax to get any rest out here and..."
"They are doing what they can to survive, Tironi," Lhori interrupted.
"I don't want any argu..." Sliusk began to say.
"Are they?" Tironi said, staring at Lhori.
"I don't want any arguments!" Sliusk shouted.
The campsite was now silent, except for the crackling of the fire. Smoke rose off the flames, making the stars look faint in the distance. Tironi and Lhori stared at one another until both of them laid down to sleep. Sliusk looked around, watching the bodies of his five friends shift back and forth searching for a comfortable position to sleep in. Soon his thoughts drifted to his parents, who encouraged him to be an artist. They recognized his skills as a painter when he was young and helped him years later when he became a storyteller and puppeteer. They always supported him, even though they had a hard life working in the mines. Lhori, Bonicee, and Chetin were also children of workers, and each of them was compelled to live the life of an artist, more due to their hearts than their talents, even though all of them had unique skills. Tironi was the son of a artist, the type of artist so lost in his work that he seemed to forget the world around him, and he inspired his son to become a great sculptor. Little Annily, who had been sleeping quietly for an hour, was raised in an orphanage, but her talent for music gave her the opportunity to live the life she wanted, sharing her creations with her people.
"I think someone is coming," Bonicee said, hearing small branches break in the distance.
Sliusk walked over to the edge of the forest. "It is just villagers from Crulo," he said. "Come and welcome them."
"Great," Tironi said. "I thought we needed to get some rest?"
"You can sleep if you want to, Tironi" Lhori said as she leaned over to wake up Annily.
Tironi grimaced and looked away. "Hi," a peasant said, shuffling up to the campfire carrying a basket of bonfruit. Following her were three adult swooples, two fathers and one mother, and six children who walked a few paces behind, wearing excited faces.
"Welcome," Sliusk said. All the artists, including Tironi, stood to greet the peasants.
"This is for you," the peasant said, handing Sliusk the basket. "We enjoyed your performances today, especially the music. And the children loved the puppets."
All the artists wore bright smiles, warming the hearts of the peasants. "Thank you," Sliusk said. "You shouldn't have come all the way out here. You will be tired in the morning."
The peasant introduced the others to the artists, who shook their hands and kissed their cheeks. "We didn't want to bother you, but the children were curious about your glowing tronkets," she said. "Do you have some with you?"
"Absolutely!" Lhori interrupted. "You have to see them."
Sliusk threw a few logs on the fire, while the other artists dug through the junk in their wagon, picking out the tronkets and a few musical instruments. They led the children into the dark forest, away from the starlight and moonbeams that lit the fields, with their glowing bodies tiptoeing over the grass, down the trees, dancing across the small waves of the river. Annily played a lovely melody on her harp as her friends ran through the forest with the tronkets, spinning the strings attached to glowing discs. Balls of light floated through the air until they burst into thousands of golden sparks, appearing like a swarm of fireflies were flying in-between the branches of the giant polptrees. The children stood in awe watching the lights, unaware of the beautiful melody that was making their feet tap the forest floor. The peasants smiled as they looked at the beaming faces of their children.
After the performance the artists gave each child a necklace decorated with diamond shaped beads, tiny flowers, and hand painted shells. The peasants thanked the artists and took the children home. As the artists put away the tronkets and rested in their makeshift beds, Annily played a soft melody, a melody she used to play at the orphanage to help the little orphans welcome their dreams.
Weeks passed. The artists traveled across the country, stopping at each village, performing plays and puppet shows, singing songs, and displaying artwork. The peasants were inspired by the freedom of the artists, so they often joined in, playing music by drumming their kettles and jars, and painting stones with chalk. After the artists left each village, the children were rambunctious for days, playing hiding games as they worked in the fields, while the adults would occasionally find themselves smiling, fondly remembering the sly jokes the artists worked into their stories.
As the artists witnessed the hardship of the peasants, the same hardships that embittered them as children, they began using their art to mock the Wretons, especially the Council of Wesa. Annily and Lhori wrote jubliant songs making fun of the rigid rules the peasants had to live under; Sliusk and Trioni created paintings and sculptures that mocked the images worshipped by the Wretons; and Bonicee and Chetin performed plays that made the Council of Wesa look like buffoons. Bonicee was an inspiring actress, appearing to open a door to a different world when she paraded on the makeshift stage, while Chetin, who was an accomplished designer, created a costume and mask that made him look so much like a Wreton it frightened the children.
The Council of Wesa was informed of the mockery, so they called one of their colonels to them. "This offense must end," said Yuerta, who was the mightiest Wreton and always spoke for the Council. "These parasites are fortunate we allow them to travel at all. Watch them closely and make sure they stay within the law."
The colonel, accompanied by a dozen soldiers, rode through the country on huilys, which are large, buffalo-like animals with black hoofs and light brown fur so long and thick one cannot see their bodies. They tracked down the artists as they camped near a small creek and reminded them of the ideas and images banned in artworks. But at the next villages the artists traveled to, they kept all their performances and wrote new plays, intensifying their mockery of the Wretons.
The Council of Wesa was told about the artists' disobediance, so they called for the colonel. "Tell them if they continue breaking the law, they will be arrested," Yuerta said. "And warn the villagers not to provide food and shelter for the artists, or they will be punished. Let these fools fend for themselves."
The colonel and his soldiers found the artists traveling on a dirt road and warned them of the consequences if they continued their performances. Then they sent word from village to village, ordering the peasants not to support the artists.
That night the artists sent up camp at an abandoned farmhouse. "I'm sorry, but my family needs me," Chetin said. "I can't risk my freedom."
"But what good is it to live if we can't live the way we want to?" Annily asked.
The artists sat silently for a minute, avoiding eye contact with one another. "I will continue, but I know some of you can't risk going further," Sliusk said.
"I will stay," Lhori said.
"Me too," Tironi said.
"You know how I feel," Annily said.
"I will continue as well," Bonicee said. "I know that is what my family wants. But Chetin, you are the only one of us who has children, and we know you have to think of their future."
So Chetin left, hiking across the countryside for two days, returning to the village where his wife and three children lived. His friends continued their travels, but during the next few weeks, they were met with resistance and ridicule by many of the villagers who feared the threats from the soldiers. "Why don't you go home and work?" and "Leave our children alone," they would say. But the children loved the artists so much that many of the parents let them enjoy the art and performances, and a few villagers snuck the poor artists food and helped them find a comfortable place to camp, away from the peasants that distrusted them. The artists were grateful for the support they received, which inspired them to increase their mockery of the Wretons.
Soldiers documented the artists' violations and notified the Council of Wesa, who ordered the artists to be arrested. As the artists set up their puppet theatre in a village, soldiers, led by the colonel, rode up and arrested them, wrapping the artists in iron chains. When the soldiers hauled the artists out of the village, an old Swoople ran over to them. "You have no right to arrest them," he said. "They have done nothing to you."
"Go back home. We don't have time for this," the colonel said.
The old Swoople walked in front of the huilys and stood silently. A soldier pulled out his gun and shot a silver bullet at the old Swoople's feet, causing him to stumble to the ground. The soldier shot again and again, making the old Swoople roll on the dirt road. The artists looked on in rage. The other soldiers laughed, except for the colonel, who was annoyed with the old Swoople. Then the soldier waved his gun and shot again. The bullet hit the old Swoople in the head, killing him instantly. "What are you doing?" the colonel said. "Get down and retrieve the body."
"Murderer!" Lhoria yelled. The artists fought violently to escape from their chains.
"Shut them up!" the colonel ordered. Quickly the soldiers surrounded the artists, beating them until they stopped resisting.
The soldiers threw the bloody body of the old Swoople on the back of a huily; then they took the artists to the capital city and tossed them in the royal dungeon. "Before we could arrest the artists, they killed and robbed this old Swoople," the colonel said to the Council of Wesa.
"Then they will be executed tomorrow," Yuerta said.
The artists protested their sentence, rattling the dungeon bars with stones, but the guards didn't listen and poked them with spears until they were quiet. That night the artists tried thinking of a way to escape, but deep down they knew their lives were over.
Then one prisoner, who was sitting in the corner listening, walked over to the artists and said, "There is only one way out of the dungeon, but it is difficult. Artists like yourselves might have the mentality to do it."
"What is it?" Bonicee asked.
"At midnight," he said, "if you sing in harmony with one another and capture the rhythms of the night, you can duplicate the song of the wolibird, becoming one of them."
"Don't listen to that old legend," another prisoner said. "This drunk has been in here for years telling his tales. If he knew a way out, he would be free."
"Shut up!" the prisoner shouted, his wrinkled face turning red. "A thief like you wouldn't understand."
"I heard of this legend before," Tironi said, "but I thought that was a permanent condition. We couldn't turn back, even if this was possible."
"Yes, it is permanent," the prisoner said.
"Don't play with their hopes, you miserable drunk," the other prisoner said.
"What good is this nonsense?" Lhori asked. "Our lives are at stake."
"But it is you who always remind us of the wonders of the universe," Tironi replied.
Sliusk listened as he looked out the barred window near the top of the dungeon. The discussion ended, and the prisoner returned to a corner of the dungeon.
As the hours passed, the artists sat silently, searching each other's eyes for any glimmer of hope. Their stooped shoulders made them appear demoralized, but when midnight approached, they slowly gathered in a circle, wrapped their arms around one another, and began to sing. They sang and sang, waiting in anticipation, but nothing happened. Then they closed their eyes and intensified their singing which escalated until they were unified and felt transcendent, forgetting where they were and who they were. Soon a glowing blue mist appeared in the middle of the circle, making the artists feel like an eye, flying over hills, valleys, and mountains, towering over the country like a spirit floating gracefully above its creation. Then, in a flash, the artists turned into wolibirds. The wolibirds had a large green body graced with yellow stripes; long, ornate feathers, appearing like a craftsman imprinted them; and a thin black scroll surrounding their eyes. The wolibirds looked at themselves and each other with their sparkling pink eyes quickly darting back and forth. They fluttered off the floor and back down, appearing like a child trying to awake from a bad dream. All the prisoners were quiet. They stood in awe, watching the wolibirds hop around the dungeon. Then, one by one, the wolibirds flew up to the barred window, glanced out, and soared into the night sky.
As the bright stars shined light into the darkness, the five wolibirds darted into the night, and they finally felt the freedom they could only dream about in their art. A few Swooples who were violating the village curfew stared at the wolibirds flying above them. The wolibirds flew up and down, stopping and starting as fast as a heartbeat, gliding over and under bridges, past homes and farms, perching on trees and flagpoles, until they reached a small forest and settled down to sleep.
In the morning the guards checked the dungeon and discovered that the artists had escaped. They told the Council of Wesa, who ordered their soldiers to track down the artists. The guards asked the prisoners what they saw, but the Swooples were silent. So, one after another, the prisoners were tortured until they told the guards how the artists turned into wolibirds.
"That is ridiculous. Why did you bring such lies to us?" Yuerta said, after the guards told the prisoners' stories to the Council of Wesa. "Get the truth out of them."
The guards tortured the prisoners again, but the Swooples had no other story to tell, so they were beaten to death, leaving their bodies sprawled on the dungeon floor. Wreton soldiers searched the surrounding land for the artists, riding through each village and storming into each home, scaring all the peasants. As a platoon of soldiers passed through a forest, one of the them spotted the wolibirds flying above a white huna tree. "I've never seen birds as beautiful as that," he said.
The soldiers followed the wolbirds, hoping to catch them. The wolibirds flew away quickly and disappeared in the distance, but the soldiers were in such awe of their beauty that they told the Council of Wesa what they saw, providing a description of the wolibirds that matched the description given by the tortured prisoners. The Council of Wesa couldn't believe the wolibirds were actually the artists, but they called for their religious elders who arrived at the iron castle dressed in red cloaks with tiny, triangular trocolite leafs sewn into the arms. "It may seem extraordinary," one elder said after listening to Yuerta, "but don't underestimate the dark arts. These legends are based on old magic, and those artists have dabbled in this all their lives."
"Yes, we have warned you of this before," said another elder, scratching a rash on his chin.
"And this is permanent?" Yuerta asked.
"Yes," the elder replied. "Now they mock you from the sky."
The Council of Wesa ordered the wolibirds to be killed. The soldiers told the peasants that the artists were shot attempting to escape from the dungeon, and the new birds flying through the country carried a contagious disease, a threat to the lives of all the peasants. For days soldiers stalked through the country, wearing dark gray masks covering their mouths, pretending to protect themselves from the disease. The wolibirds escaped, avoiding all shots fired at them, but the soldiers did not let up. Anywhere the wolibirds felt safe- deep in a forest, or in an abandoned house, or underneath a bridge- soldiers, led by large, red flirdogs, flushed them out. The wolibirds became tired and hungry, unable to digest a good meal of huilyflies or solbugs, but they moved as fast as a shooting star, frustrating the menancing Wretons.
The villagers who saw the wolibirds fly out of the dungeon spread rumors of the artists' escape. The rumors went from village to village, reaching every Swoople in the country, including Chetin, who believed his friends had been killed. Some met the rumors with disbelief, while others had faith the artists were still alive. "I should have been with them. I must save them and continue our work," Chetin said to his wife.
"But you would have been arrested, and you will be now," his wife said. "Are you going to put your hopes into this ridiculous legend? Your friends are dead. Look at your children. What will happen to them?" As Chetin watched his children play in the street, he couldn't imagine leaving them again, but then he thought of the future, and he knew the world had to change. He gathered his things, including his Wreton costume, said goodbye to his family, and began traveling through the country, asking villagers for sightings of the wolibirds.
Eventually, the Council of Wesa became concerned about the rumors and offered a large reward to anyone who killed a wolibird. Thousands of peasants, armed with their slings and iron beads, the only weapons they were allowed to have, and wearing punctured cloth to cover their mouths, searched the forests and valleys for the wolibirds. A few peasants, including the children, told the others not to hunt, for they believed the wolibirds were the artists and remembered all the wonder they brought them. "How can you hunt them?" one peasant asked another. "They are one of us."
"The artists are dead," the peasant replied. "Why shouldn't we kill these birds? Don't you care if your children die from a disease? If the Council of Wesa wants to make me rich for a lifetime, I will take it."
Peasants across the country debated one another, dividing neighbors, friends, and families.
Days passed. Soldiers and peasants marched across the land, covering every square inch looking for the wolibirds. The wolibirds survived with little sleep, flying and hiding everywhere they could, from barn attics to marshes to caverns. Often they split apart to be safe, scattering in different areas, but they always met at night, for they needed each other's energy to survive. One morning Lhori was hiding in a clump of underbrush when a group of peasants flushed her out. As she tried to escape, she was shot and wounded. She fell to the ground and frantically ran through the grass looking for a place to hide; but the peasants were persistent, storming through the forest one after another, until they flushed her out again and filled the sky with hundreds of sling shots. Using all her skills, Lhori dodged the fire, but then one bead struck her heart, killing her instantly.
Hundreds of peasants raced to the wolibird. The peasant who shot the wolibird picked it up and held it over his head, but the wolibird became as hot as fire and dropped to the ground. Then it transformed into Lhori and back again. The peasants stood silently. No one touched the wolibird, including the peasant who shot it. Minutes later soldiers arrived. "Who shot this?" a soldier asked, picking up the wolibird.
Everyone was quiet. The soldier asked again, but no one answered, so the soldiers left, taking the wolibird with them. The peasants told their families and neighbors what they had seen, spreading news of the incident from village to village.
Some Swooples believed the story, while others claimed it was just wishful thinking by desperate peasants. "It can't be true! It's impossible! It's just a story!" some said, denying the artists were still alive. The soldiers traveled across the country, celebrating the death of the wolibird, warning the villagers of the disease, and increasing the reward for killing them.
The next night hundreds of Swoople children around the country snuck out of their homes, gathered with their friends in the forest, and tried singing the song of the wolibird. At first they struggled, unable to imitate the rhythms of the night, but then they focused with all their spirits, and they sang and sang until they became unified and turned into wolibirds. The children embraced their new identity, darting back and forth through the sky, but they were careful, for soldiers and peasants were still on the hunt.
The next morning parents realized their children were missing, and they ran from village to village, calling for help. Children disappeared from most villages, frightening every Swoople in the country. Thousands of peasants searched the countryside and forests for the children, but there was no sign of them.
The artists spotted the hundreds of new wolibirds, so they split apart, and each led their own flock, protecting the children from the dangers below. But they worried, for sightings of the wolibirds increased, and they didn't know how they could keep all of them safe. The Council of Wesa was upset by the children's disappearance, believing the artists' magic was behind it. Thousands of soldiers kept hunting, while others monitored the search for the children. Eventually, a group of soldiers who were patrolling the outside of a lake spotted a flock of wolibirds. They pursued the birds intensely, filling the sky with bullets. Two of the wolibirds were killed, transforming into children as they fell into the lake, while another wolibird was wounded and dropped to the ground, scrambling into a row of lirisbushes. As the soldiers pursued, Tironi flew to the rescue of the wounded wolibird, but the soldiers guns thundered, firing shot after shot, until Tironi and the child were hit and killed.
Hundreds of peasants who were busy canvassing the area rushed to the dead wolibirds and stood next to the soldiers. As they looked on, one of the wolibirds transformed into a child and then back again, while the other wolibird displayed the body of Tironi, whose open eyes stunned the peasants.
The peasants stared at the soldiers. "What are you looking at?" a soldier asked. "Do you think you saw something?"
The soldiers picked up the wolibirds and tossed them in a sack. "I wouldn't say anything," a soldier said, waving his gun at the peasants. "You should be grateful we are stopping this disease."
Then one of the peasants shot his sling, striking and wounding a soldier. Other peasants turned their slings on the soldiers, but the soldiers shot through the crowd, killing one peasant after another. The peasants scattered, as flashes of gun smoke enveloped the area, clouding the bright red flowers of the lirisbushes. A few of the peasants managed to escape, fleeing through a nearby forest, until they met a different group of Swooples who were searching for the missing children.
Details of the massacre spread from peasant to peasant, causing more of them to believe that the wolibirds were actually the artists and children. When the Council of Wesa was informed of the incident, Yuerta called the colonel and said, "Use everything you need to kill these birds! No one is to go out day or night until every bird is killed!"
That night soldiers confiscated all the slings and confined the Swooples to their huts. Hundreds of soldiers patrolled the villages, constantly watching the peasants to prevent any use of magic, while others hunted for the wolibirds, riding huilys, which had long wooden torches tied to their backs to light the darkness.
Over the next few days the hunting intensified, and the soldiers killed more wolibirds, all of them children, who were immediately burned upon death. Eventually, Sliusk, Bonicee, and Annily gathered the remaining wolibirds together in one large flock, and despite their desire to stay in their homeland, they had no choice but to fly north to Guirodana to survive. For days they flew, still pursued by soldiers, who energized themselves with every kill.
When they arrived at the border, they looked at the mountain range below and felt inspired, hoping to start a new life. But then a dark cloud appeared in the distance, and before the wolibirds could react, a swarm of one-eyed ertbats attacked them. Wounded, with bloody cuts from the ertbats' sharp fangs, the wolibirds fought them off, pecking at the ertbats' rippled sides, and continued flying over the mountains. But as they flew on, iron cannonballs exploded in front of them, causing thousands of iron beads to fill the sky, like a fierce hailstorm. Three wolibirds were killed, including Annily, whose crimson stained body fell to the snowy mountain peaks below. The surviving wolibirds looked down and saw Guirodanan soldiers roaming the land. The Council of Wesa scared the Guirodanans with stories of the diseased wolibirds and paid them off in trocolite to kill the wolibirds if they tried entering their country. The flock of wolibirds flew up and down the border, but they encountered more blasts of cannonballs and swarms of ertbats that were released by the soldiers. Mired in despair, the beautiful wolibirds returned to Swooplia and discovered a cave hidden deep in a forest, hoping for time to heal their wounds.
At that time Chetin was hiding in the forest to avoid the soldiers, whose massive bodies riding huilys seemed to cover the entire country. As he took a drink from a small creek, he heard the sound of a soft bird song, which caused a tiny ripple on the surface of the water. He looked up and saw a wolibird standing on a boulder. "Who are you?" he asked .
The wolibird fell to its side, pretending like it was asleep. "Sliusk! That must be you!" Chetin said, for Sliusk always talked about his wild dreams.
Sliusk ruffled his feathers and flew over to Chetin. "I heard some of the wolibirds have been killed," Chetin said.
Sliusk looked down, his eyes blinking constantly from a lack of sleep. "No place is safe here," Chetin said. "You have to leave Swooplia."
Sliusk responded by pointing his beak north, shaking his head, and making violent jerks with his body. "If you can't go north, then there is only one safe place you can go," Chetin said, "but it is too far away for you to fly."
They looked at each other as glulus ate cushiout plants in the distance, making it sound like skulls were chattering in the dark forest. "Can you get your flock to the west coast near the Riylop Hills?" Chetin asked. "I will meet you there in a week. I hope I can help you."
Sliusk nodded. Then, after Chetin patted the feathers of his friend, the two separated.
Sliusk returned to the cave and retrieved his flock, who noticed a glint of optimism in his eyes. They took off for the west coast, staying as high in the sky as they could, occasionally darting down to hide among the giant stones of the hills, the large bundles of wheat in the fields, and behind the hundreds of majestic waterfalls that flowed into the rivers. Day after day they flew, with constant pressure from the soldiers patrolling every road and river, until they reached the Riylop Hills, where they hid in a mineshaft.
When Chetin left Sliusk, he waited at the edge of the forest, looking for passing soldiers. After watching for hours, he spotted a platoon of six soldiers riding towards the forest on huilys packed with food and arms. He followed them quietly as they entered the forest, setting up camp for the night. Eventually, the platoon went to sleep, but one soldier stayed awake, perched atop a steel stand nailed to a toratree with a gun and torch at his side. Chetin slowly snuck up to the campsite, pulled a small wooden tube out of his coat, and blew rocks to rattle the trees near the soldier. The soldier waved his torch, lighting up the darkness in front of him, but he didn't see anything. His friends were fast asleep, grunting restlessly in the dirt. Chetin blew more rocks, rattling the trees once again. Cautiously, the plump Wreton climbed down from his stand and walked through the forest, his torch extended in his right hand. Chetin hid behind a toratree, clutching a hard rock in his hand. When the soldier passed by, Chetin jumped out from behind the tree and knocked the soldier out cold. Then he slowly crept up to the campsite and stole one of the huilys, which awakened, uttering a short grunt out of its pudgy black nose.
With all his might, Chetin lifted the unconscious Wreton onto the huily and quietly led the huily out of the forest. After walking for an hour, he pulled the soldier off the huily, stripped him of his heavy armor, tied him up, and hid his body in the brush, covered with red and violet porleaves. After wrapping clumps of grass around his girth, he put on the soldier's armor and boots, appearing as fat as the most grotesque Wreton. Then, using a small knife, he cut a hole in a toratree, causing tusap to pour out of it. Using the tusap, he glued his Wreton mask to his face, which burned from the pressure of the thick liquid.
In the morning the Wreton soldiers discovered their lookout missing. They searched and searched, but they saw no sign of him except for the huily tracks that led out of the forest, and they believed he abandoned the platoon. Chetin rode to a nearby village where he came upon soldiers who were busy guarding the peasants. "We believe the artists' friends are hiding among the Swooples," he said. "I need to search each hut for them."
Without hesitation, the soldiers led Chetin from hut to hut. As he went through the village, he looked at the poor faces of the peasants, who wished to return to work, or anything to get them out of their huts that now felt like cages. Eventually, he came to a mother cowering in the back corner of a hut. "I need to find whatever trocolite dust the peasants have stashed away," he said, as he glanced back, watching the soldiers harass peasants at the other end of the hut. "I know each village has some, and it might help save the wolibirds."
The mother looked at Chetin quizzically, examining his ugly head. "I don't know what you are talking about," she said.
"I'm not a Wreton. I'm a Swoople in disguise," he said, leaning closer to the mother. "I remember you. You brought children into the forest outside Crulo. We showed them our glowing tronkets, and we gave them necklaces as gifts."
The mother paused. "I don't know about any stash," she said, shaking her head.
"Look in my eyes and please believe me. There is no time to waste," he said.
The mother looked into Chetin's eyes, seeing the sparkle only a Swoople could have. "My child turned into a wolibird," she said. "Do you know where she is?"
"Yes, I hope I can help them," Chetin replied, feeling the soldiers walk towards him. "Please tell me where the trocolite is."
"Go straight back from the second to last hut on the south end of the village," she said. "Walk a hundred paces. The trocolite dust is buried in a chest under a stump."
Chetin left and walked through the other huts, pretending to look for the artists' friends. Then he thanked the soldiers and left the village before doubling back to the stump, where he dug up an iron chest filled with trocolite dust. After putting the dust in pouchs tied to his huily, he traveled to the surrounding villages, telling the same story to each group of soldiers and pleading with the peasants until they told him where to find their stash of trocolite dust. He acquired as much dust as he thought he needed; then he rode to the Riylop Hills, looking for the wolibirds.
When he approached the hills, he stopped to take off the Wreton uniform and mask, leaving small cuts on his face. Then he built a fire, and using porleaves to protect his hands, he melted the trocolite dust, molding it into a long horn as it cooled. The horn had a thin tube extending the length of three adult Swooples, and it ended with a large, oval shaped hole, like a giant tuba. He then rode to the Riylop Hills, where he was spotted by Bonicee, who was on the look out for his arrival. Bonicee flew to the mineshaft, and Sliusk and she led the flock of wolibirds to Chetin. "Follow me to the sea," Chetin said. "I am going to call the Asolp Beast."
Bonicee flew high in the sky looking for any soldiers, while Sliusk and the rest of the flock circled above Chetin, who rode the huily to the sea with the trocolite horn firmly in his grasp. When they arrived at the seashore, Chetin put the end of the trocolite horn into the water and began playing a lovely tune, enchanting the creatures of the sea. He played for hours, but nothing happened. The wolibirds anxiously flew above the sea, often swooping down, looking for any signs of the Asolp. Then large waves slowly rolled to shore as if the Spirits of the Sea were awakening. The waves increased, with the East Wind blowing towards the land, until the giant head of the Asolp burst out of the water.
The wolibirds flew back to shore, avoiding the water that was shooting into the sky. The Asolp rolled in the sea until coming to a stop, settling the turbulent waters. Then it floated on the surface, with its round, elongated dark blue and silver back heaving up and down behind its head, which contained wrinkles like a turtle and two large eyes, appearing like small moons were dancing across the sea. The Asolp drifted into shore, where Chetin and the wolibirds promptly climbed on its back, searching the slippery surface for a place to grip. Then the great beast turned and swam out to sea with its back above the surface, allowing Chetin and the wolibirds to breathe. For hours the Asolp swam, appearing like an island gliding across the sea.
Then storm clouds blew in, and waves as tall as a tower rocked the sea, crashing down on Chetin and the wolibirds, who were huddled together as one with their heads buried in the back of the Asolp. Rain pummeled the sea, and the waves went higher and higher, forcing the Asolp to dive deep to avoid the chaos above, but returning frequently to give Chetin and the wolibirds some air. The storm intensified, making the waves reach so high that they looked like they were bouncing off the dark clouds above. Chetin and the wolibirds hung on with all their strength as the Asolp was tossed by the storm. Finally, after a giant wave carried the beast for a mile, it landed on the shores of a small island made of phok boulders. The Asolp sprawled on a batch of yellow seaweeds that grew around the boulders, wrapping its long stems around the hard rock. Chetin and the wolibirds looked up, embracing the sunrays that followed the passing storm.
"Hold steady!" a voice yelled.
Chetin looked over and saw a round copper boat propelled by large wooden wheels spinning in the water. Standing on the boat were Kuilou guards dressed in brown and green uniforms, pointing guns at him. "We came here for your help," Chetin said. "We need..."
"No one is allowed here," the guard interuppted.
"I am from Swooplia. We need your help in freeing the Swooples," Chetin said.
The guard stared at the wolibirds, who were drying their drenched feathers. "Bring your birds," she said, waving to Chetin. "Let the Asolp rest. It will slide back into the sea after it has healed."
Chetin climbed in the boat and the wolibirds flew onboard. The guard steered the boat around, and after sailing for a half-hour, the boat docked at a port on a large island. Chetin was led onto a polished stone dock, and then past slender, leafy eflits, which look like drooping palm trees, into a rock garden centered between a series of wooden towers. The circular towers looked as solid as mountains, but their exterior was decorated with carvings and leafy, golden flakes, which grow on the interior walls of the caves of the island. Dozens of kuilou officials, all dressed in violet costumes, approached Chetin. The Kuilous are tall, skinny beings, with light green skin, an egg shaped head, and dark, embedded eyes. "We have to send you back. No trespassers are allowed on the island," said the president.
"Your honor," Chetin said. "I know the story of your people and how you drove xolan pirates from your island. We wish to be free, too, and we need your help. My friends escaped from prison by changing into wolibirds, and we called the Asolp using a horn I made from trocolite dust the peasants collected for years and years."
"I recognized the wolibirds," the guard said to the president. "They have a universal connection with freedom."
The president sneered at the guard, who promptly became silent. A few Kuilou children ran through the garden, carrying baskets and throwing seeds on the ground, which were quickly eaten by the wolibirds. "I have sympathy for you," the president said, "but we have tight security that cannot be broken. I am not going to repeat to you the horrors that were inflicted on us."
Chetin pleaded with the president, telling him of the years of oppression of the Swooples, but the president would not change his mind. "It is time for us to help," a Kuilou judge said, walking forward. "We have enjoyed our freedom for decades now. To honor those who died for our freedom, we need to fight for the freedom of others."
"Yes, we must send our soldiers. We can defeat the Wretons," a professor said.
"No, we can create artificial typhoons and flood their mines, destroying their way of life," a general said.
Sliusk, Bonicee, and the Swoople children took off and glided above the crowd, extending their wings as far as they could. "What do you want, you beautiful birds?" the judge asked.
"They want us to join them," a naturalist said.
"That is enough of this!" the president shouted. "I am the one who has to live with sending our soldiers to their deaths. Who will account for the blood of our people if we breach the security of the island? That will not honor those who died for our freedom. The wolibirds can stay on the island tonight, but tomorrow we will take them back to the free zone in the sea."
Everyone was silent. Sliusk, Bonicee, and the other wolibirds gently flew back to the ground.
That evening Chetin and the wolibirds rested in a warm cottage where they were given a delicious meal of dozens of different fruits, but it didn't relieve their sadness. Chetin became so upset that he left to be alone. When midnight arrived, he sat between two eflits, with a slight breeze tickling the giant green leaves of the tree, and he sang the song of the wolibird until he became one himself.
Earlier in the evening, the story of the Swooples spread across the island. The judge talked to her friends and neighbors and gathered a secret meeting in the garden behind her home. "We have to turn into wolibirds," she said. "The Swooples deserve the freedom we have."
"But how will that help?" an old engineer asked. "We will be wolibirds forever."
"It is the only way to convince our president," she replied.
They debated intensely for an hour, and hundreds of Kuilous left in protest, a few of whom informed the president about the secret meeting. But dozens of Kuilous were convinced, and they joined together at midnight to sing the song of the wolibird. When the president heard about the meeting, he ordered his guards to the judge's home. But by the time they arrived, no Kuilous were in sight. As the guards searched the grounds, they heard soft birdsongs above them. They looked up and saw wolibirds flying above the house, appearing like bright green stars were dancing in the night sky. The president was told of what transpired, and he was infuriated. But the next morning, as he watched the wolibirds, including some of his most dedicated officials, fly above his residence, he became inspired. "We will help, but I still must protect our country," he said to his Chief of Security.
A proclamation was given out to the Kuilous, asking for volunteers to join the wolibirds. Many Kuilous were afraid, but others wanted to help, so over the course of the next several nights, hundreds of Kuilous sang the song of the wolibird, filling the sky with an army of beautiful birds. Days later the president gathered the flock of wolibirds together between the wooden towers. "Your children will stay here," he said to Chetin, Sliusk, and Bonicee, who stood in front of the flock, "but we need you to lead the other wolibirds to your homeland. You will take seeds from our koatrees and use them to create a phosmocloud."
So the flock of wolibirds flew to the Koaforest, which blossomed from decades of love and care from the Kuilous. Using the fine tip of their beaks, each wolibird carefully removed seeds that were embedded in the branches of the trees. Then they flew high in the sky until they reached a large cumulous cloud, where they dropped the seeds into the fluffy banks. The seeds opened up, and the cloud sparkled with hundreds of different colors, making the skyline shine for miles and miles. As the cloud floated to Swooplia, all the wolibirds flew in circles inside it, causing the cloud to grow and grow until it stretched as far as the eye could see. For hours the cloud floated through the sky, blazing like a meteor, and as the wolibirds flew, they absorbed all the sparkling colors, making their feathers glow brighter than the brightest stars in the galaxy.
By the time the cloud reached Swooplia, the wolibirds had absorbed all the colors, making the cloud turn dark gray. When the cloud floated down, it created a dense fog over the land. Wreton soldiers could not see a foot in front of them, so they walked in confusion, waving their torches. With Sliusk, Chetin, and Bonicee leading the way, the wolibirds flew across the country, with their feathers shining through the fog, appearing like tiny flying lighthouses. They distracted the soldiers, who scrambled to follow them, and they darted from village to village, helping the peasants escape from their huts. The peasants followed the sparkling path provided by the wolibirds, grabbing anything they could find as weapons- everything from sticks to clubs to tools lying in the fields. Then the peasants ambushed each platoon of soldiers, who were blindsided at every turn. Eventually, after crisscrossing the country, the flock of wolibirds came together and led the mob of peasants to the iron castle, where they overthrew the Council of Wesa and their guards.
After all the Swooples were freed, the dense fog lifted, making the climate normal again. A few of the wolibirds flew out to sea where they met Kuilous on boats, who returned to their island and brought the Swoople children back home.
When the little wolibirds returned, one of them flew towards the mother from Crulo, who looked in its eyes and cradled it in her arms. "This is my child," she said. "I know this is my child. I have to free her."
"But there is no way we can," another peasant said.
Other peasants picked up the wolibirds, holding them close. They waited until midnight and then they began to sing. They sang and sang, hour after hour, and then the peasants turned into wolibirds and the wolibirds turned back into themselves. Sliusk, Chetin, and Bonicee hugged one another, the Swoople children reunited with their families, and the Kuilous looked on, surprised to be in their own bodies again.
After a grand celebration and a memorial for those who perished, the Kuilous returned to their island. The Swooples lived in freedom, transforming the country into a peaceful state, and they held a pact with the Kuilous, making both lands committed to protecting one another. The wolibirds flew over both countries, often traveling the long distance with the help of phosmoclouds, and at times they would fly to other lands, inspiring others to fight for freedom. But every few weeks they would land and other Swooples and Kuilous would hold them and sing the song of the wolibird, changing places with them. Every citizen took turns being a wolibird, soaring over the land and sea, reminding everyone below of the freedom they had, and the freedom that others deserved.