In Kiutu, a quiet village on the eastern coast of Terwa Lake, young children often grow up listening to tales of the ruins that are visible on an opposing shore, separated from the hamlet by only a shallow inlet. Some stories tell of draconic monsters who haunt and terrorize those who step foot beyond the threshold of the buried temple, and others of the shadowy, winged figures that come to Kiutu in the night to drag misbehaving children to the ruins; whatever the story, the folklore surrounding ancient Bloodsalt carries with it a strong culture of fear and ominousness among Kiutu’s people. Most children grow tired of hearing such tales as they grow into their adolescence, brushing them off as fantasy, though the ruins always remain taboo. But Ija and her peers always accepted that she was a peculiar child, and the young girl never truly outgrew her youthful curiosity.
From as young as 4 years, Ija exhibited an unusual wisdom among the children that age in Kiutu. Even before she was old enough to begin tutoring, Ija could spin entire imaginary universes of her own, and though she couldn’t yet speak full sentences, she would fill sketchbooks with drawings of creatures and characters from her imagination, and from the tales her parents told of the wonderful things they’d seen on their travels. Her mother, a local artist named Ataya, was ecstatic to see Ija’s knack for building worlds, and often the two would spend days drawing stories together, Ataya often drawing fantastical dragons—Ija’s favorite creature—for the toddler to color in. Together they formulated myriad characters, and Ija developed an affinity for a pink dragon her mother doodled, whom the two decided to name Tuku.
When Ija was finally old enough to journey past the sightline of the village, she would traipse with sketchbook in hand down to the nearby lakeshore, where her father often assisted biologists from across the region to set up field studies on Terwa Lake. She’d ask the scientists questions about the animals that roamed outside of the safety of Kiutu’s borders, offering a drawing of what she imagined they looked like in return.
While most of the scientists found Ija’s “endless conversational charisma” endearing, she’d often find herself getting sent by her father to fetch research materials or supplies from the village instead, and while she was sure she’d been behaving, she could never help but shake that she’d done something wrong.
Into her adolescence, Ija still found herself preoccupied with her imagination; notes she’d meant to take from her studies or her father’s scientific lectures would be covered in doodles, or she’d lose minutes of her tutors’ lectures daydreaming while looking at the Bloodsalt Ruins across the lake, envisioning Tuku swooping about in mighty clashes with the monsters that lurk there. But while her imagination was celebrated in her younger years, expectations that Ija couldn’t keep up with were slowly piled upon her as she grew older. Eventually the fond memories of days laughing and drawing with her mother and father’s colleagues felt more and more distant. As her parents, tutors, and peers pressured her to grow up, Ija buried herself deeper and deeper into her imagination, and every night found solace in envisioning Tuku drifting elegantly through the moonlit clouds, rather than dwelling on what she did (or could have done) wrong that day.
One day, on a short field trip to the Terwa River with her teacher and a few other children, Ija found herself separated from the group; she’d become fascinated by a small copse of brightly colored ferns, and in her fixation wandered off without saying a word to her group. While musing at the strange and beautiful flora around her, noting the unusual shapes of the leaves in her sketchbook, she laughed as she thought of Tuku helping her to grab flowers and leaves from far above her reach. The bright oranges, reds, and violets of the blossoms around her seemed to glow with an otherworldly light when she held them close to her face, and Ija could have spent hours there without ever losing focus. Her wild exploration ended abruptly, however, when she caught the sound of her teacher calling her name from the edge of her hearing. Realizing she had missed her lesson and fearing punishment, she shamefacedly ran to catch up with her peers.
art by Wayne Reynolds
As Ija crested a small rise overlooking the riverbank and regained sight of her group, she noticed her teacher and the other children’s eyes widen in looks of surprise and confusion. Ija glanced down at herself, expecting to find her clothes in embarrassing disarray or marked by a stains or tears she didn’t notice, but there was nothing any more out of place on her person than normal. She looked over her left shoulder and then her right, and instantly shared their amazement. Tuku, manifested in physical form, stood a few feet behind her, eyeing her fellow villagers with curiosity.
Ija marveled wordlessly; how could they all so clearly see her imaginary friend? How was Tuku here and not just in her idle daydreaming? Her teacher stepped forward, his eyes fixed on Ija’s forehead, where the runic medallion she’d crafted for herself years earlier hung from a simple headband. The rune was glowing, and it matched an identical symbol on Tuku’s brow.
“Ija,” her teacher asked in wonder, “how long have you been a god caller?”
She just shook her head, trying to make sense of what was going on. Had she done something wrong again?
Her teacher knelt to look her straight in the eye as he spoke. Tuku snorted defensively behind her as the kindly elder reached out for Ija, but quickly calmed as the teacher spoke:
“My grandfather was a refugee of the Worldwound, you know. He fled Sarkoris a century ago, as a child, when the demons overtook his land. He kept few of the traditions of his people when he met my grandmother and settled here in Kiutu, but he told stories of his childhood. Most memorable among them were his stories of the god callers—those among the Sarkorians who could summon a powerful ally from beyond our reality to aid and guide the people in times of trouble. The Sarkorians called these beings gods, but others call them eidolons, and don’t worship them as my grandfather’s people did. It appears that you are a god caller, too, Ija, and that dragon—”
“Tuku,” she said without thinking.
“—Tuku, as you say, is your eidolon,” her teacher explained. “Just as you and Tuku share a connection, symbolized in the glowing rune upon both your bodies, so too did the holy runes of the Sarkorian god callers shine when the gods were among their people.”
Ija turned to look at her eidolon inquisitively. Tuku returned the look and tilted his head playfully, like a pet dog expecting its owner to throw a stick. Who was this strange creature, who wasn’t quite as imaginary as she’s always thought? She felt as though she already knew him so well. She’d created him as a toddler, after all—or had she?
A small group of researchers working a short distance down the riverbank had made their way up to where Ija and her eidolon now stood. Her father was among them. None of them appeared scared of Tuku, or of her glowing rune. They were simply curious, interested in a new occurrence to document in their findings. Her father, however, looked proud and overjoyed at his daughter’s newfound calling.
Her teacher, noticing the confusion in Ija’s face, offered words of reassurance. “Yes, there is much for you to learn about yourself, Ija. Perhaps you struggled so much to walk the path set before you because you had a different path you were meant to walk, shoulder to shoulder with Tuku here. We can’t teach you these things, your parents and I. You must learn about Tuku and your bond with him on your own, but don’t worry—we will help you how we can, and I am sure Tuku will guide you in his own way as well.” The teacher paused momentarily with thought. “Do not be afraid, young one; the path you walk may be yours alone, but you are never truly alone on your journey.”
Over the coming weeks and months, Ija and Tuku traveled farther from Kiutu than she’d ever gone before, to Nantambu where the libraries of the Magambya promised answers to her calling (if she could focus enough to read them). But unlike the lessons of her youth, Ija found the questions she had sufficient motivation to learn all on her own. And since she learned better by doing than from reading or listening to a lecture, the fact that she could now explore the limits of her power and the strange bond she shared with her dear Tuku meant she never lacked the will to get up and approach the day’s challenges together.
Ija has met many fellow knowledge seekers in her travels, and she makes a loyal, if mischievous, companion. Tuku tends to be aloof and curmudgeonly when interacting with anyone other than Ija, though he eventually warms to those who clearly don’t mean his summoner any harm. Together, Ija and Tuku plan to one day visit the Sarkoris Scar, to learn what they can of their connection from the god callers repopulating the land now that the Worldwound is closed. Until then, however, Ija and Tuku go where their fancy takes them and return often to Kiutu to share drawings and verbal tales of their adventures with her family and friends.
Meet the Iconics: Ija
Tuesday, May 25, 2021