Chapter fourteen: The Fatal Inevitable
Despite all that Princess Alapar had tried to do, the house was on the verge of crumbling to its foundation. She stared out the high window at the forest below, where another family of Pessolanian blues made their hasty way through the trees, heading north, some of their fur already singed. She should have been making her retreat as well, but it was too late, as was indicated by the bones of her father that sizzled in the acid canal. Most of the Volcanic Belt was flooded. The acidic water ate at the base of the house she and her father had built and shared. Alapar wanted to feel sorrow for her father’s death, but her thoughts were focused on an alternate method of escape now that stepping outside would result in a death just like his. Her life was now an hourglass. She was safe for now, but she saw no way to avoid the fatal inevitable.
If her father hadn’t been able to do it, what chance did she have?
With a resigned sigh, Alapar turned from the window to face the main sitting room of the house. In her mad dash to save her father’s notes she had uprooted the careful order that had been maintained for so many painstaking years. Cabinet doors were flung open, their contents spilled on the floor, odds and ends scattered haphazardly here and there. Of course, it didn’t matter now whether the notes disintegrated in their neat files or in her arms, but she did find comfort in having the papers to hold onto. They always said that her father was his work, and some days his work was as good as him. It was better than nothing. It was the one thing they shared – their passion for science. They were comforted by the presence of facts known and unknown, and the process of logical deduction to find a solution to a problem.
Alapar ruefully thought how speechlessly upset her father would be to walk in and see the shocking disarray, and though there was no chance of ever seeing “that look” on his face again, she began to pick up the mess she had made. It gave her something to do while she waited to die.
There was no real way to tell how long the house would last. Alapar had wanted a log house so it wouldn’t feel like such an imprint on the wild they lived in, but her father had insisted on stone to keep out unwanted insect-guests; they had compromised by making a stone foundation and the first two floors, and the third-to-fifth floors were wooden. Knowing the exact properties of the stone foundation and the acid samples she and her father had taken days before he died, Alapar calculated and approximated that the foundations would crumble in five weeks, maybe less, and the acid would make even quicker work of the wood, so the entire house would be in ruins in less than a month, at the very most. There were already holes in the walls where the acid river overflow had made an island out of the house for the past week. Everything downstairs was burning in the water that leaked in and flooded the first floor three inches deep. She could smell the sizzling wood chairs, the rugs, their silverware, everything burning. Just the same as her father.
She told herself that the unshed tears in her eyes were from the acid fumes, nothing more.
She would die before the house, though, because she hadn’t found a way to neutralize the acid yet so she could drink the water. Having been eating their fruit to stave off the worst of the dehydration, she had finished the last slice of moldy sky papaya that morning. She was out of options. Already she could feel the prickles of her dry tongue. The fruit had kept dehydration at bay, but only just, and it only took a few hours for the symptoms to come back. How she could get more, she knew not; but of course, if she could get more, she would no longer be in the prison.
Finished with her cleaning, Alapar sank into a chair at the table of the dining room on the third floor and dropped her head onto her arms. She had been up for most of the night, observing the destruction outside for hours as though a solution would rise up out of the acid river and into her open hand. She could usually be inspired by staring at the problem, but never had the problem been her own death, and as she stared, her death was all she saw. Along with her father’s death, illustrated in the bones outside her window.
Deciding she would think of nothing until she got some sleep, she rose again from the table to go to her room. Doing so caused the bauble on the chain around her neck to crack against the wooden table. She gaped at it, mind blank with shock, and the solution hit her like a bag of rocks.
She thought that she must have been more tired than she had thought to have not realized the answer sooner.
Clutching the bauble in her hand, she smiled slowly. It solved one of the problems, and at least gave her more time. Moving into a stream of sunlight from the window, Alapar held the orbalite pendant in the sun and marvelled at the power she had forgotten she had.
After building their research house and before settling on the Volcanic Belt, Alapar and her father, Prince Abiel, travelled from Rena to tour fantastical Despartus. The oddities there had piqued his interest, as it did for almost all the scientists in the world, and the orbalite pendants that everyone there wore were a special source of curiosity. Obtaining one for both himself and Alapar, Abiel concluded the trip after a short lesson on how to use them and two weeks of reading all the books they could on Pessolanian chemistry. Loaded down with chemicals and information, they returned to the Volcanic Belt. All of the scientists before him had been concerned with what the elements did and making them work to their advantage, but Dr. Abiel – as his childhood friends fondly called him) was interested in how and why.
Alapar and Abiel had abandoned the work, shamed and frustrated, when they found that there was no deeper how or why than what was explained in Concerning Telepathy and Telekinesis. By all scientific principles, none of what the Despartans could do was possible, and yet somehow they did. The pendants had been locked up scornfully, too valuable and mysterious to throw away, but too disheartening to keep within sight. Alapar had taken hers out and put it around her neck for the first time in five years when her father died two days ago, because it represented his scientific indignation and the fire in his soul. Even though it also represented the cause of his death, Alapar remedied by conceding that it also attested to his bravery and love for her. And now, it represented the key to her survival, if only for a few more days.
Taking the bauble to the window, Alapar clutched it tightly in her hand. Better to start small, she reasoned, since it had been so long since she had attempted a mindmap. While she had achieved a higher level of mastery than her frustrated father, she had been banned from practicing before she had been able to gain more confidence. She concentrated on the orbalite and then on a pair of shoes resting by the door. To help her focus and to create an example of the map she wanted, she held her hand out to the shoes, “guiding” them as she levitated them into the air. Swirling one shoe and then the other in circles above her head, she put them down and closed her eyes. She concentrated on “feeling” her surroundings with her mind, touching everything and building a mental picture of the room. Trembling with anticipation, she reached her mind out the window, her consciousness flowing strangely through her pendant and then brushing the sill.
It was the oddest feeling. Usually she never thought of it much, but now she realized how much she took thinking for granted. Her thoughts always felt like they were in her head, naturally, but when she was using her pendant, it was as though her mind moved down to it. Even though her vision stayed where it was, somehow she was thinking out of her chest. She had to fight the dizziness that the strange feeling created and almost caused her to drop her concentration. And now, to think outside of the house altogether.
From the third-floor window, she touched the waves on the acid water which repelled her, crawling the energy toward the edge of the forest. In some places there were islands of volcanic rock, and she felt the heat of the restless magma far below. Finally, she could feel the piny dirt in the forest, and kept going, steadily advancing forward, trying to strengthen her map as she went by stretching her arms as far as they would go. She was rusty and novice, and she could feel it stretching to the point of breaking, but she tried to put more concentration in it, to nurture the webs.
There was a patch of watermelons not far from the research house. Alapar had never liked watermelons, hating the sticky mess all over her mouth and arms, but now there was nothing she wanted more than to feel the sweet juice running down her parched throat. The desire was like an extra boost, giving her the energy to stretch and search until she found the watermelon patch. She almost fainted with longing as she caressed the smooth, hard rind. She pulled ceaselessly on the fruit, not resting until she had ripped it from the tough vine, surprised at how much strength was in a thought. She surprised herself with her determination, fuelling her will to find a way. With weak knees and a throbbing head from the exertion, Alapar floated her prize over the acid flood-land and into her arms. She collapsed with pain, and opened her eyes.
It was a large fruit, almost bigger than she could hold in her arms. She nearly stabbed herself in her eagerness to find a knife in the drawer. Her fingers barely escaped amputation as she swung the knife in an arc with one hand, bringing it down on the watermelon, slicing it in half with a quick sawing motion. Smiling, she flexed her muscles, juice streaming down her arms and face.
The halves of the watermelon fell apart, and she sagged in disappointment.
The watermelon was nearly dry inside, its pink meat like sticky tissue paper. Most of the water had moved to the inside before spraying onto her, and it would be nothing like the impossibly juicy fruits of her past. She realized that of course, the vegetation would be devastated by the acidic new environment. She gingerly poked at the centre of one half of the watermelon, into a hollow pocket filled with watery juice, and put a few drops on her prickly tongue. Better than nothing, she repeated to herself.
This is when the juice on her arms began to sting and burn.
* * *
The first ten steps, the first river path, the first shaky breaths were the hardest. The ridge was slick, and the grip on their travelling boots was nearly ineffectual. Their eyes adjusted to the weak light under the falls, and the dim blue glow of the setting sun through the water guided their steps. After the first ten steps, the first river path, and the first shaky breaths, they began to relax and indulge in the possibility that they might make it out alive. The ridge was only just wide enough for the path of the nimble-footed horses, and they moved without hesitation, keeping their noses down to judge the path in front of them. Osarius, second last in the procession next to Fredric bringing up the rear, kept up easily to the slow, careful pace. The water seeped under his bandage and burned his head inexplicably. It stung wherever it touched their bare skin, especially the patches that the red onion worms had eaten through. Even Chimley winced at the burn of the spray.
What’s wrong with the water? he wondered, hissing as his skin tingled and burned.
It feels almost like some sort of…acid, Fredric answered in puzzlement. What acid could be potent enough to make so much water so caustic? And wear away so much of the rock-ridge in so little time? The answer to the first question was nothing more than another question with no ready answer.
Though the pace was slow, Osarius strained to keep his balance. The ridge may as well have been covered in ice for all the traction he could get on each dizzy step. He leaned heavily on Covah’s lead for support. To his dismay he saw that another river path was coming up, a thin layer of running water that took up six feet across the ridge, rushing over the edge and turning the slick stone treacherous. He had slipped and fallen to his knees on the last one, nearly tumbling over the edge, and his right knee still throbbed. He thought of letting the others know that he was becoming too disoriented to continue safely, but what would stopping do? He wouldn’t feel better until they were on legitimate ground.
Having trained and fought with the military since the age of eight, Osarius had learned to deal with pain. He had never fought a war, but some of the policing and training he did resulted in mind-shattering injuries, and he was forced to push it down and go forward because there was a task at stake. This was different, however, because his mind was still not completely right after hitting his head. He couldn’t focus enough to completely push the nausea to the back of his mind to rest in a position of near-nonexistence, and the only thing he could do was grit his teeth and force his feet to move one after the other. The sickening feeling circled in his head like vultures, pecking at his self-control, eating it away as the acidic water ate at his flesh.
It took them nearly ten minutes at their crawling speed to reach the river path. Xarthanias, who was in the lead, didn’t hesitate to cross, though he was getting tired as well, his back aching him from the stiff control required to traverse the precipice. Belladia was next, and then Chimley and Nolle. When Osarius reached it, his anxiety was like a heavy blanket on his mind. He wobbled into the inch-deep stream, splashing his already soaked pant legs. The edge of the ridge at these points was like round hills, angling downward and trying to drag them down with it, forcing them almost into the low, cave-like tunnels to avoid spilling off. Osarius stole a glance into the depths of the tunnel and saw nothing but eerie blackness.
Are you doing alright back there, Osarius? Nolle asked from ahead of him, peering around Ribbon.
Osarius forced himself to relax. Yes, I just need—
As fast and as unexpected as a bolt of lightning on a clear winter day, a snake as long as a horse shot out of the cave, wriggling like mad as it was swept away in the shallow stream. As it passed Osarius it hissed, fangs extended outward; with a start Osarius jerked backward, his legs slipping out from under him. He lost his grip on Covah’s reins—the horse had barely flinched at the sight of the snake—to catch his fall. In a moment of panic he tried to stand, but he lost his grip on the world and he slipped sideways. Without even a chance to scream he tumbled over the edge and disappeared through the curtain of the waterfall.
It happened that fast.
Fredric shouted Osarius’s name, a desperate hand stretched toward the water curtain. He heard Belladia’s scream above the cries of the others, and it was like a jolt in his veins.
…fear has its place, but not amongst these dire circumstances.
This was the only thought in Fredric’s mind as Osarius tumbled down the side of the waterfall, and Belladia’s voice was silenced as he dove after Osarius and into the depths of despair.