Dark Lullabies

Chapter twenty-one: Dark Lullabies

They were getting closer to the River Verien and the Volcanic Belt. Not only could Chimley feel it, he could see it in the gradual warping of the prairie grasslands into rises and hills, the slight—imperceptible to the others—cooling of the air. And there were taller, fuller trees. Chimley watched Belladia, Nolle and Xarthanias from one such tree, humming a song and rubbing his feet. The night was old and greying into dawn, and the only sounds other than his humming were the snores of the sleepers below. Xarthanias, in a sudden and uncharacteristic show of leadership, had pushed them to their limits today, making them ride hard all day and night, despite the pain it caused him. He could barely get off his horse when they finally stopped, nearly asleep in the saddle. The only reason we were supposed to follow the South Ologo was to stay near a source of water, but we can’t drink it anyway. We can cut across the Grassland straight to the fork and take almost two days from our journey. That had been his reasoning, but Chimley had to wonder at the slightly unfocused sheen in his eyes. Xarthanias’s eyes had been slightly crazed since Larentac, but now they seemed to have traversed out of the realm of sanity. The pain could have been part of it, but Chimley doubted it was the entire story. 

The horses were nearly dead on their feet by the time he allowed them to stop. Nolle had tried unsuccessfully to talk some sense into his brother, but This is my journey had been the snapped reply. Everyone else had been too unsettled to push the matter farther. And they had made good time, indeed.

Chimley himself was glad not to have to smell the South Ologo anymore.

Also, he was getting tired. He hated to admit it and tried not to show it, but they had been travelling for four days, Chimley mostly on foot. He hadn’t eaten in nearly two weeks. Even his mind was growing weary from the mental stresses. Tonight, he felt it the most. Though he had never been there, the Volcanic Belt called to him, called to his hunger, and he had the fleeting urge to leave the sleepers now and go on ahead.

But he stayed, and watched, and as his melancholy grew, his hum morphed into song. His father had sung it to him for as long as he could remember, and taught it to him soon after he could talk. The words told the story of a martyred philosopher from Beirder, Cremavium, named Remi Aldarian, and his eight comets, and his words of wisdom. The tune was quite macabre and on still, starless nights, it sometimes gave Chimley shivers.

A yawn interrupted his song, but he stretched and kept on. Gazing up at the sky, he wondered what his father was doing. Despite himself, he found that he missed the old man, only a little. Maybe it was the sleepiness talking, but he felt far away from home. In less than a week he would be out of the country, farther than he had ever been from his forest home.

He would think of the novelty of it in the morning…certainly when Xarthanias awoke they would be on their way again, and Chimley needed at least a little sleep before going on.

Before he let the sleep overtake him, he took a quick habitual inventory on the mission. They seemed to trust him, but now what? He had to grow that trust and kinship, move forward every day…he supposed he could just let the circumstances work their magic.

Even in sleep he continued to softly sing the song:

The only true beginning

 Is the dawn of time;

Its first breath, its heart’s last beat

The only true ending, the end.

This is the circle path we must follow

Till the infernal and bitter end

Follow until it begins again

Begins anew, and never ends.

* * *

Nolle had a nightmare of the cottage fire. But this time, it was him trapped under the beam and the girl was fighting, trying to save him. He was suffocating! He was being pulled under a roiling, inky sea. He reached out to the girl, and the second she grasped his hand, she morphed into a demonic and cadaverous version of herself—her hand blackened and elongated into grotesque, twig-like fingers tipped with long black nails, and dark black shadows imprinted themselves under her now black eyeballs. Her blackened lips parted, showing rows of pointed teeth and a snakelike black tongue. Nolle tried to get away but was impossibly weighted down by the beam, and his fear choked him. The demon girl opened her mouth and inhaled deeply, shrieking, seeming to draw the light into herself. She drew the encroaching darkness like a curtain around them. Death’s final curtain. And then there was nothing.

Resurfacing and still half unconscious, Nolle tried to scrape away the stifling fear that stuck to him like plaque. Dragging his eyes open, he gasped breaths as though he truly had been starved for air. He was sticky with cold sweat, and still there was the terror. Dawn approached, and the world was grey and colourless, dead. Groggily sitting up, he looked wearily around and realized that he could hear singing. Or rather, a song preyed upon his mind like a chillingly familiar shadow stalking him through a dark forest. Belladia and Xarthanias were nearby and Nolle could tell that the song agitated them in their sleep also. In the semidarkness, he had a hard time convincing himself that the dream was only thus and not a premonition of sorts, when at length he recalled where he had heard the morbid tune.

Looking up, his intuition was confirmed when he saw Chimley draped in the scraggly arms of a gum tree, asleep, his lips moving mechanically as he sang the wretched song. His voice was sweet, seductive, like a meiren luring a sailor to the rocks. In exasperation, Nolle drew a charred stick from the dead fire and flung it at the boy; Chimley snapped immediately into wakefulness, springing to his feet on the bough with a startled hiss.

Will you be quiet? Nolle demanded, glaring at him. You’re giving me nightmares, and I’ve still a lot of sleep to get before my brother wakes up and cracks the whip again! A mocking look settled on Chimley’s face, and he stepped quietly to the ground, falling for a full second before landing in a soundless crouch beside Nolle.

Was I singing in your sleep? he asked, dark eyes innocent in the half-light.

Nolle bristled for a moment before settling back down on the ground, lying on his side. No, you were singing in your sleep. Please be quiet, alright? I don’t want you to wake up Xarthanias. Plus it is such a horrid song you will bring upon us more bad luck!

A moment, and then Chimley nudged Nolle with his foot until Nolle turned to him, his annoyance returned. But Chimley looked contrite. I’m sorry I disturbed your sleep. I guess that I was so tired I was sleep-singing.

Nolle was stunned into mollification. From what he had seen, Chimley was never sorry. Well, that’s quite alright. Just be quiet from now on. I’m going to try to get a little more sleep.

Chimley nodded before ghosting back up his tree.

The sun had barely cleared the horizon when Xarthanias shook Belladia and Nolle awake. His eyes were bloodshot and slightly unfocused. Hobbling stiffly to Chimley’s tree, he saw a blackened branch and picked it up, hurling it. Wake up, Chimley!

Resentfully, Chimley opened one dark eye. Will you two stop that? Two to one that next time you will stick it through my eye.

Xarthanias paid no attention to his nonsensical grumbling. Get up. We’ve lost enough daylight already! We have to move quickly now. We can rest on the ship!

When Chimley joined them on the ground, they sat cross-legged in a circle watching Xarthanias, sprawled on his stomach, draw with a stick on the ground. Alright, so yesterday we made almost two days journey, and we should reach the Verien fork well before sundown. Originally, we were supposed to cross the Volcanic belt in a day but with the way things are going it could very well be three or four. I suppose we will see what happens when we get there but for now we are just going to focus on today. We can camp at the edge of belt in the Verien Forest tonight, so tomorrow we can be well rested to cross into Rena—hopefully it doesn’t really take four days!—and then stay a few hours in Port Aghyml before setting sail. Hopefully tomorrow. Then we can be on our way a few days ahead of the  schedule. We can eat up the rest of our food.  Xarthanias illustrated the plan with lines in the dirt. Nolle was truly astounded to see Xarthanias—who’s default plan for life was “Just Go With It”—formulate such a plausible and efficient course of action. Not to mentions the strain his outspokenly lazy brother was therefore subjecting himself to.

Nolle wasn’t sure why Xarthanias suddenly cared so much about making good time. Up until a few days ago, just after Larentac, the whole thing had either been a game or an annoyance to Xarthanias, not a do-or-die situation. And now, since yesterday, he was more determined than ever. Nolle supposed he should be grateful that Xarthanias was finally taking it seriously, but what were his motives? Why the sudden change?

What had he seen when he looked at the dirty bandage in the mud?

They rode on through the morning, snacking on bread and cheese. If he was concerned for his brother, Nolle was doubly concerned for Belladia. She had grown quiet again, but what scared him was the tentative hope that fluttered around her like a bird, whispering encouragement to her. He tried to think of a way to dissuade her from holding too much meaning to the bandage they had found by the watering hole. She was clinging from her fingernails to the edge of the cliff that was her hope for her brother.

To add on to his grievances, that morning Nolle had discovered that his secret cache of wine was nearly gone. He tried not to think too much on it, focusing instead on the journey. The pace was only slightly slower today, and yet even Chimley lagged behind. When he thought no one was looking, Nolle caught a look of longing on the boy’s normally sarcastic face, and it seemed that he had been subdued as well. Chimley hadn’t even known Fredric and Osarius for a month! Was Nolle the only reasonable one? The only one who didn’t see phantoms where there were only shadows?

He didn’t count the episode earlier that morning. There were ghosts in Chimley’s song. Ghosts of his past—and, he bitterly conceded as thoughts of wine poked their noses around his mind—ghosts of his future.

* * *

As hard as he was trying, Xarthanias found it nearly impossible to outrun the ghosts. He was haunted by Fredric again, and Chanurise. I know you think otherwise, dear nephew, she had told him once, but the truth of the matter is that you can do just as much as Nolle when you set your mind to it. I see through you.

At first when he saw the bandage on the shore, he had been seared by his grief and self-loathing again, of how he had snubbed Fredric. But then, like a ray of sunshine through black storm clouds, his aunt’s words had come to him. He had been nine when she told him this, and he still remembered the day. Looking at Belladia’s face, he had thought to himself that he still had a chance to do something important, like Nolle. It was his journey, after all. Knowing how much she cared for Nolle and even Chimley, he decided that he would get them all to Port Aghyml. Maybe if he could keep her precious Nolleban safe, she would love him at last.

And, he conceded, Nolle was his brother, after all.

Chimley, he didn’t much care for. As far as Xarthanias was concerned, Chimley could go take a swim in the River. Their camaraderie fighting the blue far aside.

His plan had seemed simple in his head. He would come out a hero, swoop Belladia off her feet with his bravery, and maybe even gain some credibility along the way. And he would finally give Aunt Chanurise a reason to be proud of him. His personal mission did, however, prove to be more challenging than he imagined. The air seemed to be cooling, but it was still hot, especially away from the cool river. His back felt like half-cooked meat. Pushing through the torture and keeping everyone else with him nearly consumed his thoughts. Not all, of course. When he felt the darkness coming back, he pushed them all harder, striving for all he was worth to outrun the pain.

It was as effective as swimming in two feet of water.

The tops of the trees of the Verien Forest were just visible ahead. They were almost there. His forehead was pasted with sweat and his legs were starting to ache along with his back, but it didn’t matter. Slowing wheezing Shimmer and patting her steaming neck, he looked around to share the glory but Nolle and Belladia were lost in thought and not paying attention at all. Xarthanias did a double take when he saw Chimley astride Covah, slightly red-faced and even a little sweaty.

So I’m a bit tired! Chimley glared at Xarthanias when he caught him staring. You’re working us like mules. I’m not a mule!

Xarthanias shrugged and looked forward after a beat, forward where his hope lay. For the most part. There was some fear in approaching the forest. What if they crossed paths with another Pessolanian Blue? He didn’t think he could handle another battle. Not to mention that they would be traversing among semi-active volcanic geysers that could spew hot water, lava and ash at any given moment. He hesitated for a moment, uncertain, before narrowing his eyes and angrily kicking Shimmer into a tired canter once again. With a tangible groan, the others followed.

Whatever happened, happened – as Chanurise would say. Ashes or no ashes, blues or no blues.

* * *

As they were pulled along the river, the sun rose higher in the sky and scorched their naked shoulders. Having evened out considerably, the banks were only a few inches above the surface of the river which had narrowed so that both sides could be seen at once. The river was smoothing out, forgetting its rapids and sharp current tugs, but occasionally the raft dipped unexpectedly, splashing them with stinging water and sometimes almost sinking all the way down.  They were almost to the fork, but how would they get out? Boarding had been one trial, and debark was more than a little unfathomable. Nonetheless, walking was the lesser option for the reason that it would take too long to reach the forest. They were nearly unconscious, the heat and the thirst stuffing their orifices with sleep. They babbled aloud to keep themselves awake.

“Alright, here’s a question,” Osarius said after a moment of serious thought. “Have you ever been in love?”

“That’s a stupid question. Why would you want to know that?”

Osarius gazed at the scenery rushing by for a second. They really were nearing the fork and the Verien forest—several dragon blood trees flashed by, along with more alra trees and even a few blue seodyms. To Osarius, seodyms were the quintessence of flowers. Not usually one for noticing or caring about such things, Osarius couldn’t help being enchanted by the fluted blooms like twisted daffodils. “Those are the flowers for your sweetheart, then,” his father used to say when he was a child fascinated by the flowers.

“When I was falling, the first thing I thought about was the children I would never have and the wife I would never marry—and I’m just now realizing my fantasy wife never had a face. I’ve never been in love, and I’m wondering how one would know.”

Fredric tilted his head and then laughed a little. “No, I’ve never been in love! What’s the use of it? If you want to get married and have children, Osarius, then don’t wait for ‘love’. It is an elusive thing, you see, and those who spend too long looking for it or fretting that it isn’t there only end up miserable.” He coughed, then pressed a hand to his suddenly light head. “Find a woman who makes you happy,” he went on, “and has a good heart, and if you make her happy and she thinks that you have a good heart, that’s the size of what anything is going to amount to between the two of you. Love is the stuff of the fanciful dreams of empty-headed flower-weavers.”

Osarius nodded reluctantly. “I suppose you are right. But what about what they call a ‘spark’? When you look at a woman and she is more beautiful than any other woman? You cannot get her out of your mind for more than a moment, and you are enraptured by everything about her? That’s what your father always says about your mother.” He wondered if Commander Kayhas thought the same thing.

Fredric laughed heartily this time. “Osarius, have you turned into a flower-weaver too?” he teased.

Osarius gave a small smile, not showing his disappointment that his friend didn’t understand. “I think not, you old toddy. Hey! What’s that?” Sitting up straight, he pointed. Fredric gave a yell.

Up the river the current began to rush threefold faster, leaves and other debris disappearing over its horizon—a horizon that was shockingly closer than it should have been. A second later they were able to see over it—to the next stretch of river that now curled and rushed at least a hundred feet down, studded with rocks that looked like pebbles but would probably crush them. The fork was visible several hundred yards beyond.

“Another waterfall!” Fredric cried, stomach plummeting as though they had already gone over. He remembered now, that spot on the map.

Panic seized Osarius, and Osarius in turn seized his confidence in his friend. “But you have a plan, right? What are we going to do?” Fredric stared, pale-faced, as the lip of the falls raced toward them. “What are we going to do!” Osarius yelled, shaking Fredric by the shoulders. Osarius’s mind raced, trying to find a solution. This was nothing compared to the Larentac; surely there was a way! They didn’t have enough time for another water-bubble trick.

Still Fredric stared, paralyzed, at the edge of the waterfall. A log passed them on their heavy raft and a few seconds later reached the edge. Scraping on the cold stone beneath the rushing water, it stuck for a moment, making a full ninety degree rotation, before rolling over. A terrifying crack was heard as it struck the rocks below. The raft drew ever-nearer.

“Please, Fredric.”

A beat as Fredric considered. Alas! The problem of debarking was solved, and the fork was very nearby. Fredric snapped out of his stupor. “We’ll jump!” he yelled quite suddenly. “Get ready, Osarius!” Fredric showed him what he intended to do, and Osarius gaped as Fredric ripped the flagpole from the centre of the raft, half-expecting his life to flash before his eyes again. Steadily they accelerated toward the edge, and Fredric’s eyes sharpened, timing his movement carefully. With forceful jabs into the river bed that grew closer to the surface, he propelled them closer to the east shore, fighting the current that tried to keep them in the middle of the river. Shaking with nerves Osarius steeled himself, hoping that Fredric would be correct in his prediction of the physics of his plan. Even Osarius could feel the shakiness of the scheme. The river seemed to laugh at them, delighted finally to consume them.

A few yards before the edge, Fredric planted the pole firmly on the stone riverbed that was now only a few inches below them. Miraculously, the raft accepted its axis and the back of the raft whipped toward the shore, even as the current tried to pull them over. Halfway to where it should have been, however, the raft suddenly caught on the stone, scraping inch by inch toward oblivion. Osarius was still six feet away from the shore. They were about to go over, though, and he had no choice but to jump, managing to land half his body on the bank. Not wasting a half second Fredric followed suit, launching himself from the precariously balanced raft and then using the pole to vault over the water, landing lightly beside a spluttering Osarius still half in and being pulled toward the edge. Before Fredric had completed his trajectory, the raft went over. 

With finality, it cracked on the rocks below.

Osarius struggled to pull himself out of the water. Before the malicious river could drag him over the falls, Fredric hauled him out. They were at the top of the hill, and the fork lay there, maybe half an hour away considering that they now had to walk. Fredric could glimpse pieces of their devastated raft bobbing in the current, nothing but driftwood. A little beyond that was Verien Forest at an hour and a half, close enough to touch! Osarius stared unseeingly, pinching the bridge of his nose.

Wake up, Osarius! We’ve got to keep going! Fredric shook him gently. He grunted in response, cringing. What’s the matter, friend? We made it!

That hurt! I struck my knees on the rocks when I jumped.

Not having any of it, Fredric pulled Osarius to his feet, keeping a hand on his shoulder. He was having trouble finding his land legs, and he was so tired. We are almost there, Osarius. It’s just a few miles now to the Forest, and then I can try to heal you. But for now we cannot rest! The sun will burn our backs.

Wrapping the piece of shirt around the long pole for better grip, Fredric handed it to Osarius. They began the slow procession down the steep hill. At the bottom of the hill, they paused. They saw the rocks at the base of the falls, a few little pieces of their raft and torn shirts trapped between. Stopping for a moment they bowed their heads briefly toward it, acknowledging another victory over the South Ologo, the long reaching arm of the Larentac.

You know, Osarius began as they continued on their way, too tired to try to speak out loud, after the bear attack, Belladia tried to convince me that we should go home, but I couldn’t think of a worse thing to do. It would feel too much like surrender! This really does feel like we are at war with forces beyond us.

Fredric nodded and smiled, relieved. That’s the spirit, Osarius. Don’t let the forces win. Do whatever you have to do to fight whatever is trying to kill us off. We will meet up with the others in the Forest, and we will continue on. We will get Pavliona her gifts and come home again, heroes of our journeys. We will go back to playing fireball and going about our business. Fredric jostled him teasingly. You’ve still got to fall in love, don’t you forget. That’s the first thing you’re going to do when you get home, I will make sure of it!

I thought you didn’t believe in love.

Exactly. That’s why it will be so easy. Do you know who’s been giving you the moony-eyes? Princess Arecia, my uncle’s daughter.

I know who she is, replied Osarius in surprise. She’s been looking at me?

Well, you know. You can never be sure with those girls, but I get the feeling. Fredric made a vague motion with his free hand. But I think that when we get home, you should ask her on a picnic. I assure you she will be smitten.

She’s very pretty, Osarius mused. You’re sure she might be interested in me?

Fredric shot Osarius an unappreciative look. I’m just speculating! Can we discuss more important matters at hand? Like food, when we get to the Forest.

Oh, come on, Fredric!  I had all but forgotten before you went and brought it up again!

They went on, bantering, dreaming also of water for their parched throats, and as the Fork and the Forest drew nearer their spirits lightened. Once in a while they stumbled, falling on shaky legs, but they quickly repressed the pain.

Osarius’s head was feeling clearer, at least, only tiredness from their arduous travels; no longer did musty grey blankets drape over his thoughts. Even as the blistering sun beat down and their empty stomachs complained with every step, there was hope on the horizon enough to keep them moving.

As they labored forward, Fredric tried to puzzle out what had happened to the river, but came up blank. Hopefully they would find a spring in the Forest. He didn’t let himself dwell on the thought, however. Failure wasn’t an option. Even though they didn’t have the chest, Osarius’s life was worth the significance of that box a thousand times over. They would make it.

It’s good to have you here, Osarius confessed out of the blue. His green eyes, though tired, were thoughtful and certain.

Fredric grinned. Where you go, I go. Remember when we wandered far away from the palace, almost on the boarders of Geneya, and you fell out of that tree? You were nine. It was some tree! Broke both your legs and your left wrist.

Osarius winced. Of course I remember. What’s your point?

I didn’t leave you then, either. I stayed with you all night and through the morning until someone finally found us, even if it would have been smarter to go and get help. Where you have fallen, I will stay. Through doom and darkness, from the beginnings of the world to the ends; where you go, I go.

Osarius cringed as he tripped over uneven ground. Where have I heard that before? he wondered, carefully clearing his expression.

Me. I just said it.

Rolling his eyes a little, Osarius flicked Fredric’s shoulder. No, I read it somewhere. I know you say that a lot, but you didn’t come up with it. Wasn’t that what Remi Aldarian said to Cleri Loman? Wasn’t that part you just said to me in that awful song?

Aldarian’s Ballad? I don’t know. I don’t read.

Me neither. Osarius laughed a little.

Neither could cover the fact anymore that the travelling was becoming exceedingly rough. They were both shirtless and slick with sweat, their hair was pasted, eyes stinging, and tongues dry as dust. Every step became an effort, distending the previously estimated half hour of travel into more than an hour and a half, and when they finally reached the fork it was hard not to simply collapse on the banks. Only the tops of the trees of the Verien Forest were visible from this standpoint. Their bodies were exhausted, but their spirits were still hopeful. Osarius’s eyes drifted shut, his breaths coming in ragged pulls. Fredric had to wonder if they were not simply about to die, and though his lucidity was in question after a few minutes of delicious rest he forced them to continue on.

The River Verien was a more courteous river than the dreadful South Ologo, and as they walked along her banks the dreadful monster angled away from them, eventually disappearing. Verien was only about twenty feet across, and her riverbed rocks were smooth and colourful, shining in the sun like jewels. Of which there may have been many, but the weary young men were too focused on putting each foot forward to check. And the water’s innocent clarity became like a torturous mirage. Along with the thirst, their hunger and tired feet and slick but burning skin vied neck-and-neck for attention as the prominent misery. When the edge of the Verien forest became visible they quieted, watching their solace approach.

An hour after the wondrous forest came into view, Osarius and Fredric stepped through into its cool shady embrace. Breathlessly, they fell against a wide-trunked thatis tree, almost in tears with relief. Except there was hardly any water left in their bodies. Laughing exhaustedly they shook their heads in wonder. We made it! Fredric said, his thought like an exclamation point.

Osarius, half-delirious and only half awake, happily scooped handfuls of heavenly moist earth to press to his face, delighting in its coolness. Indeed. Let’s sleep a while before going on.

Good idea, Fredric wanted to say. No, Osarius! Who knows what we will find here.

Pulling Osarius up, he led them to an overgrown path that would take them to the edge of the forest strip. Though Fredric had not been to the Verien Forest in almost five years, he remembered the path well, its many quirks and curves. The trees were tightly packed and the underbrush was thick, difficult to manoeuver over. The path twisted and circled.

When he was twelve Fredric had climbed high in one of the catcia trees to see that in several places the path made wide spirals into itself before spiralling outward again, and it zigzagged, and it weaved from side to side. It was surely not an animal path. Fredric wondered at the sanity of whoever had made it. He and his father had gone to the port by crossing the Strip three or four times before four years ago, and as a young boy he had found the crazy path exciting and fun. Today it was unnecessarily long and tiring, and disorienting.

They were rounding one of its many bends when Osarius lifted his head and stared with dim excitement into the trees. Look.

Fredric had been keeping his eyes to the ground to keep them from tripping. Shielded by the packed trees, a small, irregularly shaped pond rested about a hundred metres in, nearly invisible. Sparkling. Inviting. Surrounded by thorny vines and bushes.

How do we get to it? Osarius wondered.

Carefully, I guess. His mind filled with nearly inconceivable longing for the water.

They tried to help each other step-hop over the worst of it, but in some places it was high enough to scratch their stomachs and chests.

Steady now. Some of this could be poisonous.

Of course. Why wouldn’t it be?

They were streaming with blood by the time they reached the pond. The banks around the pond were smooth with soft grass, and the sun was almost completely blocked out. They tripped over each other in their eagerness to fall upon the pond. The water tasted slightly off, but not enough to discourage their thirst. Osarius admitted that it stung a little when it touched the scratch on his shoulder, but it was the best that they had. It caressed their parched throats and sunburned skin. Under the tree canopy the darkness touched their burned skin with wonderfully cool fingers, and never had they felt more in luxury.

They collapsed in the blanket of the grass, barely out of the pool before their eyes refused to open. Fredric had no idea how long the slept there, and he couldn’t bring himself to care.

Osarius slowly drifted away when he felt sunlight touch his face. Groaning, he rolled over to see Fredric sprawled beside him, breathing softly but otherwise appearing dead as a corpse. Osarius glanced the other way and then saw that the sun was angled low in the sky, on the opposite side of where it had been yesterday. Had they slept all of yesterday and last night? He grimaced as he pushed himself upright. His knees were purple, his feet red and blistered, and his skin tender and peeling. Gingerly, he waded into the pool and drank his fill again, trying to ease the scratchiness in his throat.

His stomach growled so loudly that Fredric stirred, then blinked awake. Tempting though it was to keep sleeping on the soft grass and never leave the precious water, they had to find food.

Come on, Osarius, Fredric insisted dejectedly after he had taken his turn in the pool. Back through the thorns. Their work by the pond was undone as new streams of blood flowed, and they looked like bloody victims once again. Though their thirst was momentarily quenched and they felt a little more refreshed, the two were exceptionally hungry. And still quite tired. By the time they reached the end of the path, the sun was beginning its decent, and Fredric and Osarius were half asleep again. At first when Fredric saw the ocean in front of them, he was certain that he was dreaming. In a distant part of his mind he knew he should be seeing the rocky, blackened terrain of the flat of the Volcanic Belt, not a sea. He almost asked where they were before catching sight of the hulking volcanoes a little in the distance on either side of the sea, and a bright red patch of nirelea right where he remembered it.

They had arrived at the Volcanic Belt, after all. 

The vegetation seemed to be in the process of dying; it was brown and wilted. The leaves on the nirelea were brittle and eaten through with holes. A powerful odour of decay permeated the air.

And who was screaming? Fredric wondered. Suddenly he was wide awake. The whole scene was like a dream; the dying plants, the water, and in the midst of it—a wood-and-stone house on the sea.

A house that was buckling, crumbling, slowly being consumed. The entire scene was punctuated by the despairing screams.

* * *

It was all happening faster than she had predicted. Much too fast. It was one thing to know that you were going to die, a completely different matter when it was happening in actuality. Her life, over. She was trapped. A captain goes down with his ship like a scientist goes down with her research house. Violent tremors rocked the house as it collapsed, fueling the chain reaction. It was as though a giant hand was pounding her home, knocking Alapar off her feet several times.

She wasn’t ready to die like her father. Still she wouldn’t let her tears flow, though she was unable to delude herself any longer. This was the end, the conclusion of all she was. Even though she knew that when the house finally fell she would have a farther way to fall, she had climbed to the top floor. What did it matter how far she fell? That was not what would kill her.

She had been huddled in a corner of her room when the massive oak bookshelf leaning against the wall had been pitched forward. The shelf landed on her arm before she could get away, pinning it down. Moaning—could this get any worse?—she had determinedly tried to pull herself free before realizing that she still had her orbalite pendant. It wasn’t completely useless after all. When she was free she had dragged herself to the window and started to scream, punishing the world for trapping her here. Screaming wasn’t the same as crying.

Her life, over.

The world was like a dream now, she thought as she quivered under her window. She wasn’t really going to be devoured and dissolved, she told herself. This was all an awful nightmare. She was screaming and her father would walk into her room at any moment to wake her up so he could get some sleep. They had a lot of work to do in the morning…The façade shattered as the house crashed down again, rendering Alapar momentarily airborne before she thumped back to the floor. Her injured arm was thrown against the hardwood floor. She had never been in more pain.

Her thirst should have paled in light of all her other misgivings. She fully felt it; her misery was insurmountable. Dangling on the edge of consciousness, she screamed and screamed until her throat was completely dry. Low moans escaped her cracked lips, and her arm shot arrows of pain at her heart. Through the tunnel of her mind she felt something loud pound her ears, and she was jolted fully awake when the house went crashing down again. Oh, the beautiful house that she and her father had made…Her father…Her life, over and gone

…and who was screaming? She lifted her head. Alapar was certain that it wasn’t her. She couldn’t scream anymore, her tongue was a swollen, useless piece of rubber. Someone was shouting outside, she reasoned dejectedly, closing her eyes again.

Someone was outside!

Pushing herself to her feet with her good arm, she peered outside. Thunderclaps continued to rock the house. Squinting in the sunlight shining in the west, she was able to make out two figures at the edge of the Verien Strip. Two dirty, bare-chested boys, a dark blond haired one and one with light red hair. They shouted something when they saw her, but the words were lost in the distance between them. Touching the blue pendant around her neck, she thought to them: I can’t hear you.

You need to get out of there! came a thought, resounding urgently in her head. The boys had stopped shouting. Squinting a little harder, she could just catch sight of a glint of blue against their naked chests. Orbalite pendants.

You think I don’t know that? Alapar replied, trying to drag up as much vehemence as she could. Her heart did jump a little, however. Maybe this wasn’t the end after all! The redhead motioned at his companion and stepped to the edge of the floodplain.

I’m coming to get you. Waves appeared on the surface of the water, and the water slowly started to part before the boy, rising up on either side.

No! Alapar mentally screamed. The water crashed back into place, and the boy’s head shot up to her. There’s something in the water that repels telekinetic energy, though not right away. You’ll be a few steps in and then you will lose control. The water is powerfully acidic, and you will be dissolved before you can get out!

What! That’s terrible!

Again the house buckled, and this time the entire foundation gave way. The house listed to the side. Alapar spilled out the window. 

She had a few screams left in her, after all.

She had no choice but to hold on to the window sill with both arms as the house tipped back again, slamming her against the siding. The house continued to fall until the stone was completely demolished, leaving nothing but the uneven wooden walls. Alapar dangled from the window, nearly losing her grip with each impact, barely able to breathe from the pain in her arm. She turned and could see the boy almost perfectly now, his desperate eyes as he gazed in frustration at her. He was older than she had thought, a man, it seemed, and his skin was streaked with blood and dried dirt.

Please, you’ve got to help me! The wood would be gone in ten minutes, if not less, since she had been wrong before. And then it was her turn. She tried to wriggle back into the house. It bucked, and her face knocked against the sill again. A flash blinded her, and she was certain she was dead.

Take off your pendant! The man said suddenly, jerking her awake.

What? she demanded. The thought of leaving it behind to dissolve made her sick.

The chain’s long enough, isn’t it? Take it off!

A crack and a jolt, and the house jerked again.

Hurry! The man insisted impatiently.

Stifling her sentimentality, and mustering her strength, Alapar kicked and wormed until she was draped over the window sill, and quickly ripped the pendant from her neck. She could suddenly see where he was going with his train of thought. And what was worth more, a bauble or herself, filled with actual memories of her father? Resolutely, she threw it to the corner of her room and then squeezed her eyes shut, nodding for the man.

The queerness of being wrapped in a mindmap  momentarily distracted her. Invisible hands seemed to enclose her from the inside and push out, gripping her soul unbreakably. She rose off the sill, limp arm hanging at her side, and was gently pulled out the window.

How often had she dreamed of flying? As though she were drifting on a breath of air, she floated high above the acid sea, high above her defeated home. The house sunk lower into the floodwaters, viciously being yanked in. Its life, over.

Her feet touched the ground, a foot away from the boy. She had never worn shoes in their house, and by the time she had realized she might want them in the future—her only pair—they were already sizzling in a pool of acid downstairs.

She was like a sailor who hadn’t quite found her sea legs. The blond boy reached a hand to help steady her, and she could see that they were both bloody messes. Not even that could take her attention from the fact that she was alive.

A new rush of tears overtook her and she swayed, only saved from falling by the boy who had saved her. She didn’t know his name, or care that he was half naked or that her arm was probably broken. He sank to the ground with her and she clung to him with her good arm, shaking from the effort of suppressing her tears. A hiccupping sob escaped her, but her face remained dry.

How could this be? The volcanoes had erupted only a few weeks ago, and she and her father had been excited to go and collect samples and learn a little more about what lay beneath the mountains. The next day they had been surrounded by the newly armoured water with a penchant for destruction; it had attacked and broken through the barrier of the Verien’s banks and then murdered her father, and now her house. Everything she had ever known from the time she was a little girl…If only they had listened to those who said the Belt was too dangerous, no place for a Princess to be. They had tried to warn them…

But she knew she would not trade back the wonderful years of research and work alongside her father for anything, except maybe his life. Invaluable was the time they had spent together, doing what they both loved. If they hadn’t been exiled from the palace, Alapar knew they would have missed out on the best years of their lives.

She stared as the house finally collapsed into the water, the sound like arrows to her heart. Their lives together, over.

Barely fifteen minutes had passed when the boy stiffened, his head jerking up. He stopped breathing. In her mind, Alapar was suddenly touched by voices that grew more pronounced, more intrusive, with each second. She could hear rustling in the trees, and the occasional whicker of horses. And then, they appeared on the path, three riders and a person walking. The riders—two boys and a striking young woman—were blond and the walker, a boy, was chillingly handsome with his dark features. All had bloodshot eyes and haggard faces. None were much older than her.

All four of them stopped abruptly upon seeing the three figures on the ground. Their mouths dropping open. Alapar stiffened as well. Was it that audacious that she was on the forest floor with two bare-chested young men? The woman gave a little shriek, slapping her hand over her mouth. The boys’ eyes grew wide as saucers, and slowly they lowered the reins to the necks of their mounts. The dark-haired boy squinted as though there were something in his eyes. They all looked like they had seen a ghost. Or a scandalous display beyond their wildest nightmares.

The two blond boys seemed to be twins. One of them moved at last, peering incredulously at Alapar and her rescuers.

Osarius? Fredric? he finally asked, the questioning cautious in her mind. Is that you?

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