Fear the unknown

Chapter twenty-two: Fear the Unknown

Though Fredric hadn’t imagined their reunion in detail, he never would have expected himself to cry. His shock could not have compared to that of Xarthanias, Nolle, Belladia and Chimley, but he was stunned motionless at the sight of them. Belladia and Osarius looked as though the shock would kill them, and Xarthanias was swaying on his feet. After a moment of staring at each other, the building pandemonium burst forth.

It is you!” Xarthanias yelled—thoughts were not big enough, loud enough, for what he was feeling—lurching stiffly to fall next to Osarius and Fredric. Consequently, he nearly crushed the dark-haired girl and a few stitches opened on his back. Nolle followed suite, bewildered and amazed but bursting with joy. Belladia tumbled from her horse to tearfully crush her brother.

“They thought you were dead!” she shrieked.

Osarius pressed his lips to the top of her head, his tears darkening her fair hair. He was soon grinning. The five clambered to their feet and jumped and danced with excitement, shouting and whooping and crying so hard it could be heard for miles. Xarthanias left bruises on Fredric’s arms from gripping them so hard, and it was difficult to keep from bumping his ruined back. Though Chimley didn’t hug anyone, he nodded at Fredric and Osarius, his smile wide enough to split his face. At last, his eyes glittered like obsidian instead of soot.

“Oh, come here, you miserable toddy!” Osarius laughed, drawing Chimley in and flattening him against his chest. Chimley’s eyes darkened and he made a small hissing noise, causing everyone to whoop and laugh even louder. Fredric couldn’t resist embracing the boy as well, and then Chimley retreated to a low bough to watch and laugh out of reach. Jovially, Fredric kissed Belladia, and everyone but Xarthanias, who was already tired, bounced uncontrollably with joy. Fredric roughly pounced on Fang, cooing over her and passing his hands over her shining hide. Osarius was not quite as exuberant in his greeting of Covah, but she was obviously happy to see him again.

At the moment, nothing—not their fatigue nor their hunger nor pain, nor the dark-haired girl—mattered aside from one another.

Vibrating with excitement, Osarius described every moment from the fall. Every now and then the friends couldn’t resist another stifling embrace or a dance or a shriek, though it was clear who the centre of attention was. Fredric had never really been a part of the group consisting of the oldest Yugo children and the twins, and he and Xarthanias had been at odds with each other for years. Fredric tried to join in the telling, but after a few failed attempts to insert himself into the story he turned his attention to the confused and bedraggled girl they had rescued from the floodplain. She was seated near a tall tree, one arm wrapped around her knees, watching the wild scene with quizzical and weary eyes. Fredric was suddenly aware of his semi-nakedness in a way that he wasn’t when Belladia had hugged and kissed him—this was a strange girl.

Hello, Miss, he thought to her carefully, keeping his distance and watching her with an equally weary expression.

“If you’re going to talk to me,” she said, levelling dark brown eyes on him, “use your voice.” There was more aloofness in her words than in her voice. Her guarded and watchful expression reminded him of a wolf at the mercy of a much powerful but unfamiliar adversary. He remembered how she had been clinging to him earlier, unbreakably but still vulnerable. Sympathy played at his heart for her, and he sat next to her, leaning against the tree.

“Of course. Begging your pardon.” She nodded, keeping her appraising gaze on him. Some of her limp, stringy, dark hair was stuck to the bark of the tree, and to a corner of her mouth marred with a collection of red, rash-like blotches. Despite these, there was strength in her face, and it made her delicate, sculpted features captivating. He wondered that she had been living by herself in the house on the acid sea; she looked no older than sixteen. Maybe seventeen.

He had many questions for her; he had the feeling that she would know something about what had happened to the Belt and the Strip. However, he could see in her shadowed dark eyes that she was in no position to be questioned. So he would do the talking. “I cannot guess how confused you must be. There’s no simple way to explain, as what you see here”—he motioned vaguely at his jubilating friends—“is the product of a fairly long story. How about we start with the simple.” She nodded and cast her eyes downward, and his heart made a little jump. He inclined his head. “Prince Fredric Dalen of Rahd, pleased to make your acquaintance. And you are…?”

“Fredric!” Chimley called before she could answer, startling Fredric with his voice. “Who’s your friend?” And suddenly, the reunion party was paused and muted, focused on them. Alapar looked like she was making a serious decision. Fredric started to reply, but then stopped and turned to her when he realized he didn’t know. Her gaze flitted from him to Chimley to everyone else, skin growing ever tighter and paler.

“Alapar of Adlin, Rena,” she replied after nodding to herself. “It means ‘still waters’ in Caredish.”

Be careful, alright? Fredric thought to them, shielding the message. She’s very fragile right now, traumatized. Osarius nodded. Still, they weren’t entirely sure what to do or say until Belladia stepped forward.

“What happened to your arm, sweetheart?” she asked gently. Surprised, Fredric glanced down to see that Alapar’s left arm was swollen and bruised, a small scratch seeping a trail of beads of blood impressed on the alabaster skin. Smattered there also were a splattering of red blotches like the ones on her face. Her other arm had a similar pattern of scarlet blotches. Kneeling next to her and gently taking the arm, Belladia examined it. The rest, tired from standing, also came to sit near them. Chimley joined them as well, though he kept his distance.

Alapar sighed, seeming annoyed. “A heavy shelf fell on it. It’s not broken, but it hurts very much. Also, some watermelon with acidic juice.” She indicated her other arm and opened her mouth, which was also splotchy. “It seems they grew too close to the flood plain.

Belladia nodded. “I don’t know what happened to you, Alapar, but it seems you have been on quite the adventure.” That was putting it mildly, even from what little Fredric had seen.

Alapar licked her lips, cracked and stained with blood. “I’m very thirsty, too. Have you any water?”

Belladia held out her hand for her flask, which floated to her from Keana’s saddlebag. There was less than a quarter left, and she reluctantly told Alapar to drink it all once she saw how thirsty she was.

“It’s alright,” Fredric said quickly, standing. “Let her drink the rest of everyone’s; there’s a pond about half an hour back where Osarius and I drank today. It tastes a little strange, but it is drinkable.”

“Really?” said Nolle in surprise. “We didn’t see anything.”

Chimley smirked, and they stared daggers at him. Innocently he shrugged. There were quite a few ponds along the way. Did you expect to mention all of them to you?

“I will go and fill them. You look after Osarius and Alapar, alright?”

“I want to go with you, Fredric,” said Nolle. “You can’t go by yourself!”

Fredric shook his head. “I will be alright. We all have work to do, now. I will get water, and you and Osarius help Belladia with gathering and healing.”

Belladia pursed her lips. “Yes, there is lots to gather. Have you and Osarius had anything to eat? I could count all your ribs from a hundred feet away.” Her eyes were light and teasing, and she squeezed her brother’s hand.

“No,” Osarius agreed tiredly, sheepishly probing his concave stomach.

“And Xarthanias…” Her eyes tightened. The Prince was drooping toward the ground with fatigue from the sudden excitement, his ravaged skin looking horrid in the mottled light. He was pale, and sweaty. He carefully settled himself at the base of a tree, leaning forward painfully to keep his back from touching the rough bark. The reunion had drained the rest of his energy. “Supper first. I’m not getting any better.”

They insisted that Alapar, Fredric and Osarius eat the last of their bread and cheese, and half a hard raspberry roll. They would be in Rena in no more than two days. The tension in Alapar’s shoulders lessened as they ate, though she still regarded everyone but Fredric and Belladia—and especially dark, brooding Chimley—with watchful ill-ease. Nolle, Belladia and Xarthanias were unsure of where to look as the three ate, not wanting to stare. Alapar kept close to Fredric’s side, finding safety in pressing against him though she had been distant with him earlier. She was as bony as they were, and he could feel tiny tremors going through her body. Uncertainly, he patted her arm in attempted comfort.

“So,” Nolle said after a few moments of awkward silence. “What happened after you left the watering hole beside South Ologo?”

Osarius lit up. “We kept going as far as we could, but we were so thirsty, we couldn’t wait for you.” Fredric ate a little faster, impatient to leave to get the water for Belladia. “And of course, Fredric had the perfect solution.” Osarius smiled at Fredric, and explained how they had made their raft and floated down the river.

“So that’s what happened to your clothes,” said Belladia. A serious front replaced her impishness. “Thank you for taking such good care of my brother.”

Fredric grinned at her widely, brushing aside the solemnity, and reached to grasp her hand. “It was a lot of fun!”

They had finished their meagre meal by the time Osarius reached the part where they had to crawl through the brambles to get to the pool of water just off the Strip path. Most of the ponds they came across had brambles growing around them. That species just loved water.

Wiping his mouth on his arm, Fredric stood. “I’d better get going. It shouldn’t take me too long now that I have Fang to ride.”

Surprisingly, Alapar pushed to her feet as well. “Let me go with you…Fredric. I know what pool you’re talking about, and I can do some gathering there for you. My father and I—that pool was our medicine cabinet.” Nolle glanced at Belladia and Osarius, who looked pained. After a moment they reluctantly nodded.

“You can take Ribbon, Alapar,” Nolle said slowly, pointing at his horse. His eyes were creased with worry.

Fredric was pleased that Alapar was going with him. “We will be right back,” Fredric assured them as he swung up onto Fang, delighting in the feel of riding her again. He longed to ride bareback, but he needed the saddlebags to carry all of their water flasks. Alapar hesitantly shuffled to Ribbon, lifting the reigns uncertainly and flinching when the horse snorted. Gingerly she patted the horse’s forehead, and then examined the saddle with a calculating expression.

“Have you never ridden before?” Fredric finally asked, fighting a smile. She shook her head helplessly, her face turning a delicate shade of pink. Gracefully dismounting again Fredric went to her and instructed her to put one foot in the stirrup, and then helped her into the saddle. Her dress, however, soon proved that she couldn’t ride side saddle and still keep up a good pace. Finally, Fredric decided that she would ride with him.

“We will be back,” Fredric reassured his friends again once he and Alapar were comfortably settled, winking at them. They had watched with skeptical expressions.

“Wait,” Nolle said before they could leave. Fredric cringed as he glimpsed the fading sunlight. Night would settle sooner and more thickly in the clearing. Even this afternoon the light had been like dusk. “You said you have to go through brambles to get to the pool? Take my shirt.” Removing his black fibre shirt he floated it to Fredric, who accepted it gratefully more for the reason that Alapar wouldn’t be touching his burnt, scraped skin anymore. Saluting, he nudged Fang into a smooth canter onto the winding path.

The forest was draped in hot, moist air, and as they entered the thicker trees the repugnant scent of decay grew stronger. The darkness inched over them; Fredric grew more ill at ease, his eyes darting of their own accord to shadows and broken limbs of trees, and he startled at each sound. Soon, he noticed that the only real sounds were that of the cracking trees. Other than this, the Verien Forest was disturbingly silent.

“Anyway,” Fredric began, lowering his voice when it rang unnervingly in the stillness, “I suppose I should continue on. You are probably more confused than ever after Osarius’s little story.”

Alapar made a small sound of agreement behind him, and he felt her nod against him in her death grip.

“But,” he went on pointedly, letting his smile blossom into his voice, “I am equally curious and confused about you.” She said nothing, her arms tightening impossibly around him. He went on quickly. “I shall go first. Osarius sort of stole my moment, so I’d like a chance to tell our story!” He laughed, but the sound was hollow, even to his own ears. He flicked aside a willowy branch so they could ride under, glancing at the golden tops of the sunset-brushed trees. “As I said before, I’m Fredric. In my country it is a rite of passage of the crown prince to lead a pilgrimage to the island of Vaupen bearing gifts for the present Queen. Xarthanias, the sick one with the damaged back, is my cousin, the crown prince, and I was chosen among his friends to join his Escort. Along with his brother Nolle, my friend Osarius and Osarius’s sister Belladia. We picked up Chimley on the way. He’s the dark one whose eyes suck the light from the world. The journey has been hard!”

He gazed beseechingly at the sky for a remedy for the pathetic understatement, his hands twining in Fang’s mane. “We nearly lost the gifts for the queen and had to fight a massive Pessolanian blue—well I didn’t actually fight it but Xarthanias and Chimley did, and it attacked Xarthanias which is why his back is such a mess—and then Osarius and I fell off the Larentac—Well…Osarius fell and I jumped after him—and then we rode the South Ologo on the raft I designed. It got smashed though, when the river tried to pitch us over another little waterfall with nasty rocks at the bottom. We managed to jump out just in time, and then we had to go through the Arid Grassland with nothing on our backs but our blistering skin. Finally we got to the Verien, and she gave us hope until we reached the forest strip. This beautiful forest.” Touched with gratefulness and joy, he knew his mother’s spirit had made him see the light at last. Lovingly he traced the trunk of a passing tree with his hand. “From this day forward, Verien means Hope and Joy. For here we were returned to our friends, and we saved you, Alapar.” He turned to smile at her. His smile faded, however, when he took in the despair in her eyes. She looked away quickly. “I suppose that’s the end of the story as far as I can tell it,” Fredric sighed. “I do wish I knew how the others fared after the fall…but that is for when we return.”

Twenty more minutes of heavy silence. “Wonderful!” Relieved, he slowed Fang. “The pool.”

At once he cursed within himself. Why had he not asked for a knife? The brambles were high and thick. The previous cuts on his skin were only newly closed. “These thorns will tear your dress apart. I will go over, and you can throw the flasks to me, alright?”

“Fredric, I have to go with you to get the plants for your friend’s medicine. There is another way to get to the pool.” Shakily she slipped from Fang’s back, landing unsteadily on her feet and ambling forward on the path. Shrugging, Fredric went after her. She went just past the bramble thicket to a tall, green-bark thatis and shuffled halfway around it, mindful of the brambles reaching only an arm’s breadth from behind. She began to climb the shadowy tree, bare feet silent and sure. Squeezing between the tree and the thicket, Fredric saw that boards were nailed into the trunk to make a ladder that disappeared into the thick foliage. He followed Alapar up, Fang whickering nervously when they vanished into the leaves.

The light improved minutely, enough for him to see the large wooden bucket—big enough for two people—hanging about a foot and a half over a wooden platform attached to an unsteady bough. An eyelet on the wide arc of the handle of the bucket was attached to a cable strung between their tree and a low branch of a tree across the clearing. He hadn’t noticed it the first time he had been there. The pool was grey in the shadow of the trees, and the cable glittered darkly.

Now that he could see the ground, impossibly far below, Fredric was having trouble catching his breath. He had thought that maybe he was over his fear of heights after the Larentac fiasco, but it seemed he had thought wrong. He would rather brave the thorns.

Alapar tied the end of a piece of rope to the bucket handle, and then she held out her hand for him to help her in. Reluctantly, he climbed in after her, biting back his cry when the contraption tipped dangerously. Alapar fiddled with a metal hook-clip above their heads, and turned to see the green look on his face.

A tiny smile touched her dry lips. “You’re not afraid, Fredric,” she chastised, her eyes creased.

He shook his head, swallowing hard and mustering a smile. “Of course not.”

She motioned to the blue pendant around his neck. “I can feel your fear like a fever radiating from your skin. That was a good try, though. There is nothing to be afraid of. My father and I have been using this zip line for years to get to the pool. It’s much better than cutting down the brambles. They are valuable for when you are going on a long trip and are hungry, you know.” She relaxed a little as she talked, and her hands completed whatever task she had above her. Fredric tried to concentrate on her voice to quell the queasiness in his stomach. What was wrong with him? He had had little fear going after Osarius at the Falls… “Ready?” she asked him, pausing with her hand on the clip.

He gazed uneasily down at the ground, soft with mossy grass. It would be harder than rock when they hit it. “Well, actually I—”

Alapar released the clip.

Fredric, about to jump from the bucket and take his chances with the brambles, nearly tumbled out as the contraption lurched from the platform. In less than three seconds the heart-wrenching ride was over, but Fredric’s head spun. He grasped the edge of the basket, struggling to catch his breath so he could escape. Peeking at Alapar, he saw that she was far away again, but she smiled a little when she caught his eye.

“You know, for someone who would jump off the Larentac and raft down the South Ologo, and walk shirtless through the Arid Grassland so you can cross the Volcanic Belt, you are quite the shaky-boots. I’m starting to believe what you told me was nothing but a story after all.”

He sniffed and straightened his back, climbing nonchalantly to the ground and holding his hand out to her. “Who are you calling shaky-boots?” he muttered. She was right. His mother was right. Fear had its place…and these were hardly dire circumstances. He smiled sheepishly at her, trying not to throw up. She looked away after a moment, the small happiness snuffed out of her like a candle in the wind. Head held high, she strode across the soft grass. She kneeled near a thicket at the pools edge. For a moment her hands appeared to be busy. She sighed and stared at the smooth surface of the pool.

What beauty, Fredric thought, even this ghostly version in the atmosphere bled of colours. She was like a despondent water nymph, kneeling by that pool: her long, tangled black hair, lovely, pallid face, and downcast, long-lashed eyes. Who was this girl? Why had she been in that house on the floodplain all by herself?

“What’s your story?” Fredric asked curiously, at last going to her and sprawling next to her. He wanted to put an arm around her, this strange girl who was already like his friend. But he sensed a coldness around her that didn’t welcome affection. There was maybe an hour and a half until nightfall, an hour till sunset. If they weren’t back before dark, his friends would worry, maybe come after them, but in the spirit of the moment he didn’t care. He didn’t even care that Xarthanias was waiting, that miserable toddy.

Alapar was silent for a long moment, taking the time to uncurl her legs from under her and dangle her bare feet in the water. She swallowed, smoothing her palms on her dress. Her quiet voice was even and low.

“My father was a scientist from Rena,” she began, at last casting her eyes on him. “He lived and breathed and was science. He always wanted to live his science in a real way, and about a year after my mother died we moved here. I think I was ten. It wasn’t always easy, living here, but none of the eruptions were ever terribly big, and we had a lava-moat around our house, a house that we built together. I loved the science because my father did, and it was a way to get close to him like I never could before. Soon I loved it for myself as well. I loved living on the Belt. I was so happy.” She bit her lip and hardened her voice. “Not long ago there was an eruption from Mount Ciragid. It had showed signs of having been dormant so long we always thought it was dead, even had picnics on its lip. It was a nice, quiet place to think and watch the forest and the belt around us without being noticed. Observe birds and the like.

“It wasn’t a bad eruption save for the abnormal density of the ash, hardly any lava at all, and we waited as usual for the ash to clear. When it was safe enough to go out, we were shocked to find that the Belt was flooded with water. Not as bad as you saw today, only a few inches in low places, but it had filled the moat. It was a horror to find any water there when it hadn’t rained. The water continued to rise steadily, and by the end of the next day it was two feet above the moat. We took samples from the water and a little ash residue. The ash formed incredibly powerful acid when mixed with water. The River Verien had eaten through her own banks and flooded the Belt. My father and I were trapped.

“He always said that every problem had a solution, every question an answer. He and I both thought—I a little foolishly—that he was smart enough to do anything. It took him only an hour to puzzle out an answer. Taking his orbalite pendant from the cabinet where we kept them locked up, he went to the side porch after explaining to me his plan. It didn’t sit well with me even though I didn’t say anything at the time. No matter how many times he told me to follow my instincts, to stop and think no matter how small a bad feeling I had, I was so desperate that he would get us out of there that I held my tongue, telling myself that he knew what he was doing.” Her voice broke. “The stone stairs were flooded, and the water was only about three inches from the top of the porch. He pushed the caustic water away and then parted it, clearing a path on the rocky ground. He stepped down and onto the path, the water suspended at three times his height all around him like the jaws of a frozen beast. I was so reluctant to join him when he turned and called to me, telling me to come. I thought it was my imagination when I saw the jaws start to tremble—of course my father could hold it, I thought—and I was just about to muster the nerve when it all crashed back down on him…” A shuddering hiccup interrupted her. “I—I tested the water…there’s”—she tried to fight the thickness in her voice—“something in it that slowly repels telekinetic energy…I—my father was eaten by—”

Alapar lowered her head in her hands, breathing deep, hitching breaths. Not hesitating this time, Fredric scooted closer to her and hugged her to his side, absorbing her tearless sobs. For a moment she clutched his arm in a death grip before pulling away, shaking her head forcefully.

“I—I’m sorry,” she gasped. He shook his head gently, trying to draw her to him again, but she pulled herself to her feet and took another deep breath. “We’ve managed to waste most of the daylight we have left,” she managed, voice ragged. Reluctantly rising as well, Fredric stood uncertainly a little ways off. “You fill the canteens, alright? I will see what I can find for your friend. Xarthanias. And for me also, to treat these acid burns, and for other scrapes and scratches – Pessolanian blue, you said? Their claws are particularly nasty. I can’t count the times my father comes…came…home scratched up from them. I know exactly what we need. He was always so fascinated by them…” She continued to talk as she drifted along the edge of the clearing. Fredric only half listened to her edgy chatter, turning her story over in his mind. So that was why all the animals were heading north. The blues, the red onion worms. Why the forest sounded so empty. What still didn’t make sense to him was why the belt was so flooded. And why the South Ologo was so acidic as well. Even if the wind had carried that much ash over the mountains, it would have cleared after a day at the most. And they would have seen something…He knew more now, and yet knew less than before.

They loaded their herbal spoils into the bucket after only twenty-five minutes—Alapar truly did know what she was doing, and barely even took pause as she meandered confidently from bush to tree to flower bed—and Fredric tried not to let his sickness of the ride show as she fiddled again with the system of cable and ropes above them. They slowly began their ascent to the tree when she established a sequence of steady pulls on the ropes. Though stiff, her movements were strong and sure. He kept his eyes squeezed shut.

When they reached the platform on the tree, Alapar nimbly clambered up and down the ladder with the full flasks to secure them to Fang’s saddle. Meanwhile, Fredric secretly caught his breath on the platform. They hadn’t thought to bring a bag for what they had gathered in the clearing, so Alapar fashioned Fredric’s black shirt—Xarthanias’s shirt—into a bindle. The path was only just visible by the time they set off again at a near gallop, not saying anything. Alapar rested her cheek on Fredric’s sunburned back, exhausted. Her clasped hands pressing against his stomach were steadily growing cooler along with the night. He squinted against the darkness, his heart sinking when the last rays of light died away, slipping the forest into its final blackness. The path disappeared.

Wonderful, he thought with a sigh. What now? He hadn’t quite perfected his spacing abilities, and was about to dismount and lead Fang when he saw a small light flicker up ahead. The light was dim, fluttering like an uncertain butterfly. Gradually it grew confidence until it shone with the brightness of a fallen star. His first impression had been that it was a torch of one of his friends, searching for them since they hadn’t returned before dark, but what blue fire was this? Another light flickered on and strengthened right beside the first, and another not too far away from that. They began to ignite in twos, then fives, and then they seemed to all come on by the dozens, fanning toward them. The path shot up into blazing relief once more, and Fredric saw that they were in a fork, about to go the wrong direction into the forest. Backtracking, Fredric gaped at the fallen stars around him. Some fluttered by his face with wispy appendages like thin feathers. A phantom owl, illuminated in blue, ghosted briefly overhead before disappearing among the glowing trees. So the forest was not empty.

How had he forgotten this magic? he wondered. On their travels, his family ordinarily kept away from the Verien Forest at night for fear of blues, volcano wolves and siederharks, but once when Fredric was twelve they had skirted the inside edge so his mother could show him the lights. Nearly everything in the forest glowed. Verien, he remembered vaguely from his mother’s explanation, was Teidekan for “clear night sky”.

He smiled brokenly to himself, his heart constricting ever so slightly. He could just see his mother’s slender finger trailing over a glowing mushroom, feel his father’s arm around his small shoulders as they both listened with rapt attention to her words.

He turned to see what Alapar’s reaction was, and at that moment a snore escaped from her. Her hands were slack around him. Alapar! Wake up.

Another snore.

“Wake up, Alapar! How can you miss this?”

A soft snort, and she drowsily opened one eye. “Ungh..?”

He nudged her. “Look at the lights!”

She gazed indifferently at the glowing monster trees, floating angel moths, and drapes of glowing ivy. “I’ve been seeing this nearly every night of my life for years.” She yawned and readjusted her arms around him, settling her cheek onto his back once again.

He wanted her to be impressed. He wanted someone to share the moment with him, this moment that brought back such an important memory.

“Yes, but do you know the story? The Teidekan legend?” He nudged her until she opened her eyes and sat up again, all traces of sleepiness replaced with irritation.

“There is no story. It’s called bioluminescence, Fredric, a reaction between luciferin and luciferase, and in this case, a little bit of orbalite. I know you’re probably thinking this is magic but it is simply an expression of the bioluminescence gene controlled by the Lux operon, a process that occurs as the result of—”

“Once upon a time,” Fredric began, taking up Fang’s reigns again, “there was a wise old sage that lived in this wood, a Teidekan magician, as a matter of fact. He was nearly four hundred years old but looked more as if he were around twenty, and he had a brother magician who lived in the west forest on the opposite end of the Strip. The brother was a nasty magician, not quite cruel but quite disagreeable, a formidable pig in comparison to the sage. He charged high prices for his healing and spell casting services. Often he prescribed remedies that included regular, long term treatments so patients had to come back several times, the price going up each time. The sage magician was a kind soul, and he was such a talented healer and spell caster that his customers only had to come once. They loved him so much that they often brought him food and other goods to express their gratitude, so much so that he didn’t have to charge them anything at all. Even the spirits of the forest helped him, keeping him safe from storms, and keeping wild animals from attacking him as they often did the brother magician.

“The sage magician had a young daughter of about eleven years old, and if the spirits and the people loved the sage, they adored his daughter. She often walked the forest searching for small animals and other creatures in need, and she either healed them with her child powers or brought them to her father when their ailments were too much for her immature magic to handle. Together the father and daughter kept the east forest healthy and safe, and everyone there was happy. In the west forest, however, people were tiring of the brother magician’s money-grabbing exploits, and they were beginning to make the journey across the river to see the kind sage for remedies. It got so that long lines stretched from the sage’s clearing (he had no need to live in any kind of house, for the forest protected him from everything) and nearly back to the river. Though the waiting was long, the sage’s daughter helped her father by serving the waiting people tea and little cakes, and entertained them by singing and performing shows with her animal friends. Since some of them had to stay in line overnight, the sage and his daughter ensured that the forest protected them as well. Soon they had more food and other goods than they could go through in centuries piling up in the once spacious clearing, and they requested that the people stop bringing it. And so the sage magician’s services were completely free.

“Meanwhile the brother magician was losing business like sand slipping through his fingers. Everything was very expensive in the west forest, since the merchants were so poor that they had to nearly quadruple prices just to keep their families fed. A loaf of bread in the west forest was the price of a team of horses in the east forest. The greedy brother magician had all but destroyed the western economy, and soon he was having troubles keeping up his grand estate and feeding himself and all his horses. He had to raise his prices as well—and it continued like a rubber band stretching and stretching. Inevitably the rubber band of their economy snapped, and to live in the west forest was to be dirt poor. Most people left, and those who stayed were at the mercy of the brother magician, who was growing steadily eviler as life became more dire. The evil cloud spirits of lightning and hail couldn’t break through the loving protection of the good forest spirits in the east, and so they moved west; it stormed nearly every day without pause, devastating the land. When the brother magician found out that everyone was relocating to the east forest, he decided he would pay his brother a visit as a way to see how life was across the river.

“And, oh, life was good! Everyone was at peace with the spirits of the forest and sky, and with each other, and nearly every day was a cause for celebration. The sage magician and his daughter were extolled and sung about in every house, and they were a friend to all. They were in a state of such peace and pure happiness that they welcomed the old antagonist the brother magician.

The brother magician was like a storm cloud, however, casting shadows in the doorways of widows and striking fear in the hearts of young children. The spirits of the forest shuddered and fled when they saw the blackness of his heart seeping hatred like an infected wound. The brother magician had gone from being simply nasty to being like the spirit of darkness and evil itself. He saw that though his brother the sage had not one copper penny to his name, he was richer in more respects than there were stars in the sky. The forest spirits were too frightened to be near the clearing while the brother magician stayed with the sage, and the evil cloud spirits were finally able to spitefully spit hail and lightning on the east forest.

The sage sensed the all-encompassing darkness within his brother’s heart but he welcomed him nonetheless in his characteristic manner. He did, however, order the forest to hide his daughter from his brother—the safety of his daughter overrode attempts to be accepting and kind. The young magician girl watched over her father from the safety of the trees as the sage attempted to quell the darkness from his brother—surrounding him with beauty, showering him with gifts and undue kindness, making the reluctant people dance and play music in the clearing and be merry. The brother’s heart was so turned to darkness that it rejected all manner of beauty and goodness, and he became angrier and darker still that his brother and his old people were so happy (even the muted happiness in his presence). The blackness was like sticky plaque in the brother’s heart.

“The little magician watched every attempt fail, and watched her uncle’s eyes grow darker and darker. She saw how despondent her father was becoming, and it hurt her to see him so sad and hopeless. After another fruitless party for her uncle, the evil magician packed up his things and stepped around the sleeping sage to sneak away into the night. The evil cloud spirits sent heavy rain to mask the brother as he travelled through the east forest, and they inadvertently masked the sage’s daughter following him through the trees. The good forest spirits helped the daughter to get ahead of her uncle and she intercepted him as he was crossing a clearing with a small pool. The daughter remembered how people smiled whenever they saw her, and she told herself that she wouldn’t give up until she got her uncle to smile.

The dark magician was surprised to find a little girl there in the rain, and she introduced herself without mentioning her father. The dark magician commanded the evil cloud spirits to cease raining on them so he could see better. From a covered basket she offered him one of her speciality tea cakes, and used her magic to create beautiful images in strings of coloured lights to light up the darkness. She turned the pool into a mirror-stage for an elaborate light show. The forest gasped in delight and pleasure at the simple beauty, but the dark magician hissed at the vibrant colours and shielded his eyes. With a snap of his fingers he turned her basket of cakes into a  rotting human skull filled with crawling mealworms, and turned her strings of lights into long, black phantom serpents with glowing red eyes and sharp green teeth that swirled around her, snapping at her and pulling on her hair. The faint moon was covered by the evil cloud spirits. It was black as pitch except for the glowing eyes and teeth of the phantom snakes, and the skull which the dark magician set ablaze with demonic fire. Thorns and brambles sprung up all around the clearing, growing nearly five feet high. The dark magician cackled like rumbling thunder as he commanded the darkness and terror around the shrieking child, flicking aside the attempts of the good forest spirits to save their friend. They were no match against the powerful darkness, so they fled to get the sage.

“Threats to his daughter were the only thing that could make the kind sage violent. In a blazing fury he exploded into the pool clearing, tearing through the bramble bushes, taking the brother completely by surprise. ‘How dare you harm my child!’ he roared, fire spitting from his mouth and glowing in his eyes. Ceaselessly he bombarded his startled brother with every destruction spell he could remember and some that he made up on the spot. Their courage renewed, the forest spirits battled the evil cloud spirits and drove them back to the west once again. With rapid fire attacks driven by his raging fury and frustration that his brother could not be saved, the sage rendered the dark magician nearly dead. Before the sage could finish off his brother, the daughter shouted to her father not to kill her uncle. ‘His death will not kill the darkness! You will kill the goodness too!’ She held her father’s uncertain eyes until he dropped his arms and pulled his magic back, falling to his knees to grab her in a hug.

“‘Your wisdom and courage is great indeed, my love,’ the sage whispered as he held her, crying as if his heart would break. Instead of killing him, the sage had the forest spirits take his brother back across the river to the western forest, and he took his daughter home. There was peace again throughout the east for everyone except for the daughter; she was uninjured physically, but her young mind had been ravaged by fear. She would not leave her father’s side for more than a few minutes at a time, and she shivered like a winter leaf when the darkness fell over the forest right before bed. She took to sleeping during the day and staying up through the dark time to keep watch over her father, and so no one saw her for more than a few hours every day.

‘I’m afraid of the dark,’ she replied when her father one day worriedly inquired about her new strange behaviour, ‘I’m afraid of Uncle returning in the night.’

“Her father thought for a moment before responding. ‘A fear of the dark is almost wise, my child, but not quite. A fear of the absence of light? You might as well be afraid of the silence as well. The darkness will not hurt you, child. The trouble with darkness is that the shadows conceal truth, and makes good judgement unattainable. It hides both goodness waiting and bad things lurking. It is wiser to fear the unknown than to fear the dark, daughter.’

“She was too young to understand his abstract lecture, and continued to shiver and shake in the night. Alas, to quell her fears, the sage devised a plan. He had the good forest spirits deliver a message to the celestial spirits of the moon and the stars, who were more than willing to help the good sage and his lovely daughter. The forest spirits returned to the sage a little before nightfall; with them were a flock of thirty silver owls clutching woven watermelon vine baskets in their talons. The night sky spirits had helped the forest spirits fill the baskets with stardust. The sage sent for his daughter so she could see what they had done, and said to her: ‘Do not be afraid of the dark! The stars can only come out when it is dark, and in the night they see everything. Nothing is concealed or unknown to the stars, and you needn’t fear the unknown because of them. They will show you the truth under the veil of darkness.’ The girl was delighted.

“With the help of the forest spirits and the night sky spirits, the owls spread the stardust over the east forest. The dust landed on the trees, vines, animals and insects. When everything was coated with a good layer of the silvery dust there were still nine baskets left. The spirits and the sage talked about what they should do with them, and the daughter spoke up to suggest they spread it over the west forest. ‘Even though my evil uncle lives there, I know there are some good people who live there as well because they couldn’t come here yet. I’m sure a little stardust will give them some happiness and make them less afraid of the dark magician.’

“And so, pleased with his daughter’s goodwill, the sage magician sent the owls and the spirits on their way to the west forest. Even though the evil cloud spirits tried to stop them, they completed their mission and returned to the east forest. The dark magician was angered and fearful, as he didn’t know what the owls were dropping from the sky, but there was nothing he could do about it since he was still recovering from the sage’s attack. The good people of the west forest thanked the silver owls and the spirits.

“Meanwhile, the daughter and the sage sat in the boughs of the tallest thatis tree in the east forest, watching the sun set behind the thunder clouds to the west. As the first star appeared on the eastern horizon, the stardust sprinkled everywhere began to glow. By the time the silver owls and the spirits returned, the whole east forest was ablaze with starlight, and the west forest glowed softly as well. The sage told his daughter to lean close to a glowing branch on the thatis tree, and she could hear voices whispering to her, chattering incessantly. ‘They tell of the happenings in the forest,’ the sage explained to her. ‘Nothing is unknown to them—all the secrets of the forest are yours now, my love.’

“She thanked the night sky spirits and they returned to the heavens, and the owls who returned to the night hunt. Her good friends the forest spirits stayed with her and her father, and they watched the forest shine in the night. The young magician was never afraid of the dark, or the unknown, again.

“The end.”

Fredric was nearly whispering now. His voice was petering out from so much talking.

The fire from camp was just in sight beyond the trees. He nudged Fang into a canter. His mother’s words had come to him easily as he told the tale, and he felt like he was still within the story as the soft glow of the forest enveloped them. Gazing off into the night, he didn’t notice Alapar’s haunted eyes.

“Legend has it,” he said, catching a wisp of glowing ivy between his fingers, “that if you listen carefully with your heart, you can still hear the whispers of the stardust.” He held the ivy to his ear, and nodded as though consenting to the secrets of the woods.

He flashed a smile at her and then did a double take when he took in her face. What now?

She took the ivy from him and passed her hand through her tangled hair. “Don’t be silly,” she whispered with a smile like pale mist, “you can only hear the stardust if you have magician blood.”

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