Dismal Threshold

Chapter twenty-three: Dismal Threshold

He had told the story almost exactly the way her father had when they had first come to live on the Belt. She remembered walking through the fantastical night forest at the age of ten, clutching her father with one hand and trailing her fingers over the glowing fauna with the other. “Magic!” she had breathed in delight, eliciting a near smile from her father.

“There’s no such thing as magic, lirigwin. Haven’t I told you that? It’s only bioluminescence caused by reactions between luciferin and luciferase, and in this case, a little bit of orbalite.  Adenosine triphosphate and calcium can also be mediation cofactors…”

She stared uncertainly at her father, her wide dark eyes considering. She had understood little of what he said, and she stared in bewilderment at the glow of the vegetation and slithering snakes and soaring nighthawks. How could it not be magic?

Abiel sighed and rested a hand on her soft dark hair.

“But there is a legend…”

Though she tried not to let it show, she believed less in the scientific reasoning behind the glowing forest and more in the sage’s story.

* * *

Where are they? Nolle wore a path in the dirt, running anxious fingers through his hair, and searching the trees with his troubled mind.

Nolle, stop pacing, Belladia chastised. She offered Xarthanias more star-mint paste to suck on, and wiped his forehead with the edge of her skirt. He was too exhausted to push her away. She could tell he wanted to sleep but every noise jerked his eyes open. The paste was too dry to offer much more than minute comfort. His skin was pale and waxy with cold sweat, his eyes bloodshot. Belladia needed water to finish the medicines. She had no doubt Fredric was working as quickly as he could.

As the light faded Nolle and Osarius had built a fire, and they had all been mildly surprised when the forest started to glow like millions of stars. The Verien forest was a place of magic. And horrors, she remembered with stories of siederharks and goblin snakes. And volcano wolves. Like Xarthanias, the eerie calm of the night forest had her shying at every noise. They will get back soon enough. Shepressed her hand to Xarthanias’s clammy forehead. He pulled away and propped himself up against a nearby tree

But will it be? Nolle retorted, whirling on her. Soon enough?

Nolle! she flinched in surprise.  Osarius, positioned protectively nearby, sighed.

Nolle’s shoulders slumped. My apologies. He sunk to the ground a few feet away from them, his eyes downcast. I’m worried about Fredric…we only just found them again.

Xarthanias wiggled his eyebrows. What about me? Aren’t you worried about me? I’m not going to die, Nolle. It’s just an infection. I’ll be better when Fredric is back.

Don’t be ridiculous. Surprisingly, Osarius glared at Nolle, but his fear seeped through. Maybe we should go and look for them? he said to Belladia. Chimley and I, I mean. How much longer until he can’t be saved?

Xarthanias glowered. He had given up long ago. The pessimism of his friends and brother grated on his nerves. When he was sixteen he had caught the island flu, and for weeks he truly had been on the brink of death, and would have welcomed it to end his misery. This infection was nothing, really. Not to mention what a sickly child he had been at birth, and lo, he had survived.

Nolle glowered. Belladia pinched the bridge of her nose and searched her empty store of patience. When he wasn’t staring suspiciously into the trees, Osarius had been poking criticism at Nolle for the past hour. She had understood that he was stressed, and so to give them something to do she had them grind up the herbs and plants they had taken from the forest back home. There was nothing left to grind, however, and they were back to their arguing before long. Chimley, trying to appear nonchalant by lounging in a nearby tree—they thought he was trying to look as though he was unconcerned about Xarthanias, when truly he was trying to mask his burning hunger—sat up languidly and cocked an ear.

They’re coming, he announced. Less than half a mile around that bend. He pointed, the glowing tree making a silhouette out of his cloaked form. I’ll go see what they are doing. Before anyone could reply he set off, taking the trees by swinging leaps and graceful flips. The acrobatics felt good after nearly an hour of sitting and doing nothing, even if he was bone-weary and hungry enough to eat his own hand. Aging trails of Ologan spiders tantalized his nose, and he wanted to go and look for them, but for some reason he couldn’t quite bring himself to leave after the miracle of finding Osarius and Fredric, and while Xarthanias was on the threshold of death. Once he was away and moving again, he realized he was acting like a sentimental fool. He needed to eat whether Xarthanias lived or died. Should he even find Fredric or just continue on and find spiders?

He decided that he would send Fredric and the new wench on their way and then go hunting. Xarthanias was no good to him dead at the moment, sentimentality notwithstanding. It was not his time yet.

When Fredric and the girl—Alapar, he distantly recalled—were in his sight, he climbed nearly to the top of a tree so his shadow wouldn’t give him away and looked down on them as they cantered along. Usually he could see almost perfectly in the dark, but the blue glow of the trees affected his vision strangely, casting blue-tinged shadows and gleaming streaks like glare on a window at night. He blinked, unable to clear his eyes much. He could see twice as well as the average person, but now he may as well have been blind. Alapar’s lips trembled. Fredric looked disturbed as he said something to her. “…didn’t know,” Chimley caught as he scrambled to focus his hearing. “But we do have something in common…my mother, who died when I was fifteen, told me that story the first time we saw this forest at night.”

“All I’ve done is snivel,” Alapar said, scowling. “And all you’ve done is been so kind to me. I’m sorry about your mother.” She fiddled a bag attached to Fang’s saddle. “Hurry, we need to get back. It’s not good to let wounds from blues sit for too long, especially after all you have been through. His body probably won’t have much energy left to fight the infection.”

Fredric nodded, a little reluctantly in Chimley’s opinion. “Yes. But he’s strong. Are you sure you’re alright?”

Chimley swooped down to land on a bough a foot above their heads, flying from tree to tree to keep pace with them. Xarthanias isn’t getting any better. Belladia can only do so much without water. The last I recalled, someone was in a big rush to go and get some.

Fredric, not recovered from the shock of Chimley dropping out of the trees, paled.

Hurry up, Chimley suggested, already gone. Hoof beats like drums pounded down below. Chimley blew out a relieved breath, not realizing he had been so tense. He could now relax and focus on tracking Ologan spiders. Their presence called to his blood in a maddening sort of extra sensory perception—he could feel that they were there, or had been there, but he didn’t know where. Like he was flying, he silently glided from tree to tree, trying to smell them or even see them. At last he picked up a trail.

Giving up on clearing his eyes, he focused solely on the sounds and smells around him. The warmth of the night lent a heady flavor to the air. Vaguely, he was aware of an undercurrent of sickly decay, but his mind rejected it to ravenously concentrate on the scent of the spiders.  He was getting closer. He could taste their toxic sweetness, feel their crunch in his sharp teeth, the tickle of their sickening little hairs…he only needed one. One.

And abruptly he could feel the dry heat of the Arid Grassland as he was ejected from humidity of the forest. The blinding moonlight assaulted him, and he startled from his hungry fantasy. Coming back to himself, he forced his feet to stop carrying him away. He could smell them, blast it! Hundreds of them, all heading in a trail to the north…

As though in a mass exodus.

Of course, the silence in the forest, the animals by the pool. The forest had been evacuated. But that couldn’t be! There had to be at least one left! He needed one.

Whirling back, he flew frantically through the trees, picking up a trail and racing to follow it, only to be thrown back out onto the edge of the grassland, several more times. Desperately he raced all over the Belt, even crossing the river to try his luck in the western edge. The vexing glow was much less obtrusive here, and he could easily see the tracks of the animals leading out of the forest. And it smelled like about half of them had died and lay rotting before they made it out. He came to a stop just above the River Verien, out of breath, about to cross over again. There had to be at least one!

He heaved himself over the river, crashing heavily in a tree on the other side. Slipping from the next tree, he fell to the ground, landing in a discouraged heap. It felt as though his energy was draining by the minute. He forced himself to climb to his feet and continue on. Dejectedly he sauntered the forest floor, back to camp, searching vainly for a fresh trail and hoping mortality didn’t reclaim him before he found one.

* * *

Stationed next to Xarthanias, Nolle was like a log balanced on the edge of a cliff, tipping back and forth, dangerously toward sleep and back to tentative consciousness. His essence, once a toxic cloud of unending fear, was now like a magnet drawing out Alapar and Belladia’s fatigue.

Xarthanias had fought quite the same battle. As soon as Fredric had run up with Alapar, he had sighed in relief and slumped forward, instantly asleep. Nolle had cried out in dismay at Xarthanias’ collapse, convinced he had just witnessed his death.

He’s just tired, Belladia assured him with a yawn, indicating Xarthanias’ steady, deep breaths.

Fredric pressed Xarthanias’ wrist to his ear, listening to the strong heartbeat, while Nolle looked on anxiously. He nodded and patted Xarthanias’ head, going to help Alapar unload their spoils. He posted himself beside Osarius, as Alapar sat with Nolle to help him grind what she had gathered. Osarius was instructed by Belladia to dilute the different cloth pots of medicine with water. Belladia gazed at Alapar and Nolle, a little annoyed. In her excitement at seeing her brother again she had forgotten that they already had medicine. Alapar and Fredric could have been back long before this.

And where was Chimley? Hopefully they hadn’t lost him as well. Despite his disagreeability, his oddity, and the fact that she had only known him a handful of weeks, her brother had chosen him. He had pried his way into her heart, newcomer or not. Unlike Alapar. What had she been doing on the Strip all by herself? The girl’s quiet coldness, scrutiny and calculating eyes chilled Belladia. Alapar was like a painting of a sad girl with nothing behind her eyes.

Yet Fredric looked at her as though there was a human behind the acrylic eyes, as though the painting concealed a secret vault with every precious thing inside. Belladia had a feeling those precious things were his imagination, and Alapar was trouble. She recognized the look of a woman hiding a score of painful secrets. When Belladia caught one of Alapar’s “looks,” she felt as though she were looking at a version of herself.

While Belladia scrutinized Alapar, Nolle tried to find a comfortable position beside his brother. It became evident that the only comfortable position was to curl up and close his eyes.

Fredric had thought he had found his second wind, but his body resentfully reminded him of the night he had spent making a raft, and the jump from the South Ologo, and the hours of walking in the Arid Grassland, and everything else he had forced it to do up until this moment.

Osarius’s eyes were still open, but behind his eyes he was sleeping. Mechanically he moved his eyes around the perimeter, and to the prince, and around and around. He had to keep Xarthanias safe, had to…

It’s okay now, you can go to sleep, guys, Belladia assured them now. Osarius snorted, tilting forward into a tree. It sent shivers down Alapar’s spine to hear voices other than her own inside of her head. Belladia turned slightly toward Nolle, but in general it was hard to tell whom the telepaths were addressing. You’re even making me tired. I’ve told you, he’s going to be fine.

Alapar flinched from the twinge of guilt that hit her. It had been a waste of time, listening to his story, hadn’t it? Crying to him about what had happened to her father, crying after the story, sob, sob, sob. When had she become such a spineless weakling? There were things to be done. By the light of a precious candle, Alapar examined Xarthanias. Though it had healed markedly, the wound was serious, and the infection was spreading. She could see that he had been sliced nearly down to the bone. The severest blue bear injury her father had come home with was a set of gashes on his leg an inch deep, but she had never seen ones that had been unattended for so long. Puss from the infection oozed around the sutures and the layers of diseased tissue that had been busy growing. Under each one was more infection. The first thing they had to do was cut open the stitches, and Alapar hadn’t gathered any sedatives. She wished she had actually examined Xarthanias before setting off with Fredric.

If she had, maybe she could have told Belladia that star mint was not ideal for Xarthanias at the moment, as it would keep him too lucid for the task at hand.

“We’ve got to get going,” Alapar insisted. “The infection can’t be allowed to spread anymore.”

But I—Nolle’s thought was interrupted by his hundredth yawn. I just want to make sure—he closed his eyes and yawned again. Alapar shot out a hand as he tipped forward, before he could land on Xarthanias. Nolleban didn’t even stir as she pushed him backward and he sprawled in the dirt. Belladia instructed Fredric to drag him away.

Alright. Belladia shifted her gaze, acknowledging Alapar at last. Now for this mess. Belladia’s candle was suspended in the air beside her, moving as she needed it. Alapar was worried Belladia would lose her concentration and the candle would brush up against their hair, or drip wax into the wounds. Lips pressed tightly together, Belladia reached behind her for a knife that had been sterilized in the fire and then in a prila flower bath. Alapar stopped her as she was about cut up the first suture.

“We have to disinfect his back first! Clean it up as much as possible before we start making any cuts.” Alapar reached for a pot behind her and dipped her fingers into a slightly viscous, dark liquid.

What is that?

“Teerute gum and water.”

How do you know he’s not allergic to it? We should use this salve instead. I know it works, unlike…that.

“I’m sure he’s not allergic to it! Does he tend to react to things?”

I don’t plan to find out now.

Alapar stared, fighting for a fitting rebuttal for this ridiculous argument. She had a feeling that Belladia was used to getting her way with these men who were probably all like doting brothers for her. Alapar was just a refugee, after all. How could she possibly overrule the Queen? Unconsciously, her eyes drifted to Fredric. He had seemed like an outsider. She was alive only because of him.

“I swear I wouldn’t hurt him. This really works. I used it on my father all the time when he was scratched by blues.”

Belladia followed her gaze to Fredric, and her essence revealed slight surprise. A fresh change from the thick mist of annoyance, suspicion, and distaste. Taking the change for permission, Alapar applied the dark liquid to his back, where it bubbled and turned green as it absorbed puss and trickled down in foamy rivulets. Belladia rinsed it off and was surprised to see how much better the skin looked just from that. “Alright, now we can cut. Just be aware, that star mint paste could mean he will wake up. What you should have given him were iandus berries, or even just the leaves.”

Well, I didn’t have any.

Carefully, Belladia positioned the point of the knife under one of Fredric’s neat stitches at the beginning of a row, and cut it away. She did the same at the end of the row, and then pulled out the thread. The little holes were green around the edges. Once all of the stitches had been removed and tossed into the fire, they rinsed his back with more of the dark foaming liquid.

Shall we pull up the old skin? Nodding, Alapar reached for the end of a strip of skin. It had started to grow back together. No, not like that! You have to start at the top, where the skin is firmly attached, and work your way down. You have to work with the skin, not against it. Alapar blushed. Of course, she knew that.

When all five strips of skin had been peeled up, they rinsed Xarthanias’s back with pure water and then used the burnt ends of vurnil twigs to gently scrape away the stickier infection. Alapar worked one-handed. She refused Belladia’s offer to “hold” her candle with her mind.

With the skin, Belladia reminded Alapar a few times. The wounds only bled a little, but Alapar assured Belladia that once it was cleaned and treated, the blood would return. As they worked, Xarthanias began to snore.

I guess the star mint didn’t do much harm after all, Belladia observed. Gloated, really. Alapar kept her expression composed, but she seethed inside. Alapar wanted to follow everyone else’s example and sleep, and not care anymore. But she did care. She couldn’t help feeling more than a little guilty for the delay, and besides, she felt she owed it to Fredric to do all she could for his cousin. Not only had they rescued her, Fredric had done his best to comfort her, and didn’t seem put out by her snivelling. She wanted to make sure everything was done right. With every breath she found more reasons to see her doctoring through, no matter what Belladia said.

Anything we can do to help? asked Fredric. He and Osarius had drifted awake and were sitting near Nolle where they had stretched him over a gloriously soft-looking blanket, a blanket that called to every facet of Alapar’s being. Fredric appeared to be drawing on Nolle’s face with a pencil, while the other looked on in tired amusement, his hand on a half-foot-by-foot-and-a-half wooden box.

We’re almost done here. Belladia sat back on her heels and cracked a yawn, which Alapar couldn’t help but imitate. We’re going to have to sew him back up again. Can one of you go and grab us some ruguin to make thread?

“Wait,” Alapar interrupted. “We can’t sew him up. It will poke him even more full of holes, and the stitches might not hold anyway.”

What, then, do you suggest, Alapar? Belladia folded her arms and stared. Nearly glared.

Alapar didn’t like the way the other girl said her name. As though she were a child, some sort of annoyance that she had to bear. Alapar reached for another pot. “Glue. Quick and effective, and easily applied on the run. Also, it will dissolve as he heals.” Her father never liked to be stitched, and had showed her how to make it.

Fine. But alsata salve first.

* * *

As Chimley dragged his feet forward, he wondered if he was dreaming after all. Faintly, the scent of a spider had come to him, and he had blindly changed his course to follow it, but he found that he was at the thorn border of the little pool. There were so many glowing trees here. Chimley could see only just enough to establish his surroundings. The spider smelled frustratingly near.

He didn’t have the energy to leap over the thorn hedge, and his heart sank at the prospect of fighting through the briars. Some were as long as a finger, and others had hooked ends. Most were as sharp as razors. He didn’t understand how Fredric had managed to go through and back twice. Chimley was simply too tired right now. Maybe after a nap.

As he sank to his knees, tortured by the scent, a movement caught his eye.

Slightly shielded from the obtrusive glow of the clearing by the hedge, Chimley was just able to make out the wriggling creature impaled on a long thorn. The spider thrashed and fought against its prison, but stabbed itself full of holes on neighbouring thorns. It’s translucent, creamy blood surrounded it in globs. Whooping, Chimley plunged his hand into the thicket. It was all he could do to pause long enough to rip off its legs before he devoured it.

The blue streaks in his vision cleared as his mind did and the cuts on his hands closed. He licked the sweetness from his lips and stared hungrily at the eight legs scattered at his feet. But he never ate the legs. Disgusting. It was bad enough as it was.

He sat back and closed his eyes, breathing in the night. He tried to be content. Though his hunger was staved, and he should have been satisfied, his mind was ill at ease. He had been gone for so long. Despite himself, he was plagued with worries of Osarius and Fredric. And even Xarthanias.

Could he have reacted so quickly, tumbling down the side of the Larentac? These mortals never failed to surprise him. If nothing else, they made an excellent topic of study. He had a lot to learn from their quick minds and flashes of ingenuity.

He had to get back. Though Fredric and Osarius weren’t that important, he was supposed to be watching over the twins. Even though he had let the blue almost kill Xarthanias. Gah. His father had demoted him to a babysitter. Nonetheless, he had to make sure that the new girl hadn’t murdered anyone. She was intriguing to a certain extent, his wariness of her rivalled with the curiosity. She was too observant. He felt as though her dark eyes could see through him, and as if his intentions were written on his face like precisely spelled out words. Fortunately, she was from Rena, and they would be setting sail for Vaupen Island soon enough. Before they left her in Adlin – or Aghyml? He couldn’t remember if she had said – maybe her unsettling intelligence could be put to use.

The sooner the injuries were dealt with, the sooner they could get on with things. Pukwoai. It was like an ache under his skin. He stroked the Capraiwan sword under his cloak, wishing he could leave the others behind and just go. But even he didn’t know how to cross the floodplain.

Chimley gathered the eight spider’s legs and took one between his fingers. Let’s see. One leg was probably too much. Maybe one third? He broke off the piece and wrapped up the rest in a big leaf, tying the bundle off with a long, thin piece of grass. Gripping it tightly in his hand, he set off, at last freed from the itching feeling that there was something he should do.

By the time he reached camp, he was laughing out loud from the exhilaration of having himself back, from feeling exquisitely alive again.

He could hear the collective snores long before he reached camp. Everyone was asleep, people and odds and ends disarrayed as if by a careless hand. Osarius and Nolle sprawled around Fredric, dangerously close to the hot coals of the dying fire. Alapar leaned against a tree. Belladia had fallen asleep with an arm slung across Xarthanias’ glistening forehead. He breathed steadily, sleeping peacefully. Sacks of herbs, pots of drying pastes, water flasks, and other things were dotted all over. What a mess. Wrinkling his nose, Chimley silently dropped from his stakeout tree, landing a hair’s breadth from Fredric’s head, disturbing whisps of his hair. Chimley found a set of grinding stones near the rockwood chest and quickly pulverized the piece of spider’s leg into a fine goo. He dumped it into a flask half full of water, and shook it. Stepping around Belladia to kneel at Xarthanias’s side, he paused. After a moment, he eased Xarthanias’s mouth open and poured in the concoction, making sure he got every drop. Xarthanias choked and jerked into a sitting position.

Reflexively he swallowed, and a mouthful of sweet liquid coursed down his throat. What the…? He wiped his mouth, which was dripping wet. This was more than drooling in his sleep. Incredibly, he had been dreaming of when Belladia had woken him earlier, done with healing his back, to make him drink some brew that she and Alapar had made. Vaguely he recalled them arguing over what to put in it, and that Alapar had won with her nigmod sprigs, which were horrendously spicy. Xarthanias glanced around dazedly, the glowing night coming into sharp focus. There was Belladia, too close beside him, Fredric, and the others, all sound asleep. No one else. A scan of the trees revealed that Chimley hadn’t returned. Hopefully he came back before morning lest Belladia started worrying again. He leaned back and closed his eyes, his exhaustion resurfacing. He would think about it tomorrow. And figure out why he felt so…different.

* * *

In the infant light of dawn, Fredric gazed at the still, gray expanse of the floodplain. The first hint of light had woken him up feeling refreshed. He checked on Xarthanias and crept to the edge of the forest to look out at the remainder of the Volcanic Belt. They had to set sail no later than next week. Though the sky was clear here, the Southern storm bore down on the Port at that moment, preparing to birth the monster of all storms. The shore of the new lake had shrunken by about a foot overnight, and the water now lapped the trunks of a few unfortunate trees. Other trees had fallen and lay disintegrating in the water. Alapar’s house was gone as though it had never been.

This question was too big for his mind.

Looks like this one has got you stumped.

Fredric’s heart jerked. Chimley stood beside him a foot away, mirroring Fredric’s crossed-arm position and hard gaze, as though he had been there for a long time. That lack of essence again, and silent feet. Fredric’s frustrated frown dissolved into a smile and he slapped Chimley lightly on the shoulder.

Stumped isn’t the word for it.

To the east, the sun broke free of its constraints, casting Chimley’s profile into a silhouette. Fredric still wore Nolle’s shirt, and now he could see clearly how dirty it was. Well, would you look at that! Chimley pointed to the east, at a faraway black scar that ran across the horizon.

Blackwolf Ridge. Fredric stared in awe. Blackwolf Ridge! It still stands?

Why do they call it Blackwolf Ridge? Chimley wondered. It looked more blue than black. Without answering, Fredric jogged back to camp. Just trying to make conversation, Chimley thought to himself wryly, making a grand leap to the bough of a tree and following.

Chimley reached camp in a second, just in time to watch Fredric rudely wake everyone up. Groggily they sat up, dragging their hands across their eyes. Alapar glared for a moment at Fredric’s lunatic grin. But it was time to get up anyway. Their things were a mess. Xarthanias smoothly rose and stretched, yawning cavernously, just as a few rays of sunlight fought their way through the trees to splash on him. Everyone’s eyes were on him, their mouths agape.

There was not a single mark on his skin, and his lean back was perfect.

“I told you nigmod was better!” Alapar crowed to Belladia, who was too stunned for retort.

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