When Scars Fade

Chapter twenty-five: When Scars Fade

Stop it Fredric, you’re scaring me.

Xarthanias blinked sleepily, looking around at his friends. They had the strangest expressions, a sort of shock he couldn’t place. Except Alapar, the new girl. She looked smugly at Belladia, who looked annoyed but still dumbfounded. He nervously glanced down at himself, wondering if he hadn’t shucked his clothes in the night and now stood naked or if he had suddenly turned orange or sprouted a new hide of fur. Or was covered in worms. He couldn’t find anything different.

What? he asked.

You don’t…feel any different? Fredric asked, astonished.

Now that it was mentioned, Xarthanias realized he did feel different. He felt better rested than he had in weeks. The world seemed brighter, images clear enough to touch. He felt as though he had woken up with a new body. No more pains from sleeping on the ground, no soreness from riding all day…

No excruciating pain in his back.

Cautiously he stretched, and felt his muscles smoothly respond, fully intact and fully alive. Not only was his back free of pain, its tightness was gone as well. He didn’t feel hungry or tired or thirsty or wanting in anyway.

I feel good! he marvelled.

Belladia looked sheepish.  I suppose you were right, Alapar. I will remember the nigmod for next time.

Alapar awkwardly patted Belladia`s shoulder, making the other girl edge away. “No, no, you helped too. You’re alsata salve was probably just what he needed.”

I see, I see. You refuse to take a compliment from me?

“Why, how dare you – ” Xarthanias wondered what was going on between the two women. But he found it attractive in a way to see Belladia ruffled up. It was good to see she had a little fire in her, after all. Especially when it came to looking after him. He vaguely remembered their arguments the night before.

Ladies! Nolle interrupted. Don’t you think we owe someone a welcome back? Stop your bickering!

His friends snapped out of their stupefaction and surrounded him, carefully embracing him and chattering about what a miraculous recovery he had made, about how the Strip still had some of its magic left after all. But that was just it. Xarthanias didn’t feel as though any medicine plants could give would have changed him so much. Everything felt too loud, and the world pressed in on him. The assault on his senses made his head spin, though everything remained in clear focus. Suddenly, he realized something else felt different.

He felt for the key around his neck, and it was gone.

***

So you want us to cross that?

The floodplain roiled and pitched, dragging its caustic tendrils over the crumbling edges of the Ridge. A chunk the size of a horse gave way and rolled into the water, which upset outward like bowl. A few drops landed on the travellers. It burned sevenfold the sting of the Ologo, and left red traces on their skin. Backlit by the sun, the Ridge looked like a sleeping beast, waiting to devour them. The end of it extended into the Verien Forest, hidden by the trees. Where it rested in the water, the Ridge was nearly twice as wide on top as it was on the bottom. On the shore of the plain, the edge of the forest, the sides were worn into a sort of path, though it was far from flat. It didn’t even look traversable. The smell of acid and decay from the forest was becoming hard to stomach, and no one had wanted breakfast.

Isn’t it great! Fredric enthused, gripping Belladia’s arm. Nolle noticed a slightly vacant look in his eye. The look of blind desperation. We will get to Adlin in time, after all!

But Fredric, we’ll fall in for sure!

It looks dangerous, Nolle agreed, edging back.

Fredric whirled on them, barely containing his grin. To me, it looks like a new shirt!

 It looks like a warm meal and a bottle of ale! said Xarthanias, eyes bright.  

It looks like a real bed! A bath! Fredric fantasized.

It looks like our only way out of here. Chimley tried to stare down Alapar, Belladia and Nolle, tried to get them to stop wasting time and being ridiculous.

Still doubt clouded their eyes. Alapar, don’t you want to go home? Fredric asked at last.

“No. Not really.”

He sighed. Well, as long as we’re careful and move quickly, before it dissolves into nothing, I’m sure we will be fine.

Their arguing was pointless. They knew what the outcome would be, but the inevitability did not ease their minds or extinguish their fear. Blackwolf Ridge was being eaten alive, chunks of rock periodically dislodging and slapping into the water, disappearing into the waves. How easily their steps could give way. How easily they could come to the same end as Alapar’s father.

Still, their resident paradox snuggled closely. Cross the Ridge or start a war. Cross the Ridge and die, and start a war.

The third option, of crossing and living to meet whatever other horror proceeded, seemed vaguely remote.

Well, let’s go! Chimley enthused. By sundown the ridge will be gone, I’m sure, so we must hurry!

“We will be in Adlin by the end of tomorrow,” Alapar promised, looking glum.

They returned the half-mile to camp and reluctantly packed their things. Chimley went to the pond to refill their water flasks and the others gathered nuts and berries from deeper in the forest. The nuts had lost their crunchiness, and the berries were like mush. Everything tasted like the air, acrid and sulfurous.

But, Nolle thought, they were together. Xarthanias had mysteriously survived his ordeal, and they had been united with Osarius and Fredric. They had made a new friend. Their luck was changing. As though responding to Nolle’s shift in morale, Osarius began to hum a cheery song, one they all recognized. It was a song used to encourage cranky children at the end of a long journey. 

We’re just a day away

From all the riches of the world

Come along, follow me

I will take you there.

Nolle shot a furtive grin at him and joined in. He sang under his breath as he helped Belladia wrap up the medicine. At length the anxious mood lifted as Fredric suddenly broke into rich song.

We’re just a day away!

Can’t you see it shining there?

A bed, a meal, a quart of ale

Home is almost nigh!

Laughing, the travellers dropped their things and grabbed a partner, breaking into a disorganized keridina, the star dance, swinging each other around, launching partners at each other in propulsive trade-offs. It was more like a haphazard keriad – a dance with no real structure. Partners, singles, groups, trading, hoarding – in the face of the keriad, it was all the same, so long as the energy was high.

None of them cared to remember the proper steps or spacing, or even trading sequences. They laughed and shouted as they careered passed each other, nearly tripping, close to colliding. Their dance instructors would have been suitably horrified. Belladia shrieked as Xarthanias dipped her low and swung her back up again, and they jigged around each other, together, then apart.

We’re just a day away!

Life has never looked so good

Home is just beyond the Ridge

We are almost there!

Nobody remembered the words to the song, either. They made up lyrics or repeated the chorus breathlessly. Their cries reached above the dying trees, toward the rising sun. The horses snorted and pranced skittishly. In a moment of unison they linked arms with their partners and swung around drunkenly, gyrating so violently they could hardly keep their feet on the ground, and then momentously traded off. Fredric caught Alapar in a swing, and laughed as they did the jig steps with a little random shimmying in between. Alapar danced with humourless concentration, focusing on each step and placing her feet just so. Fredric grabbed her waist and spun her around, lifting her a couple feet off the ground since he was so tall. She screeched and smacked him on the head, then couldn’t help laughing a little at his surprised expression. She bowed theatrically and skipped one step to join hands with Nolle. Xarthanias linked his arm with Fredric and they had a sort of dance-off, trying to trip each other up with quick, complicated steps, daring the other to keep up. The other’s serious expression set them both to guffaws.

Osarius danced with Belladia for a turn, and she kissed his cheek before being whisked away by Nolle, who traded Alapar to Osarius, sorely against the rules. They were a good match though, with the same inverted precision. Cold beauty.

We’re just a day away

A day away from setting sail

Soon we’ll be across the sea

Never to return!

They were alive! They were free! They were young, and they were going to die soon, but that made it all the more exciting!

At the centre of the disemboweled star, Xarthanias and Belladia came together again, moving more in the fashion of the kenekyriei, the lovers’ dance. They still danced to the tune of the improvised keridina, but inappropriately close and synchronized, their eyes locked. Small smiles danced on the borders of their mouths. In a very mature fashion, Fredric whooped and made kissing noises. In light of the moment, Nolle swooped between them and spirited Belladia away. She batted her eyes at Xarthanias, grinning wickedly, before locking her arms around Nolle’s neck. Xarthanias stood, looking stunned but considerably impressed, before Osarius cut in, putting his hands on Xarthanias’s shoulders.

Guess you’ll have to make do with me, Xar. Uncharacteristically full of air, Osarius batted his eyes like his sister. The forest roared with laughter.

We’re just a day away

From all the riches of the world

From all the ale and all the wine

And chocolate we can eat!

Chimley watched and listened to the fun from the bow of a tree, unsure of how to feel. One part of him, to his surprise, wanted to join in, but he surprised himself even more by his reluctance on the grounds that he didn’t know how to dance. Normally he would have been disgusted with himself, but he stared longingly at the impromptu party. Even dour Alapar seemed to be having at least a little fun, though it was evident she could not dance.

He focused his attention on Prince Xarthanias, his latest charity project. The boy looked perfectly unblemished, his skin cleared of the hideous wounds and any and all scrapes and scratches he had accumulated. The Escort was too gay and drunk on themselves to notice, but their prince moved with inhuman grace and dexterity, fluidity that was more fitting to a hunting animal. Chimley feared he had given Xarthanias too much of the medicine. He hoped the effects would wear off soon.

He couldn’t deal with another creature more powerful than he was.

A noise, faint even to his ears, reeled his attention toward the Belt. Climbing higher into the trees, he peered into the floodplain, and the sight disturbed him.

He scrambled back down the tree. Hey, what are you guys doing? He wanted to sound angry, but the abrupt death of the party saddened him. Are you packed? Ready to go? The sudden silence, their stilled, guilty posture. Who did they think he was? Their mother? He tossed their water flasks into the biggest pile of organized supplies, which consisted of one Indian blanket. Everything else had been dispersed around the space, trampled in the dirt.

Oh, yes, the trip! Belladia said, and they all laughed. She wrapped an arm around Xarthanias, as if for support. One more dance, then, so Chimley can join, and we will be off!

They nodded and took their positions again. No! Chimley insisted. The Ridge is deteriorating severely toward the south. I don’t know how much time we have! We will be halfway out and the end will be gone, and there will be no way to turn back because this end will be gone too! He jabbed his finger at the shadowy mass that loomed beyond the trees. A breeze picked up, and the dried leaves rustled like bone-chimes.

We’ve got to go now, then! decided Xarthanias, making Chimley want to roll his eyes. How could they manage without Xarthanias’s imperiousness?

Belladia was crestfallen. But…

Pack up the things! Leave what’s broken! Come on! Xarthanias disentangled himself from her with an annoyed look as she stood dumbly, all traces of the brief tenderness between them gone like early spring. Chimley caught her eye by accident and looked quickly away.

In his peripheral vision, Chimley saw Osarius crush a pot he was trying to shove into a bag, and felt the crackle of his belligerent essence.

Alapar glanced between Belladia and Xarthanias with a detachedly scrutinizing expression, as though trying to derive an equation to apply.

***

The ride to the head of the Ridge made tensions rise. No one spoke, though joking nudges and bumps were exchanged in nervous excitement. Xarthanias let Chimley lead the way and fell back to walk beside Osarius. During their wild dancing, Xarthanias had caught a flash of unmistakable gold.

Don’t tell the others, Xarthanias implored, but I think I’ve lost the key to the chest. Have you seen it?

With a guilty look Osarius removed it from the pocket of what remained of his black trousers. I was just keeping it safe for you during your surgery. As Tribute Keeper I took the liberty.

Ah. I see. And what other liberties did you take? Xarthanias tried not to sound angry. He was mostly afraid of what Osarius had done. He stared at Xarthanias through ropes of tangled, dark blond hair. They really looked like Men of the Wild, Xarthanias realized. But he returned from his digression.

I don’t know what you mean.

Xarthanias glared at him. Don’t think I’m stupid, Osarius. I may not be as adept as you and Nolle and Belladia and everyone else, but I do pride myself on taking note of the obvious.

What are you talking about? Are you sure you are feeling okay, Xarthanias? You look fine, but…

Gripping Shimmer’s reins, Xarthanias fought to stay calm, to quell the fear. Don’t insult me, Osarius! I know what you did! It doesn’t make sense that I’m…like this. You opened the chest, didn’t you?

Osarius watched Xarthanias with watchful, careful respect. Xarthanias, I am one of your most loyal friends and sworn protector of Despartus. Though I am young, have I ever lied to you? Even when we were children my mother and father taught me along with my sisters to respect and never speak against you.

Well, somebody opened it!

Osarius glanced at the others in front of them, trudging toward the Ridge. The sun was up now, and the Ridge took on a blue hue beneath its menacing black. Still there was the horrifying sound of the rocks tumbling into the water. Ask one of them, he suggested.

Xarthanias impatiently kicked Shimmer and she took off faster than he expected, nearly spilling him off. Regaining his balance, he raced to the beginning of the procession and told everyone to pick up the pace. He breathed in the rushing air as they raced along. Its sourness brought him no comfort. When they got to the massive ridge, less impressive now than it had been this morning in the half-light, he turned and faced his companions.

Before we try and cross, there’s something we need to talk about. He caught sight of Alapar riding double with Fredric, as he often, unconsciously sought her now, and when she wasn’t looking smugly at Belladia or with amused perplexity at Fredric, she watched people intently, with prying, probing eyes that made him want to hide behind something. There were too many things that he didn’t want anyone to see. First, I want to tell you how…much you’ve been great friends to me along this hellacious journey. I… He was surprised by how true his hasty advance apology was. He pulled himself back to attention. But some things are unforgivable, even in the name of friendship or any sort of loyalty to me, your future King.

Nolle rolled his eyes. Get on with it, brother.

Xarthanias leered at his twin. Someone opened the chest last night! Someone took something out of it to heal me, I know it. There’s no explaining how I feel. It’s more than just healed, it’s…transformed. Like I’ve got a whole new body, and a new mind. But that makes no sense. I hardly understand what’s in that box, but every single one of you – except maybe Chimley – is smarter than me when it comes to chemistry. I know that the key was missing from my neck when I awoke this morning.

They looked shocked. Annoyed.

I thought it was Osarius, but he’s my most trustworthy friend. Was it you Nolle? I know we’re brothers, but you still seem to care about me.

Excuse me, Xarthanias, but if you think for one minute that I would –

Or maybe it was you, Belladia. You would do anything to get my attention. He looked at her scathingly, and she gazed back in silent injury, big grey eyes turning misty. His friends all looked angry now, but he returned the gaze. She wasn’t fooling him with his tears.

Look here, Xarthanias, Fredric interjected. A paper-thin grin played at his lips in his effort to look serious for once. How stupid do you think we are? Risk our lives and the lives of everyone in our kingdom just so you could live on to antagonize –

Osarius reached over to thwack him on the head, and a telepathic argument broke out, angry essences mixing like soup about to boil over.

***

Alapar gagged as the toxic emotions nauseated her, worse than the putrid air. She slid down from Fang’s back, hoping for some relief, and then everyone else did too, beginning to angrily hiss at one another and then shout. When they were overcome with emotion, Alapar noticed, they often turned to speaking out loud, be it excitement or joy or uncontained anger. How could they say such things to each other? They had seemed so inseparably harmonious before. The sickening storm subsided however.

Fredric’s smile had faded completely, and he looked frighteningly like the full-grown man people didn’t realize he was, looming over everyone else like a dirty, red-haired, shirtless giant. His cinnamon-coloured eyes looked more red than brown. He was no longer silly, easy-humoured and boyish. Alapar stared, the plummeting feeling in her stomach worsening.

Chimley stood at the edges and didn’t move or say anything. He jerked when he noticed her watching him, glared darkly, and launched himself into the melee, shouting and shaking his fist like the rest of them.

She remembered the last time she had seen men arguing this loudly. Her father, shouting at the army outside their house on the Belt ready to take them both back to Rena. A pair of eyes finding her where she was hidden behind drapes, dark eyes that pleaded with her, nearly irresistibly…to go home…

An invasive boom cleaved her memory and the argument of the Escort. For a moment she was still trapped in that house, and she thought it was collapsing again, and that she would have to relive the nightmare. Someone touched her arm, and she realized she was keening. Cutting off the shameful mewl, she cleared her throat and turned toward the sound.

It was the Ridge. About a hundred yards out, another chunk fell in, and it was as big as a house. The blue core of the Ridge stood naked, alarmingly exposed.

Come on! Fredric ordered, and boosted her back onto Fang before swinging up in front of her. Everyone leapt back onto their horses and raced to the Ridge. It hulked almost two storeys above them, an uneven angle of about forty-five degrees up. Fredric dismounted again and joined Xarthanias in pacing the length of it, his long legs clumsy where Xarthanias seemed to float over the uneven ground. They seemed to be conversing privately, pointing things out to each other and shaking their heads in agitation. There was another boom and a splash.

We will have to lead the horses up, very carefully, Xarthanias decided. He secured the big box to Shimmer’s back as firmly as he could, taking straps from the pack horse. Patting it in place he took the reins and led them forward. Alapar gingerly took Fang’s reins, but thankfully Fredric returned to walk beside her, leading the horse.

Xarthanias took a sort of zigzagging pattern up to the top of the ridge, and disappeared over the top. Nolle and Osarius were next to follow, and then his sister, and then it was Alapar and Fredric’s turn. Everyone else had labored up the rock, carefully considering their footing and stretching for better footholds.  The view of Osarius’s and Xarthanias’s straining muscles was unobstructed by clothing. Alapar realized how they managed to stay so fit despite the fact that their minds did most of the heavy lifting – Despartus was the land of mountains, and they undoubtedly spent many hours climbing. But even this proved challenging for them. There was barely a flat space to be seen. Some of the mounds were as high as her waist, and there were holes that she could disappear into. Fredric, with his impossibly long legs, and Fang with her instincts, didn’t think twice about where to put their feet. It wasn’t the best method. A misstep caused Fredric to slide, and he knocked Alapar backward before grabbing hold of Fang’s tail. She squealed and aimed a kick at them, and then she lost her footing too.

At once they all fell back down to the dead grass, Fredric nearly landing on top of Alapar. She wanted to strangle that stupid show off.

“Do it properly this time!” she spit as they tried again. He looked appropriately cowed. She shoved him toward the base of the Ridge.

Alapar struggled simply to stay upright. The Despartans may have had years of practice but she had surmounted the Volcanic Belt mountains only a handful of times. By the time they crested the Ridge, her legs and hands were bruised from falling, and Fredric had split his lip laughing at her. She glared at him coldly.

Chimley came up next with the packhorse. The air was too thick up here. Her eyes and nose burned, and she had trouble seeing through her tears. The procession was moving along quickly, though. The horses nimbly manoeuvred over the loose rock and massive boulders.

Finally Fredric fell. She made a point of not laughing though, and carefully helped him to his feet. He slapped her back appreciatively, nearly pushing her into a hole. Accidently or purposefully.

The rock was rough and porous, and through the blue-black top layer there were luminescent gems of orbalite. Alapar picked up an egg-sized chunk and dug into the soft, charcoal-like volcanic rock with her finger. The orbalite glittered at her, the size of an eyeball. She slipped it into the pocket of her dress.

They were surrounded on all sides by majestic mountains, dormant and smoking volcanoes alike. The horizon roiled and rumbled as the mountains groaned, and boulders dove into the water. Alapar edged to the side of the Ridge and peered over. They were dizzyingly high, higher than her old house, and the brown waves whirled below her.

The rock beneath her feet cracked. Fredric, only a few feet away, sprung forward and wrapped an arm around her waist just as a large chunk gave way, leaving Alapar dangling over his arm.

Fredric hauled her back, mock disapproval showing through his sudden pallor. I wouldn’t do that if I were you.

She hugged her arms around her pounding heart and nodded, her face heating up.

They walked on, but Fredric still seemed bothered. They travelled a few horse lengths away from each other to even out their weight, and Alapar and Fredric were the only two paired up. Ahead no one had noticed Alapar’s slip. Chimley had probably seen, but Alapar didn’t bother to look back. She laboured to breathe the rancid air, fighting the urge to cough out every breath. It seemed someone was coughing every second.

Fredric continued to stew. These people were really starting to bother her. How did they stand being so aware of each other all the time? She could feel the unsatisfied, slightly frustrated texture of Fredric’s thoughts, and it made her feel unsatisfied and frustrated. He was thinking very hard about something. When he wasn’t acting like a senseless fool, Alapar could see a deep intelligence to him. If only he could keep his feelings to himself.

Why are you scowling? She realized he was looking at her. She started and scowled deeper. She was beginning to feel her tiredness from an ineffective sleep on the forest floor, and suppressed grief for her father. No wonder they were all so testy. Apparently the Escort had been at this for weeks.

“Is there something to smile about?” she rasped, unable to inject the venom she wanted to. Maybe she was grumpy because it was hard to rile him up. No amount of glaring from her could erase that grin that was rarely out of sight.

Of course there is. Aren’t you anxious to get home? Haven’t you been living here for years and years?

This is my home, she wanted to tell him, but turned away and didn’t say anything. She rubbed a hand over her matted hair and wished for a bath.

You know what I don’t understand? Fredric went on, and finally, he was serious again. Why are both the South Ologo and the floodplain like this at the same time? What happened?

Alapar didn’t know. She didn’t understand why Ciragid erupted after all this time. Her and her father had had picnics…

Furthermore, why is the Belt so flooded? Where is the extra water coming from?

They both thought, but came up with nothing. Alapar shrugged and held out her empty hands, showing him that she didn’t have the answer.

Fredric lit up. Wait! What if…

They chased solutions in circles while the world continued to rumble and groan.

***

Even though Osarius could sense them, he kept looking back to make sure everyone was alright. He couldn’t technically map them or even space them, but their radiating thoughts connected with each other like they were all holding hands. He couldn’t make out Chimley’s face, but he patted the packhorse reassuringly every now and then. Alapar walked beside Fredric, and they seemed to be having a conversation. In front of them and about a dozen yards behind Osarius, Belladia led Keana with a dejected sort of indifference. He sent her a pitying, telepathic embrace and told her to stay strong. This journey was taking its toll. They were almost to Rena, and emotions ran high. Xarthanias would be fine once he got a bath and some real food into him. Belladia tried to smile, but her eyes wouldn’t cooperate. And Nolle was in front of him, with Xarthanias taking the lead.

They walked carefully, as quickly as they dared.

Who could have opened the chest? They were all suspect besides Alapar, whom Osarius doubted knew much about what was going on. He was saddened that his reunion with his friends and sister had taken this sour note. And that Xarthanias would accuse him of such a heinous thing. Despite himself, he glared in Xarthanias’s direction, indulging himself for once. The nerve of that self-centered cur.

He sighed and smoothed his expression, thinking of Belladia. There was hope yet for Despartus.

***

Or maybe, Fredric went on, wiggling his eyebrows at Alapar infuriatingly, a herd of depressed belahm turtles committed suicide at the same time, clogging the mouth of the river and poisoning the water as their shells dissolved.

Alapar stared at him, open-mouthed. The thought of the gentle but poisonous turtles with their shells that seeped acid tickled her consciousness, and she imagined the lot of them placidly hurling themselves off a cliff. It was all she could do not to laugh out loud. A little giggle escaped her.

Since her throat was too sore to talk, Fredric had been doing most of the figuring while Alapar refuted his propositions with fervent sign language. As he progressed, his hypotheses became more bizarre. She wanted to shove him off the edge at this one. See how much he liked heights then! Poor turtles.

Or maybe…Alapar moaned and rolled her eyes, moving to smack him, when a deep shudder racked the Ridge, making the horses skitter and the people fall on their rear ends. Alapar whipped her gaze to the north just in time to see the Ridge start to collapse. She paled, mouth open in horror.

Get up! Come on! Fredric jerked her to her feet, swung her easily onto Fang’s back. Barely seated himself, he kicked her into a full run.

Alapar didn’t realize she was screaming until Fredric nudged her, hard, and told her to stop before he went deaf. Fang was fast. In seconds they caught up to Belladia on Keana. The terrifying ripping and rumbling and splashing pursued them like a tireless beast. The Ridge bowed in sequence like a giant hand was passing over it, flattening it.

The horses leapt over and swerved around craters and mounds that before they had deftly picked around. They were urged on, shouted at and smacked and kicked, but there was only so fast they could go. Fang’s breakneck speed slowed as she matched the pace of those in front of them. Alapar peaked around Fredric. The ground was soft, crumbling easily as they charged ahead. The horses pranced daintily, their pace slowing.

Come on! Fredric thought, desperation clouding around him. He kicked Fang and she pulled ahead of Keana, and then Covah, and then Ribbon. When they were abreast of Xarthanias on Shimmer, she slowed. Xarthanias!

No! We’ll make it! Xarthanias replied, and Alapar wondered what she had missed. Looking back, she saw that Chimley was dancing on the edge of the collapse, riding the Ridge like a wave. He coaxed and shouted at the packhorse, but it was like they were running through chest-deep snow. With a mighty leap the pack horse surged ahead, and continued on in leaps and bounds, momentarily outrunning its pursuer. Ahead, the end of the floodplain came into view. Alapar gasped in relief. Give me the chest! Fredric yelled at Xarthanias. Fang’s faster, you’ll never make it before –

And right on cue, just as Alapar had feared, the other end of the Ridge began collapsing as well. They were only a hundred yards away.

With a gesture, all the straps binding the chest to Shimmer’s back came loose, and Fredric reached over to snatch it before it could fall. Xarthanias ripped the key from around his neck and sent it flying toward the grass at the end of the ridge. In the last seconds they had, he kicked Fang into a gallop faster than the wind, and before Alapar had time to scream, they were flying.

Looking down, she saw what was left of the Ridge, once a towering beast, now a pile of rocks no more than five feet above the ravenous waves.

And then, impact. This time, she did fall off the horse. But she hit grass. Not water, not burning death. Moaning she rolled over, her head throbbing where it had hit the ground. She rolled to her feet. Fredric was turning Fang around to face the Ridge. It had been completely flattened, and the rest of the Escort milled around at the edge. The waves were just out of reach, murky and menacing.

The chest rested safely in Fredric’s lap.

Jump! he urged his friends. What was left of the Ridge was starting to dissolve, the black melting away to reveal dark blue which was then eaten as well. Xarthanias didn’t hesitate, and Shimmer crossed the unimpressive little bridge at a good clip, pushing more of the rock into the water. Wordlessly he held his hands out for the chest, and Fredric tossed it to him.

Osarius ordered Belladia to go across next, and Nolle followed and more solid rock was dislodged, the Ridge continuing to disappear. Osarius and Chimley glared at each other until finally Chimley went. He had their supplies. After he crossed, there was only a few inches of space between the top of the rocks and the water. The water slipped lovingly over the mini blue Ridge. The place where Osarius stood began to crack and crumble.

Osarius, come on! Fredric begged. He agonized over Osarius’s dilemma. One wrong move and he would go plunging into the water. It had to be at least ten feet deep, according to what Alapar had said. Finally, when he was about three inches above the water and it tickled Covah’s feet, he had no choice but to go. The second Covah’s feet pressed the orbalite, it sunk.

Come on, Covah. With a leap, Covah tried to get to the shore, but she lost her footing and crashed into the water, barely a foot from safety. Osarius flung himself onto the ground.

After a few violent seconds, Covah thrashed her way free and dragged herself to the shore, neighing in terror and pain. She tried to stand, but fell to her side, flailing and whinnying and lathering at the mouth.

Covah…Osarius dropped to her side, behind her head, grasping her face in his hands. Her wide dark eyes locked on him, square pupils dilated in fear. She stopped her thrashing and heaved deep breaths. Swallowing, Osarius shifted his gaze to her feet.

The hooves had all but dissolved, and what was left crumbled away at his touch. The tender frogs were red and raw, her fetlocks singed. Osarius felt his heart stop beating, and he was sure his horror would suffocate everyone. He hadn’t doted on Covah like Fredric babied Fang, but she was a good military horse, and had never given him any trouble.

I’m so sorry, Covah.

She continued to foam and rasp in terror. Fredric dismounted and knelt beside his friend. Everyone stood around them, watching.

Osarius couldn’t stand to see his horse in pain any longer. A knife?

Xarthanias dismounted and handed him one.

This is the circle path

The path we all must follow

Follow till the bitter end

Till the path begins again

Begins anew, and never ends.

***

They stood and watched, just out of reach, as the water lapped the grassy banks. The grass was brown and all but ground into the dirt. But it was solid ground. Beyond them lay the expanse of grasslands separating them from Rena. Before them lay a concluded nightmare.

With a burp, Covah’s dead body slipped beneath the surface.

Resolutely, Osarius turned away. Onward, he thought tiredly.

Fredric caught his arm. Osarius –

I’ll be fine Fredric. Let’s go!

No – I mean, good, but – look!

Osarius followed his gaze. There was the mouth of Verien, where a copse of trees should have been, where she joined the Kenase River. But The Kenase was practically dry, and Verien was choked with a pile of decaying trees.

It all makes sense now! Fredric exclaimed, running to the dam. Astonished, the rest followed.

Alapar cleared her throat, but it didn’t work. “Yes it does,” she rasped. “So much for the turtles.” Her and Fredric exchanged a secret look, and Alapar almost smiled.

It didn’t take much to clear the blockage when they all worked together, though the water hampered their telekinesis. With a gasp, the Kenase flowed again, rushing away from its prison. Within five minutes, the floodplain was notably lower.

You’re welcome. Fredric bowed to the Volcanic Belt and the River Verien. The Escort applauded him. With one victory behind them, they grabbed their horses and led them onward, toward the empty prairie ahead. Rena was nearly upon them. Alapar began to shake.

They’re just a day away

From seeing who I really am…

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