Bones buried in glittering sand
Concealed whispers of treachery
If secrets would stay hidden
The land would remain bright.
Here we are again, Luirlan. You, drowning, waiting to be rescued…how many times until you learn how to swim?
My throat constricts, my heart stands still for just a moment at her voice. I wanted to forget her. Never. “No—” I mumble, backing up in the dark. “Just—leave me, I can save myself! I’m not going to die!”
You still have me, though. Letting me take over all the time…what’s happening to you, Luirlan? Letting the spirits take over? We could, you know. We could take you completely. Then you could fade away, be forgotten…I could show you how.
You don’t even know when I’ve taken over sometimes. You think you’re speaking, but they’re my words.
She pauses as if musing to herself. There’s something innately appealing about watching someone bleeding themself dry without you having to even raise a finger. Oh, most people won’t get to that point without a little bit of guidance, but once you’re there? All they need is a small nudge, a word, and then they’re tumbling off that cliff-side, head tipping with legs flying behind them, others running too slow to catch up… and that? That is true artistry, my dear.
And that’s what you want, isn’t it?
“No! I want you to leave!” I say desperately. “I just want it to—stop. Don’t show me anything else. Don’t save me anymore.”
That will never happen, Luirlan. But I’ll be gracious since you just arrived at Sviros. I won’t show you anything. For now.
Relief rushes through me, and I’m almost thankful. “Let me go,” I say quietly. “Please. Let me leave.”
Very well. You may leave, but I’ll be spending more time with you later, Luirlan. You can’t forget me.
Heat. Cold fading into warmth, tingling in the frozen parts of my body. Blinding bright above me, sunrays like little daggers, piercing my skull and building pressure behind my eyes. I close my eyes for a long time, but the light does not fade. The blazing inferno of sun seems intent on not budging from the sky.
Perhaps I should be glad for the warmth. But I was used to the darkness of Jagas. Even when the sun was there, it seemed cold, distant. I instantly break into a sweat under my heavy Vandrend furs.
I sit up, trying to focus on my surroundings. Everything is silent and bright for a long time, broken only by a faint ringing, searing through my skull. My clothes feel damp, but not soaked. The ground beneath me is hard and prickling, almost gritty in texture. Alive. I am alive.
“Chiqu!” Juase’s call is faint at first, slowly growing louder as the water drains from my ears. “Chiqu!”
The blurriness in my eyes clears, and I can see Juase standing on the cliff, pacing back and forth as he calls his cousin’s name. Further down, I can see several figures huddled together. Probably Sarofa and Mehild, or some of the crew.
The cliff is low, close to the ocean. Maybe the others climbed the cliff, or maybe it was high tide when we were washed in here. I don’t know how I got here. Nobody would have bothered to look for me when they could have saved themselves.
No, I do know how I got here. I do know.
“Chiqu!” Juase shouts again, voice breaking in desperation. “Where is she?” He paces a few more times, then gets on his knees and bends over the cliff.
“What are you doing?” one of the crewmates asks. “I need to find her!” Juase yells back, determined. “I can’t let her go!”
He begins to lower himself down the cliff, glancing at the sea below him nervously. “Juase, wait!” I say, hauling myself up and swaying unsteadily. “Wait! She’s not coming back!”
“What?” Juase pauses, staring at me incredulously. “What do you mean? She can swim!”
“She’s not coming back,” I repeat, voice hard and cold. “She told me. She didn’t want to return to Sviros.”
“But—she—you’re lying!” he cries. “You’re lying again, like you always do. If she’s out there, I have to look for her. I have to find her.”
“Fine,” I say, shrugging indifferently. “Look for her. But she’s not coming back.”
Juase looks from me to the sea, face streaked with glossy tears. He doesn’t know what to do. He may say I’m lying, but there’s a part of him that believes me.
“You realize it now, don’t you?” I walk over to him and sit on the cliff. “Optimism won’t get you far. Ignoring things won’t change them. You saw it in her all along, didn’t you?”
He slowly shakes his head. “Stop talking,” he whispers. But I don’t listen.
“Why would any sane person, knowing the dangers of crossing the sea, go back so many times?” I pause, watching for his reaction, waiting for the outburst I know will come if I push hard enough. “It wasn’t for refugees. It’s because she wasn’t sane.”
“You’re wrong!” Juase’s eyes glitter with a mix of emotions, grief and anger and bitterness. “It was for the refugees! Because they asked her to. Because Mother—her aunt—did it.”
I don’t reply, waiting for him to tell me more. “It’s their fault, you know,” he says bitterly, almost to himself. “The Assembly. And she knew it all along. Tried to convince me to get out of it, but I wouldn’t listen. Couldn’t, not after what happened to Mother. It wasn’t right, what we were doing. And the last thing I said to her…” He trails off, eyes shimmering with tears.
And the Assembly. Chiqu mentioned that before. Said they wanted to kill her if she didn’t bring Epiran back.
“Maybe she didn’t want to return because she knew it was wrong,” Juase murmurs. “All of it was wrong. She wanted to get away from it. But I thought she would fight harder, at least, if that’s what she thought.”
“No,” I say. “She didn’t want to come back because she said they would kill her, if she didn’t have Epiran.”
Juase gives me a surprised glance. “Epiran? Who was that?”
“We lost him on the cliffs, before we got to the ship,” I reply. “Apparently he was more valuable than I thought.”
“She didn’t mention anything to me about him,” Juase says. His eyes drift to the water, and he gasps. “Look! There!”
I follow his hand, pointing frantically at the waves. I don’t see it at first. Then the pulsing water turns her over, and I see her face. Chiqu. Floating, limp, rocked by the waves.
Juase is climbing down the rocks again in an instant, calling out as he does. “Chiqu! I’m coming!” he cries, straining his head back so he won’t lose her to the sea. Once he’s low enough, he braces himself and pushes off the cliff, plunging into the sea.
Chiqu’s body has begun to sink. Juase is running out of time, though he’s swimming toward it as fast as he can. He disappears for a moment, head submerged under the surface as he dives.
I don’t realize I’m holding my breath until I exhale heavily. How long can a person hold their breath before the air is squeezed out of their lungs? I should know. I’ve nearly drowned twice. But for some reason, I never found myself focusing on keeping track of time.
Then Juase’s head splashes out of the water, gasping. I don’t see anyone with him at first, and I think he’s unsuccessful. Then I see Chiqu’s arm, wrapped around his shoulder as he paddles the water with one hand.
He manages to climb a few steps up the rock before stopping, groaning from the weight of hauling a limp body behind him. He looks up, down at the waves, and up again, unsure how to move forward.
“Help me,” he wheezes, and I lean forward to grab his one free hand as he hangs on to the cliffside. He pushes with his feet, and I pull backward with all my strength until he collapses on the rock, sodden, Chiqu’s body on his back.
Once he’s caught his breath, he kneels over to her. “Chiqu!” he cries. “Wake up, come on, come on…”
I don’t point out that she’s not breathing.
Sarofa runs over to us. “She must have inhaled a lot of water,” she tells Juase, bending over the body. “I know how to save a drowning person.” Juase looks hesitant at moving from his cousin, then Sarofa takes his hand in hers. “Trust me,” she says earnestly, looking into his eyes. “I know what to do.”
Juase looks from her to Mehild, then nods and hastily steps aside. Sarofa begins pressing on Chiqu’s chest, pumping forcefully with her hands. She tries several times before leaning back on her heels, running her fingers through her hair. “It’s not working,” she whispers in frustration. “Why isn’t it working?”
I know why. If Chiqu had wanted to live, she would have saved herself. She wouldn’t need to be hauled out of the water because she could have done it herself, and then gone back for everyone else. I know Chiqu won’t come back because she would have done it by now.
But sometimes, no matter how hard you try, your body simply won’t give up because it’s trained to survive. I know that, too.
Chiqu gasps and begins to splutter, coughing up water. Her eyes grow wide and she begins to make choking sounds, clutching her throat and jerking back and forth. Juase is by her side, pounding her back as she spits water from her lungs.
When she can finally breathe, she falls back to the ground. Her face is empty, desolate, dark circles under her eyes, her hair matted with seawater.
“You’re alive!” Juase cries, wrapping his arms around her and pulling her limp body to his chest. “Chiqu, I—”
Chiqu pushes him away, and I can see she is trembling. Juase looks crestfallen, but backs up, realizing his mistake. Perhaps he thinks she is just weak from nearly drowning. I can tell Chiqu has never been one for affection.
I know what she is feeling. I know the disappointment of failing to die. I can see the dread in her face, because now she has to keep going, and she knows the spirits won’t leave her alone forever. They’ll come back. Until then, she will have to wait, dreading their return. Unpredictability can be torture. You never know when the end is near.
“We should go,” Juase says gently. “Sviros?” Chiqu croaks after a moment, and Juase nods in affirmation. Chiqu sighs, shuddering, closes her eyes and doesn’t open them for a long time. Then she stands, nodding to Juase. “All right,” she says. “Let’s go.”
She turns and examines the cliffside for a moment, seeking out a hidden path carved into the rocks. “Maybe I should go first,” suggests Juase, but Chiqu shakes her head. “No,” she says. “I can do it.”
She searches the rocks a little while longer, then steps forward and begins pulling herself up, nimbly skirting the cliffside. Her hands seem to find the small cracks and alcoves that will support her weight as if by instinct, and her feet follow close behind. Soon she has covered the short distance and heaves herself up onto the land above us. She sits, panting from exertion, then peers down at us.
I’m not sure why she’s so eager to get going so quickly, seeing as Sviros is the place she might want to avoid. Perhaps she wants to get it over with. The Assembly will inevitably confront her the moment they realize she has returned if Epiran was as valuable as I can tell.
Juase goes next, and I climb beside him. Near the top, the rocks begin to jut out. I reach out to grasp one of the rocks and find that I can’t see where to move next. The rocks have obscured my vision.
Heart pounding, I look over at Juase, who continues to climb with ease. My arms begin to tremble from the weight of my body, feet scrabbling at the rock in an attempt to hang on although there are no footholds beneath me.
Then I feel a hand on my forearm and look up to see that Chiqu has bent over the cliff above me to stop me from falling. As she steadies me, I take a deep breath and push against the rocks. She hauls me over the edge, and I fall to the ground.
“Thanks,” I mumble, and she barely nods. I look back to see Sarofa, Mehild, and the three other crewmates who survived the wreck following us up the cliff. A stiff, dry breeze tickles my damp skin, smelling of something unfamiliar.
Then I look around me and hold back a gasp.
Everywhere, brown sand, searing and bright. The air is thick and hazy with it, and each breath is like drowning in heat. It is a broken wasteland. The cruel malevolent eye of the sun beats down, unblinking, without even a wisp of cloud in the sky to soften the harsh rays. Rocky sandstone masses protrude from the dust, looming in faint shadows on the blurred horizon.
Sunlight crawls over the land, slanted and golden. It pulls salty sweat into droplets on my skin, rolling off my nose and stinging my eyes. My heavy clothes are hot and sticky from it.
I look out at the sea, so cold and distant before, so angry and vicious while we crossed it. Now it glitters happily in the light, sliding up to the cliffs and back again.
“Sviros is not far, but after the shipwreck, we have no water,” Chiqu says to us. “And trust me, this desert will steal all the water from your body. So, we have to move quickly, but not so quickly that we become too dehydrated. Understand?”
I don’t answer, too busy taking in the barren landscape before me. So different from the cold, biting conditions of Jagas, yet so similar in the sense that both were meant to drive our bodies to their limits. Jagas will send ice shooting into your veins, slowing your senses and draining your mind. Sviros will suck you dry to a husk, a shell of what you should be.
I begin to follow Chiqu, but once my feet depart the gritty rock, they seem to sink into the fine sand that covers the land. “What is this?” I mutter, taking a handful and letting it pour through my fingers.
“Not used to walking on sand?” Chiqu calls back, not looking behind me. “It’s harder than snow. Not as heavy, but you’ll see. It’ll reach every corner, fill every bag, coat every surface. You get used to it. After a while.”
She’s right. Each footstep sends a spray of sand drifting in the faint breeze. The ground is not firm and frozen, but constantly moving beneath me, sliding and collecting in heaps with every slight movement.
My sight blurs in the singing heat and makes my eyes watery with strange visions. Shapes seem to float just above the horizon, gliding into colors and sparkling pools.
I slowly grow aware of something burning deep in my lungs. It is a burn that doesn’t go away, instead growing steadily stronger and harder to ignore as the day goes on and the sun beats on my back and neck. My lips have withered to crinkled versions of what they should be. Every muscle aches, screams for water, something to help them function and move. My tongue, covered in sand, gnaws at the roof of my parched mouth. Thick saliva lines the inside of my mouth, immediately sapping any moisture that may enter. My throat is leathery and coarse, and every lungful of hot air robs more water from my body and fills my lungs with more of the wicked, choking dust.
I hear a small splash and pause, trying to locate the sound. A splash means water, or liquid of some sort. Just ahead of me, a small overhang of rock shelters a wide pool, set in a dip in the sand. I run to it, fall to my knees as relief and desperation crash over me. When I see the water, my heart sinks.
The water is cloudy, warmer than my hand, and almost opaque with dust. It makes me gag just to think of drinking it, but there is nothing else. I cup my hands around some of the thick liquid and raise it to my lips.
“Don’t drink that!” I pause at Chiqu’s shout, but my body, desperate for water, refuses to listen to the warning. My hands pull the water to my mouth, and it rushes down my throat, hot and thick.
Then I see it. A crumpled figure, hidden in the shadows, lurking just between the rock and the pool. Savagely contorted, rigid in a silent scream in its last moments of agony. I can tell it was a painful death, somehow, although the corpse was unrecognizable as anything but a structure, an object. I can hear its silent cry.
Marks are gauged into the ancient, bleached bone, the crown of the head cleaved open and hollow. From the maze of bones hang scraps of torn cloth, remnants of clothing that used to protect this thing that has been revealed.
I scramble away, trying to stand when I feel something soft beneath my feet. I don’t want to look. No, don’t look, don’t look at what it is, just get away. Get away.
But someone’s hands clamp around my head, someone’s voice whispers in my ear. Look, Luirlan. Look at it. Look at this thing, once living, now nothing more than an object. You’re no stranger to corpses. Look at this treasure, this prize, this victory. Another one gone.
My feet have disturbed a grave, shallow in the ground where the sand slides away. This one is much newer, or perhaps the layer of sand above has protected it from the wrath of the sun. The face, sinking away into the skull, lips and eyes and cheeks melted away. Beneath a thin layer of decaying flesh, flashes of white. Rags of skin cling to the smooth bone, dried and curled. In some places, a sheen stands out where the flesh has been newly and expertly removed.
I catch a sudden movement out of the corner of my eye and pry myself away from the dead body beneath me. A creature standing as tall as my waist is hunched in the cool darkness under the rock. I count five, six legs sprouting from each side of the body. Large, round ears swivel atop its head, and its smooth scales, muted light bronze in color, are dull glistening with droplets of moisture that slip down to the skin beneath. Around its small, elliptic eyes, the scales grow dark.
It darts forward, nipping a chunk of decomposing flesh between its jaws and ripping with a wet tear. Then it quickly drags its prize away, watching me suspiciously through dark glittering eyes. It wriggles under the sand and is quickly enveloped, dissolving into the shadows.
An odd churning sensation has taken root in my stomach, as if a swarm of flying beasts has been agitated into a frenzy there. Bile burns in my dry throat, rising up and threatening to spill out. My innards have been replaced with some kind of hole, sucking me inside and shrinking me into nothingness.