Below the surface
their screams go unheard
until, at last, they rise.
is their dance.
are their chants.
Sparks. Flickers of fire swim in the shadows. And I instantly know something is different.
Mara is next to me, nails sinking into the flesh of my shoulder. “I want to show you something.” She grins, and her pointed teeth are stained a dark color. “I think you’ll like it quite a lot.” She holds her hand out to me. “Come, dance into the darkness.”
I say nothing and allow her to guide me through the dark. It feels thick, like the air has absorbed too much blood. We drift, sky pulling up, ground pulling down, but it’s weaker than on Dele. And then I see it.
Tall, winding spikes of clay and sandstone, stretching up to the sky. And at their base, colors. Bright, jubilant colors I’ve never seen before, draped over square buildings, some small, some towering, but not as high as the steep mountains beside them. I see tiny, narrow paths snaking past the buildings, and scuttling along them, people. So many of them, all in one place, talking, laughing, singing, meandering aimlessly just for the sake of it. Mara takes me closer, and the noise fills my ears: traders yelling out prices, arguing over the details of an exchange, children whining to their parents, all of it merging into a steady, nervous hum.
I’m not sure how to feel. The atmosphere is friendly, but there are so many of them, it’s constricting. There is nowhere to run where you won’t be followed. No place to hide where you won’t be found.
We watch the bustling crowds, and I notice several structures lined with some familiar things: weapons and tools, polished and gleaming; shells of all colors and sizes; colorful woven blankets; fish and meat, giving off a tempting aroma…
It is so different from Jagas. Here they have so much. They aren’t constantly on the move, searching for their food.
“What do you think?” Mara asks, but I am speechless and simply give an incredulous shake of my head. “Yes, it is incredible,” she agrees, “how ignorant they are.”
“Ignorant of what?”
She raises her eyebrows. “So you haven’t noticed, either? What’s happening over the sea? What’s happened to the sky?”
I narrow my eyes. “The sky….” And then I realize what she’s talking about. “You mean the sun. How it’s gone dark.”
She nods, beaming as if rewarding a young child. “Of course,” she replies enthusiastically. “But it hasn’t gone dark over here, has it?”
She’s right. That’s what is so different. Not just the buildings and the people, clumped in their groups. The sun is bright, blinding, fierce.
“But by the shore, things aren’t so pretty,” Mara says, and the scene before us disappears, replaced with one of a sandy beach on a cliff. It’s not as high as the cliff above the sea in Jagas, but the waves are just as tumultuous. I see five small figures in a thin, dark boat slipping up to the shore, climbing out of the boat. One of them, a hooded figure, seems to be leading the others. I catch a glimpse of skin. It’s the distinctive dark tone of a Sviroser. But the rest of them aren’t hooded, and I can tell by their clothes and pale, smooth hair they’re from Jagas.
Jagaser. What are they doing in Sviros?
“She’s a smuggler,” Mara tells me. “Transporting Jagaser refugees to Sviros. Illegally.”
But it’s never been illegal to cross the sea. Often, no one attempts it because of how dangerous it is. And given our history with outsiders, Sviroser often steer clear of the tribes on Jagas.
“It wasn’t illegal, before,” says Mara, reading my thoughts. “Many came once the ice began to melt. But after you left, and the sun didn’t come back, some Jagaser knew something was wrong.”
The ice began to melt. Has the ice been melting? I didn’t notice. Perhaps I was too consumed in escaping my tribe.
“It was melting, but not anymore,” Mara continues. “The Vandrender are dying, now not from heat, but from the cold. They began building boats and ships out of trarot and crossing the sea. Many didn’t make it, but those who did came to Sviros. It wasn’t long before the capital city was crowded with Jagaser, and the Assembly didn’t like it.”
The scene flashes to a wide room. Ten or so Sviroser are sitting on woven blankets on the ground. I can’t hear what they’re saying but many look upset.
“Too ignorant, they said. The Jagaser know nothing of the culture in Sviros. A waste of resources. So the Assembly banned any more refugees.” We’re back on the shore, watching the hooded figure lead the Jagaser over a vast desert. “But that one decided to help.”
I watch silently for a while until the figures have disappeared into the distance. Then I speak. “Why?”
Mara gives me a mischievous glance. “Why, what? You’ll have to elaborate—”
I’m not in the mood for her games. “Why are you showing me all this? Why does it matter to me?”
“Because, Luirlan, you live on Jagas,” she says slowly, enunciating every word. “And sooner or later, it’s going to be too cold. The sun isn’t coming back. Not for Jagas, anyway. And the tribes are either going to have to escape to Sviros, or die.” The desert fades into darkness. “The same goes for you. And considering it’s my job to keep you alive…” She trails off, eyes boring into mine.
“You’d better find a smuggler.”
Coolness, lapping at my feet. The air is thick around me, and when I move the ground seems to crawl with life. Crimson glow wavering on my skin, turning me dark violet and shimmering.
Everything is humming here, even the warped, pockmarked stone that comes to lay at my feet. I see twisted shadows of creatures dipping their snouts to the shifting water beside me, but they are far and I am close. Pinned down, and I heave myself up, breaking away from the tiny claws that pull me closer to the cold ground so they can whisper, whining voices that slip into my ears.
The smooth pool is swirling with the faint, opalescent red glow. It’s pale at the edges, then almost immediately dark where the water dives deep. A pale mist shimmers above it, obscuring the other side. I see the creatures are not creatures at all, but vines twisted together with small, dark scarlet orbs hanging from their gnarled hands.
I’m in a hollow, deep in the mountains. Lichens and moss cover the walls of the cliffs, pulsing with blue and purple light. I’m startled by a small splashing sound as a pale white fish breaks the surface, then quickly dives into the depths. The ripples send light flickering and bouncing off the glowing stone.
Tiny, translucent mites are gathered in clumps on the stones, their protective shells transparent. I can see the pulsing organs inside of them, pumping their tiny lives.
My gaze fixes on the pool in the center. The indigo color is reminiscent of fresh blood. I reach out my hand and lean forward, letting my fingers submerge beneath the surface. It’s cold and thicker than I had expected, but nothing unusual happens.
I stand up and step back, my foot crunching something.
Then I hear them. Voices. Whispering and screaming silent songs that echo, songs that no one has heard before, but now I am here, listening. Warnings, pleas, rejoicing, and crying, muddled together and I cannot block it out. It is a dissonant melody, overlapping at places where it shouldn’t, too quiet and perhaps too loud to be heard and heeded.
I watch the figures rise, reaching out skeletal fingers, each swaying their own tune, jerking movements and graceful all at once, but haunting, forever haunting as they stumble forward
They pluck the orbs from the vines and force them between my teeth, bursting and spilling out bitter liquid, stretching thin fingers down to scratch and pull at my throat, reaching deep inside. I try to pull away, retch and spit but they just laugh and hold me tighter, wrapping their piercing fingers around my neck and squeezing so tight.
Souls ripped from corpses long ago have returned, or perhaps they never escaped, tormenting me, why me? Why do they care enough for me? I’m nothing I’m empty but it was my fault, wasn’t it? Everything I did just because I could. All of it coming back and haunting and tearing apart anything they touch and I’m shaking, screaming for them to go, to leave me alone, I forgot how much it hurts, I was just bored and tired and hungry, so hungry—
There’s a hand clutching my shoulder. No. I’ve escaped them. None of it was real. Just another twisted dream my demented brain has woven together. But the hand is still there.
I bolt up, heart racing and instantly on guard as my eyes clear the blur of sleep. And I’m right to be alert.
There are three of them. No, four—two are huddled together, wrapped in each other’s arms. I can only see a shadow of one by the pool. And the one who was bending over me, crouched in a wary position, is only a few paces away.
I’m frozen to the ground. Who are they? Do I attack, run, try to negotiate? I would easily be outnumbered if conflict broke out. But if they were here with hostile intentions, why didn’t they slice me open while I was sleeping and be done with it? Perhaps they’re from my tribe, come to bring me back for another attempt at an excruciating Ofre.
But the female in front of me is clearly from Sviros. She has a brown woven hood pulled over her face, held together with a silver clasp and obscuring all but her eyes. She’s wearing multiple layers of thin cloth only made in Sviros, gloves sprinkled with sand. The hand that shook me awake slightly outstretched, and she’s ready to strike out or run if circumstances call for it.
She slowly raises her hands, and I shrink back in case she’s pulling out a weapon. But instead, she shakes her hood away from her face, and I recognize her. The cold, dark eyes staring up at me, one gold, one grey. Short, spiraling hair frames her angular face, and her jaw is set with resolution. She’s the smuggler Mara showed me.
We watch each other, trying to judge whether the other is a potential threat. Without breaking my gaze, I notice a flash of silver and flick my eyes down for a moment. Her hand is hovering above her leather belt, over a slim sheathe, fingers grazing the hilt of her knife.
The slight motion is all I need.
In an instant I’m lunging forward, my knife is pressed to her throat, cutting a thin dark strip and drawing forth a weal of blood. But she’s quick and kicks her boots deep into my chest. I’m pushed backward by the force of the blow. I clench my teeth to hold back a cry of pain. It feels like she’s stabbed me, and I can hardly stand. The pain is blinding, now searing through the rest of me. She’s seen the spot of weakness and bears down, shoving her knee against the side of my face, her forearm pressing across my neck.
I’m writhing, manage to rip one arm out from behind my back. Twist over, slamming my elbow into her neck, and her grip loosens. She falls to the ground and I hear a faint crack as her face collides with stone. She flips over, blood spraying from her mouth but I’m faster, have her pinned down and my knife free, ready to slice and cut—
There’s a yell and something collides with me, knocking me to the side, knife flying from my hand and clattering on the ground. I scramble for it, but a sharp blow strikes the side of my face. It’s weak, and I can tell whoever has ambushed me isn’t a fighter. I turn and find myself looking into two wide, fearful eyes, set in a smooth round face. Her hair is pale and smooth, and her clothes are worn. She looks hesitant but determined. Probably terrified I’ll turn on her, but her courage, however slight, is admirable.
She gouges me in the eye, blinding me momentarily, and I furiously blink away black spots, trying to clear my vision as I choke down panic, when a call splits the night.
“Mehild, get back!” My former opponent, the Sviroser, is on her feet, drawing her knives. She’s running toward me, slowly, then faster, and although I make a desperate dive at my knife it’s too far. But she doesn’t try to knock me down again or slice my throat. Instead, she halts before me, standing protectively in front of her companion.
“Stop,” she says calmly, her voice even. “Just, stop.”
I’m panting from the exertion, but to my own surprise, I don’t try to reach for my knife. I wait, wait to see what she will say.
“We didn’t come to harm you,” the Sviroser says slowly. “We didn’t know you would be here. We don’t have to fight.”
I remain silent, glaring.
“Who are you? Where are you from?”
I give a slight shake of my head. My enemies might be her allies. I’ll keep my identity hidden until I know which side they’re on. Either trying to kill me or indifferent.
She sighs wearily, then extends a hand to help me up. I don’t take it. She looks put off and steps back.
“My name is Chiqu,” she says. “This is Mehild, who was defending me, and from her tribe, Sarofa. And Epiran, whose tribe left him after another chief replaced him.” She gestures to three silent figures behind her. “I’m collecting refugees—”
“I know,” I interject. She looks surprised, but I don’t elaborate.
“What are you doing here? Why are you alone?”
I cut my eyes at her. She should know, by now, that I’m not going to answer her questions. I know she wants more, but I won’t give it to her. She looks exasperated and crosses her arms.
“Are you going to answer me or not? Because if you’ve some ulterior motives, like stalking us or trying to ambush us at night, you should know that I’ll do whatever it takes to get my passengers across that sea.” Chiqu gives a sharp gesture with her hand as if to emphasize her words. “Whatever it takes. And I won’t hesitate if that means cutting you open.”
I scoff, but part of me can’t help believing her. The fire in her eyes, the intensity in her voice, the way she’s standing defensively in front of Mehild. It might be commendable if I wasn’t considering all the ways I could kill her and get away alive.
Chiqu tilts her head to the side, the unspoken question hanging in the air. I pretend not to notice, so she’s forced to say it out loud as she extends her hand to me once more. “Are you going to cooperate? Tell us who you are? Or should I kill you now?”
I’m about to kick her hand away and make a grab for my knife, but then I hear the voice.
Remember what I told you, Luirlan? You need a smuggler. This could be your chance.