Cold and numb. As if trapped underwater by a thick sheet of ice, he struggled to move every part of his body. He couldn’t see. He couldn’t hear. All he could feel was the air in his chest ripping its way out of his strangled lungs as he had nowhere to exhale.
“Darrick,” he heard what sounded like an echo in a cave, from perhaps a hundred meters away or so.
He wouldn’t have been sure it was calling for him, if it wasn’t for the nagging intuition that he was completely and utterly alone.
“Don’t fight it Darrick,” the voice became more familiar. Closer. It made him think of his mother, if he ever knew her.
He complied. He no longer tried to hold his breath.
He no longer needed to. That numbness disappeared. In its stead, he began to feel a warm breeze flow around every part of him, a breeze so calm and steady like his own perceived respiration that it even seemed to be in concert with his every inhalation and exhalation.
“Shall you stir your coffee for the remainder of the day, or shall you go ahead and drink it?” said a middle-aged, orange-haired woman in a sleek red blouse and a long black skirt. She sat at a Noregaan oak coffee table, upon a matching chair, across from him. He found himself also sitting in such a chair.
She had an honest smile about her, not one of a lover, but as someone who cared greatly nonetheless.
As he lifted the mug and savored the bitter liquid, the rest of the world came into manifest. More tables and chairs, and people whom he couldn’t quite focus on. Wrought-iron fences around the perimeter, red brick mosaic clarifying the threshold between the cafe patio and the forests just beyond it. Then, the wooden lodge appeared behind some of the tables at the other end of the patio, then the teal trees, the aquamarine grassy fields and the indigo skies beyond that.
“Where am I?” he asked.
“Darrick, dear. You’ve been frequenting the Reign of the Sky for years now. Don’t be daft.” Something was sweet about the accent. It certainly wasn’t Behraanese or Nywanese. He couldn’t quite place it, yet he understood her perfectly.
“Right, right,” he took another sip, each sip more addictive than the one preceding it.
“Yet, today is quite different from all the other days, wouldn’t you agree?” she crossed her arms and leaned back in the chair, setting down a drink of her own, “they’ll be closing the inn for good, I’m afraid.”
Darrick said nothing, only sipped more of that delicious coffee.
“Finish up, and walk with me.”
Just before raising the mug to knock the drink back, the world, and the mug, washed away, as if a freshly painted canvas made subject to torrential rain, revealing another landscape behind it. One of a road winding harmoniously through a sun-lit forest of leafy trees of such vibrant teals and greens that it did indeed seem like a live painting.
There he was. And there she was, walking alongside him, planting a long copper-coloured staff into the dirt of the road with every few footsteps, each step feeling easier and easier.
“Easy, boy,” she said—and he felt somewhat restrained, “I’m not getting any younger, you know.”
That smile again.
And music. He couldn’t locate it, but he couldn’t deny the sound of a simple yet rich melody of sounds, from a large instrument he somehow knew to be a piano. It was as if someone was playing one just metres ahead.
And surely enough, one such piano, complete with a female pianist, became manifest, playing on the back of a wagon being tugged along by four white horses. The horses themselves seemed to trot along to the flowing rhythm of the pianist’s expressions. Yet, there was no driver. The horses just knew to follow the path, even though the path only seemed to come into being just meters ahead of them.
Then, the pianist did something completely unexpected to him.
She sang. She sang in a tongue every part of him wished to understand, but she sang it so well that he was able to make it out nonetheless.
“Beautiful,” said the woman beside him, looking on ahead, “is she not?”
“Yes,” Darrick agreed.
“She poured every waking moment of her life into music,” said the woman, “she is born with a gift that allows her to understand the world in ways many others cannot.”
“What is that?”
“Blindness. She has never known a day of her life with her eyes.”
That enthralling song filled the spaces between words, footsteps and all other things around them.
“Do I know her?”
“No, child,” she smirked, looking lightly into his eyes, “but she does know you. In fact, the song she is singing is about you. And your gift.”
“I don’t understand.”
The song began to sound more and more directionless.
“But it does sound like me,” he grinned.
“Doesn’t it?” she laughed lightly, a way of giving her age away, “being directionless is in itself a gift, Darrick,” she ran her hand through her hair, “When the day comes that we meet in reality—and we will—I can better explain that gift.”
“Are you my mother?” he had to ask, having never known.
“Not in the sense that you mean,” she shook her head, “but for a time, yes, I guided you.”
He sighed, “So why was I left in prison all those years?”
“I do not know, child,” she frowned, if slightly, but then her face brightened again, “but I do know it has shaped you in the way you need to be shaped at this time.”
The song began to pick up, the keystrokes becoming more melodic and complex, the singing spiralling up the octaves, every syllable pronounced with perfect flicker of the tongue.
“I really wish I understood the words.”
“You will,” she stopped, grabbing him to stop as well, allowing the wagon to continue winding down the path. She placed two solid ruby rings in his hands, “wear these. They will keep you safe, until the day comes that we may meet again.”
He nodded slowly, “What do I call you?”
“Dae, is fine.”
“Just Dae. Simple, right?”
“Yeah,” He took the two rings and cupped them in his palm.
“Light shine,” she faded away.
The rest of the world seemed to wash away with her.
“Give Olsein my regards,” she added, before all came to nothing.
“What hit us!?” Rose rubbed a scrape on her forehead as she ascended the stairwell to the bridge, looking left and right, “where’s Darrick?”
“In the cabin with Grace,” Laura pointed over from the helm, “that missile strike shook us up good. Darrick planted his face into the console. He’s down and out and I need you at the controls.”
“That was no missile,” Janeth warned, stepping towards the console, “I’ll fly her. I’m the only one who knows where we’re going anyway.”
“So if that wasn’t a missile,” Laura ignored the gesture to take control, “what was it?”
“An artillery-grade plasma bomb strike on the stern,” Janeth sat in the console, Rose giving looks between her mother and her captain, “absorbed into the hull as it seems, but concussive enough. Overrode our inertial dampers.”
At that time, the ship had come to a complete stop in the middle of the desert, hovering just a few metres off the dune sea, as a response to receiving no further control from the former pilot. The cityscape was just barely in view off in the distance.
“Nothing coming,” Olsein guided himself with the railing to the congregation, rubbing the back of his neck, “some nasty backlash....”
The cabin doors nearly slid off their tracks, a half-dressed Darrick waltzing through the doorway with his head in one hand, desperately assuring, “I’m fine, Grace, please.”
“You are not fine!” she stalked him, attempting several times to grab him, “you’ve incurred severe trauma all along your temple. You lost consciousness!”
He gave her a strange look, half-believing her, pressing his hand all along his temples, showing the left and right sides of his head, “I’m fine.”
She returned the look, astonished to see that what apparent damages his face had sustained had simply vanished. With that, she smiled faintly as she spoke, “it would seem as though you are. Though I strongly stress you refrain from overexerting yourself, as it may cause re-injury. My healing is effective, but the long-term effects of that healing will take a few days to set in.”
“I get it,” Darrick sighed, sitting next to Janeth who, like the rest, simply stared at him, “so, what happened?”
“We were hit,” Laura answered quickly, “I say it was a missile, Janeth says it was a plasma bomb. Some sort of ordnance. Either way, it shook us up, but you were the only thing that got damaged.”
“Thing, huh?” he smirked, “nice to see you’re so concerned.”
“As a matter of fact,” Laura crossed her arms, “I was.”
His eyebrows raised, “Oh. Well—good. Great! So! What’re we doing?”
“I suggest against continuing flight after dusk,” Janeth warned, still sitting next to the pilot, “we should find somewhere to park and rest up. This way, we’ll be invisible to the Ma’guul, to Behraan, and to anyone else passing by.”
Grace bit her lip, but then spoke, if unevenly, “I also believe we should pay our respects to those who are no longer with us.”
“Grace, dear,” Rose stepped in front of the injured woman, “we don’t know for sure that they’re dead.”
“My daughter’s right,” Janeth stood, “yes, we saw the explosion. But they were at the edge of that explosion. Maybe they survived. Those soldiers did have a shield tripod with them.”
“Can we not turn around and check?” Grace shook her head.
“We were lucky that one shot at us was all we got,” Olsein warned, “we can’t go back. If Sam and Edge are alive, they’ll be fine where they are. There was a medic there.”
“A medic cannot stop an explosion of that size!” she shouted, “A medic cannot make a person rise from their own ashes!”
“Enough,” Laura raised her hand looking to the side, sighing. She then turned to Darrick, “Darrick—or Janeth—I don’t care. Find a good spot to park. Olsein, Rose, go through our stock and see what kind of festivity we can get going to honour Samuel Good and Ejjar Levee. Grace. Cabin. Now.”
Silence passed by, but briefly thereafter, the crew all fell into place. Darrick rubbed his hands together and assumed the controls, “You may be the Queen, but I’m driving.”
Janeth simply laughed, stood and clapped his shoulder a few times, making sure he cringed slightly in pain from it, “you sure are, mister Walson. You sure are. And where, then, shall you drive without an able navigator?”
“I have an able navigator,” Darrick nodded to the empty co-pilot’s chair.
Humbly, she sat.
Grace was angry, and Laura knew it. She was the most level person of the whole crew, and at that time, it didn’t matter.
Laura wasn’t oblivious to the relationship she had with Sam, though, underscoring the power love and loss thereof have over even the tamest and the humblest.
The cleric sat on the desk, legs and arms crossed, staring blankly in Laura’s general direction.
“You didn’t heal him, did you,” Laura stated evenly.
Grace’s eyes melted, and slowly, she shook her head, “I did not. His body did not receive my attempts to mend it.”
“So you know he’s different.”
Slowly, she nodded, “I blamed it on my erratic emotions.”
“You know that isn’t true.”
“I know. But—Laura, I cannot discern his nature. He isn’t...alive. Nor is he dead.”
Laura simply sat next to her, looking and listening.
“You know what he is, don’t you,” Grace asked, knowing the answer.
“To be honest,” Laura shook her head, “no. No, I don’t know. Not for a fact. But apparently, Miya did. She said he was—some kind of machine. But not just a machine. A machine made up of machines so small that you’d never tell he was a machine at all.”
“The Kelviki archives never had any records of such species.”
“Behraan’s records leave much to be desired, by design,” Grace smirked, wiping one of her eyes.
“Miya could also have been lying,” Laura shrugged.
“Yes,” she hummed, “yes, she was many things if not honest.”
“Well,” Laura sighed, staring into the floor at the other end of the room, “good bet Darrick knows what he is, better than anyone. But if not, then—well--best not bring it up.”
With that, Grace hopped up to her feet, “I hope Rose is right. I hope Ejjar and—and Sam--still yet live.”
“We all do,” Laura stood as well, “when this is all over, we’ll go back and find them.”
“If it were any other planet, we could have simply called,” Grace looked up to the ceiling, “Laura, have you ever felt—“
“Connected?” Laura finished, “to this world? Yeah. Connected to everything here. This has to be the worst world to live on. But it’s also the best world to live on. Does that make any sense?”
“Yes, it does,” Grace smiled, “you’ve changed a lot, Captain. I’m thankful for your empathy. And, I’m thankful for that you saved my life.”
“I did no such thing,” Laura tilted her head.
“You did,” she opened the cabin doors, “on Haren’s airship. You saved all our lives there.”
Laura remembered that. She remembered feeling possessed and reaching out for those controls. She remembered the visions.
And then she forgot again, and followed behind.
The vessel flew effortlessly through the twilight sky, and effortlessly found a place to perch under a massive boulder, nestled into the sand and retracted the solar sails.
Yet as Darrick shut off all but internal functions of the ship, he was stopped by something winking in his peripheral field of view.
“I saw that too,” Janeth stood up, scanning the star-filled night sky.
“Is that from Nywan?” He said quietly.
“Nywan’s to our west,” Janeth shook her head, as she spotted another orange blip, “there’s another one. That’s too far up.”
Silence. The two simply watched.
“If I didn’t know what I was looking at, I’d say this was pretty cool,” Darrick smirked.
“I have a question, Darrick,” Janeth crossed her arms, as the two watched the spectacle, “why were you in prison?”
“Same reason a lot of people go to prison,” he replied, his face emotionless, “wrong place, wrong time. But mostly the wrong place.”
“That’s not an answer,” Janeth didn’t snarl, but her voice was firm and commanding, “Be honest with me.”
“Do you drink?”
“And fly?” Darrick laughed, “Are you well? No, I don’t.”
“But you’re not flying anywhere tonight,” Janeth grinned, “so we’ll have a round of Nywanese Liquid Sun, maybe two, and you’ll tell me your story. Because I have a hard time imagining you were actually guilty of any crime.”
“Why?” he raised a brow.
“Because I put many criminals away, myself,” she sized him up, “and I’ve developed a decent sense of judgement You’re not a criminal. It’s just not in your design.”
Humming, he smiled, “I haven’t had a drink in a long, long time.”
“You need to relax,” she looked again at the war-torn night sky, “and I don’t mean be lethargic and uncaring. It’s important to care. But it’s also important to let go, and I have a feeling you never got that since you went to one of Behraan’s hells.”
After a long pause, he nodded, smiling, “Liquid Sun, it is.”
“Cut yourself off early with this one,” Janeth gestured toward the stairwell, “because I don’t want you learning about one of Suragaa’s hells just yet.”