Back On Vacation
With the threats of Anti-Hero, Petunia, and Glicko averted, the beach was safe once again. Dirk and Doug escorted the beachgoers back, and the Pirate and his crew switched back to their swimsuits. While Rick and Essie were enjoying a friendly water gun battle in the ocean, Cerissa found Mitch standing in the water fishing. She waded in and stood beside him.
"How are you holding up Mitch? You've been quiet, and I wanted to check on you."
"I'm better, thanks to you and everyone else." Mitch replied, smiling at his mage ally. "I am sad for what Petunia has become, but I have hope that everything will work out in the end. I can't thank you enough for encouraging me to be vulnerable. I needed that, and I feel much better now."
"Anytime my friend!" Cerissa said brightly. "I know you would do the same for any one of us too."
"We really do have a great crew, and I am confident that we will stop Petunia and Glicko. We will prepare for their next moves. But as long as no other unexpected guests show up, let's enjoy the rest of our beach day!"
"Sounds great to me Mitch. I think we all need this!"
Cerissa, Doug, Rick, Essie, Dirk and Mitch met back up, lounging on their beach towels. They were enjoying cheeseburgers, hot dogs and sodas that Dirk had purchased for everyone. They enjoyed each other's company and discussed their plans for the future.
"I probably don't need to say this Essie, but you were amazing today." Mitch said proudly. "I know you are also seeking your memories, and you are welcome to stay with us in the meantime."
"Thank you Mitch, I would love that!" Essie said happily. Rick made a silent vow to make Essie smile her beautiful smile as often as possible.
"How about you guys?" Mitch asked Dirk and Doug. "Want to join us too?"
To be continued.....
Dancing in the Night
The spotter got my buddy, the Chip to my Dale. I'm not sure what I'm to do. My power lives under the stars, a boon for the world. At home I'm a teenager, my parents have no idea. I was dropped here by the Goddess and when I leave my body at night, there isn't a soul who can see me, except the Spotter who found us one at a time. I know I'm the last of us, how do I go on?
I'm a dancer, and good one, I'm going to be Clara in the Nutcracker this coming Christmas, blonde wavy hair, down to my waist. Blue eyes in a perfect oval face. And as long as I'm dancing I can face the world from the stage. Just don't make me talk to anyone about anything strange. A ballerina I'll be, devoted to my art, apart from the ugly, I see only beauty in the mirror as I stretch at the barre.
At night, I slip from my body, and become Dale, the chipmunk who can't be seen, except by a spotter with a bow from Death's own lair. I have to survive, there's so much bad in this world. I have the power to fix it, I can heal their sick minds. Killer becomes lover, con artist turns honest as I meet them, and see them, they fall to my spell. Fraudster or bully they cannot resist, when the ray from my finger, hits their evil mindset.
And as I wander this night, seeking the evil in man, I sense the Spotter his arrow in hand. Which of us survives, me or him? I lock on his eyes, a black soulless pit, and fire my ray as he lets the arrow fly. I'll give my Dale to stop his hate. And I see the change, the horror, regret. And as I the dark takes me I will dance on again.
The Pirate’s New Gifts
The Pirate was on his back in the sand, the dire situation resulting from dodging Petunia's attacks. He still had his blade, but Petunia's two diamond arms were overwhelming. He held back one diamond arm with his sword while she closed in with her other arm.
Cerissa sent the new sword gently to the Pirate via a floating spell. The sword landed in the Pirate's hand just in time for him to protect himself from being stabbed by Petunia's second diamond blade. Taking advantage of Petunia's shocked expression and distraction, he slid under his foe and lept to his feet, facing her once again as she turned around.
"So you have a new toy, huh?" Petunia mocked. "Big deal! Do you even know how to fight with two swords at once?"
"This will be a first for me honestly, but guess it's learn on the fly or die!" The Pirate laughed, both swords at the ready.
"Pirate, that sword was created from copies of Rick, Dirk and Doug's blades!" Cerissa called out. "That makes it three times as strong, and it also has the ability to light up into a laser sword!"
"Nice, I've always wanted one of these!" The Pirate said happily. "Thank you all for this gift. I'll take it for a test run right now!"
The Pirate lit up his weapon into a laser sword, and charged at Petunia. He couldn't understand how, but swinging two swords in combat felt perfectly natural to him. He wondered if the pirate that had given him his powers had dual wielded swords before, and if that experience somehow became built into his Pirate transformation's abilities. Regardless, he was thankful to be able to take the offensive with his new weapon and skills.
Despite the power of the Pirate's new weapon and innate talent for dual wielding, Petunia's diamond arms remained intact. She blocked the barrage of strikes, even fending off the laser sword's power.
To be continued....
Pearl Before Swine ch 31: Evidence
The fire strokes my curves as the sea’s waves once did. It roars and whimpers, flows and ebbs, telling the same short tale again and again. It chases the ice and wages war when they meet, but nothing changes.
Water joins the waltz with a competing rhythm. It jars the circle. A break. A difference. A beginning and an end.
My fire rejects this foreign energy with spitting hisses. Whose is it? Not Halcyon’s or Lance’s. It smells too much of the sea that once trapped me, as malleable as a wave, skittish as a fish, and course as sand.
I chant a mantra that the Sea is not my enemy. This energy, however disgusting, is a hand offering help. Yet, fire does not bow to reason. Fire eats, and this fire is picky. It shoves back ten times what was given, and the ice reigns for a while.
The fire grumbles at the setback, and I tell it this would not have happened if it listened to me. The water could have been our ally.
The water does not return.
In time, voices find their way here alongside tiny morsels of heat. A touch to my arm, my neck, my forehead. Some skitter away. Some linger.
“I don’t care what the dean said,” Sal snaps. “Nothing’s more important than making sure she’s okay.”
Sal. He watches over me. I need to tell him everything.
Time burns faster than my fire, but with the will of the rising sun, I open my eyes. My first sight of Southern Shores University greets me again—a ceiling carved with flowers. The flimsy chairs and cloth walls remain, but instead of Pike’s smiles and chatter, crossed arms and dagger-sharp lips greet me.
The slightest upturn quirks the corner of his mouth, but stillness’ rigid fingers encase him, granting only the freedom of a tapping foot. His hair, pulled high in a short tail, patters like distant rain against the wall. Though it resembles the Golems’ paintbrushes, none of its darkness transfers to the beige fabric.
My nerves walk the edge of the blade in his hand, losing limbs on either side of it. I want him with me always. I want to craft his smiles and collect each one. Yet, his unease is a deluge, and I am a sponge made of salt. Only the cradle of his hand beneath mine keeps me from dissolving completely.
No, it cannot be his hand. His are both visible, their copper tint pale against the stygian flow of his new jacket.
My gaze shifts to the limb in question, follows the fingers to an arm, the arm to a shoulder, and a collar to a face.
Relief loosens his shoulders and cheeks, but tightness remains around his eyes. They cut to Jun for a hummingbird’s wingbeat, then return to me, gray-green streaked with the same gold that powdered Jun’s previous jacket—a jacket I no longer wear as I sit up. Instead, thin fabric matching the walls hangs loose on me. It smells of ash.
With a heavy exhale, Sal lowers his head to our clasped hands. “You’re alive.”
A thousand notions flock to my tongue, none of them willing to morph into the words I need. I have so much to tell Sal and no idea where to begin, especially with Jun present.
One insufficient syllable escapes. “Beau?”
Jun leans forward. “Third-degree burns, but he’ll live.”
My attention catches on his own burn just above his high collar.
“Whatever he drugged you with, I was sure…” Sal drops the sentence and looks up at me, chin on our knuckles and brow wrinkled beneath starlight-colored bangs. “No matter what we tried, you weren’t responding.”
“Did you share energy with me, Sal?” I ask as I extricate one of my hands and reach toward Jun.
My islander flinches but does not pull away as I press my fingers to his throat. Beneath my touch, the darkened wound fades.
He catches my wrist. “Can you walk? We have to leave fast.”
“No, Jun,” Sal warns.
My blue-eyed human ignores him, staring into my face and into my soul. “The dean ordered that one of Aunties’ students have to guard you at all times. It took a lot to convince them I should get a shift, and after that—”
“No, Jun.” Sal reaches for him, and the knife swings. The healer slides between Jun and I, breaking our connection and filling my view with golden jacket.
They fall, kick, and roll. A chain rattles. The knife impales the floor.
“If you want to die, Jun, trust me, you’d rather that happened here. Quickly.”
They still, tangled but with Sal mostly on top. The tip of an injector needle hovers above Jun’s eye. He struggles, but the chain wrapping them both leaves him no leverage.
I scramble to the floor, and my hand encircles Sal’s on the syringe. “I will protect him. Always.”
Sal snorts but does not resist as I relieve him of the needle. “We’ve had this conversation before.”
“Yes, and like you said, when my protection fails, I will heal him. I will learn so that I do not fail again.”
Sal scoffs. “I’m sure he wants to live through Mare dismembering him over and over because you keep putting him back together for her.”
“As many times as it takes,” Jun says, voice strained beneath Sal’s weight on his chest, “for me to kill her.”
This is where I should tell him no, that I am not taking him to Mare even if it means I lose the bet. That this is my best way of protecting him.
Yet, Sal responds first. “You’ll what?”
“This jacket? Go ahead, take the knife. Try to stab through it. It’s made from the hide of a captured Coral.”
Jaw slack, Sal retreats as if the basalt-like fabric is diseased.
Jun sits up, partly of his own will, partly because the chain still binds them together. “Beau’s drug knocked out a Creature of Essence for a whole night and then some. We’ve captured two Swine. We’re ready for this fight. We’re ready to claim this world.”
Sal speaks through his teeth as he unwinds the chain. “Fine. I’m done caring about you.”
“Never expected you to in the first place.” As Jun crawls free, he kicks Sal’s side.
Sal collapses, a hiss crumbling into a groan as I plant myself between them, my back to Jun. The healer cannot catch his breath. His fingers curl against the floor, dotted with scabs and bruises.
“Is that all from Aurora?” My hand hovers inches above his. “Did no one—”
“Don’t touch me.” He pulls in his arms and wipes his face on a sleeve. “Please. I’ll be alright. Just tell me you’re not taking that islander to Mare.”
He asks me to speak nothing but the truth, yet I would not wish for this to be its dressing. A “no” can land with a butterfly’s grace. This one has been forced into the frock of a hammer.
Jun’s touch presses into my back, the shift of his weight requesting I turn to him. As on the roof, he is so very close. Even the air carries a taste of him—sugar and iron. The butterflies I wish my rejection could be flutter in my core, their wings aflame.
A clatter precedes a shout, and Pike’s arms are tight around me, my name repeating a dozen times.
“She gets the point.” Jun drags him back, and the last render of my name squeaks as Pike’s collar pinches his throat. “Didn’t you have class?”
“Ended.” He shrugs away from Jun and gathers the bundles he dropped. “I wanted to run some of my inventions by Sal, but now we can all look. The more brains you put together, the more complete the puzzle, right?”
“As long as everyone’s brains get to stay in their own skulls.” Sal sighs as he attains a crooked sit, his legs crossed in front of him. One end of the chain shackles his ankle, while the other finishes in a half loop lined with spinning gears and anchored to the floor.
I frown at it.
He notices, and his shoulders hunch in a sad parody of a shrug. “I saw some things I wasn’t supposed to.”
“That’s an interesting way of putting it. Now he’s my captive audience.” With a chuckle, Pike unfurls the first bundle. “I give you exhibit A.”
It is a sack of sealskin with tubes, vents, and pulleys.
“It’s for taking air with you when you go underwater.”
With mild interest, Sal leans forward and pokes at it. “You’re really set on this ‘humans going into the ocean thing.’”
“Yep.” With a canyon-like smile and an avalanche of nods, Pike launches into an explanation of what each segment does.
As he chatters, my mind tears in too many directions. I still need to tell Jun—gently—that I will leave him here where he is safe. I need to tell Sal of my realm and ask his help in attaining my freedom. Yet, I see where Pike’s inventions for the Sea fill the holes in Beau’s inventions for the Stars.
I hear the tension crackle between Sal and Jun, and I wonder if perhaps my blue-eyed human is correct. These things will allow humans to breathe beneath the waves, to swim like dolphins, to secure themselves like clams.
Armored with the imagination of scientists, humans might really take the sea from Mare.
As the sun reaches the apex of its leap, the angle of the light through the high windows shifts.
Jag comes to relieve Jun, but my islander refuses to switch out, and Jag slinks away with distrustful backward glances aimed oddly at Sal.
Before I can ask their meaning, Halcyon fills the narrow gap in the curtain door, laden with bags. A knot within me uncoils to see him animate again and wearing an unharmed human disguise. From his burden wafts the scent of warm foods, and a primal string along my spine straightens. I am not hungry—the energy I have already burns and jitters, begging to be set free—but the lure of curious tastes persists, and I incline toward him.
His attention glides over Sal and the chain that tethers him to the floor before he offers one of the bags. “Lunch.”
With a muted, “Thanks,” Sal opens the package. Steam billows from the opening and quickly clears to reveal shredded meat drenched in brown and white sauces, wrapped in thin bread.
I stare, mouth watering, hardly able to sit still on the edge of my medical cot as the Dragon hands off a second bag to Pike.
He takes it with his fingertips, nose wrinkled. “Why does this reek of fish?”
“I selected the sushi for you. It has seaweed.”
Pike thrusts it back at him. “I’ve told you I don’t eat things that used to move around of their own free will.”
“You only want to eat prisoner fish?” Halcyon’s gaze jumps to Sal again, lip curling in a feral smile. “Do they taste better?”
Sal bites into his wrapped meat and returns the Dragon’s look with a subtle shake of his head.
“You like seaweed.” Halcyon pushes the bag back, and it thuds against Pike’s chest with a hollow thud. “Only eat that part if that is all you want.”
With a dramatic eye roll, Pike plops on a chair. “This one time, Halcyon. Because I’m considerate. Next time, could you be considerate?”
“I am considerate. I brought food you like.”
“Wrapped around evidence of murder I don’t morally approve of.”
Halcyon’s chin lifts. “You care more about it than the fish do. This is difficult to understand.” Folding his legs, he sits in front of Sal. “Can you explain?”
“Can and want to are two different things,” Sal mutters and stuffs his mouth with food again.
I inch forward, balancing over the bed’s edge. My gaze is a rope lassoing each of the Dragon’s five remaining bags. Which one does he intend for me? What does it contain? My patience is a lizard upon hot sand, in danger of frying if I succumb to stillness.
“Halcyon…” The name escapes despite my best efforts, the ending stretched and crimped, and he turns to me, eyes like glimpses of the sky through bronze leaves. Embarrassed of my impatience, I shy from the topic of the food, lip squelching between my teeth as I search for another subject. “Can you heal Sal?”
The Dragon’s head swivels back to my wise healer. “Can and want are two different things.”
Pike laughs. It is a sound of dew, sand, and waves sparkling beneath morning’s caress. “Halcyon, are you going to hand out the rest of the lunches, or is that all for you?”
“These are for me.” He clutches the five bags tighter, and I droop like a flower bereft of spring.
Pike slides his eyes from the task of unrolling his food, meat laid out reverently on one corner of the napkin across his lap and a long strand of seaweed dangling from his hand. He lifts an eyebrow.
Halcyon glances at me, then Jun. “I did not know the Pearl would awaken nor who her guard would be and what he would like.”
Sitting alongside the curtain, Jun clears his throat. “You’ve brought plenty anyway. You could share.”
“I only brought things I want to try,” Halcyon says, neck hiding between his shoulders. “I will not get to try them if you eat them.”
Chuckling, Pike cups a hand to the side of his mouth as if to direct his false whisper, though Halcyon sits between us. “That’s a dangerous venture. Yesterday, he decided to try my shoes. As in, eat them.” He points at the scuffed boots on his feet. “I had to borrow these, and trust me, no one should have to wear anything of Vidal’s.” He shudders.
Both Vidals rise to the surface of my memory: the one who introduced me to chocolate and the other who offered to let me try cockroach. They were nice enough, but I would much rather wear Jun’s jacket than theirs.
Wise Sal swallows the last of his meal, eyes on his sticky fingers. “Why not share like a good little lizard, and whatever you don’t get, you can try tomorrow.”
“Can and want—”
The sword of Sal’s glare cuts the quote, and Halcyon swallows his tongue with a flinch. From where does the authority in Sal’s look stem? Why should a Dragon fear a human, especially one injured and chained?
Unless the golden blood on Beau’s floor was Sal’s, and he is not human at all. He has met the Essences of Sea and Sky and fears them both. He rescues pirates, travels the world, and…
I peek at Jun alongside me, standing between two Creatures of Essence and trying to convince a Dragon to give up his food. Sal has met other Koa. He claims it is only book knowledge, yet it is more than that. I feel this just as I felt the truths in Issoria’s description of the stars. Either he has gone to their islands or he is old enough to have met the last ones who traveled. Perhaps both.
I sink into my knees, a puddle given to parched earth. Jun said they captured two Swine. Saburra escaped, but Sal sits here chained, with more knowledge about the sea than Pike who grew up on it. If he is the second Swine, is he the one sent to sabotage me? Even if he isn’t, can I trust him?
Here I am, wanting to tell him everything, even if he is a Creature of the Sea. Did I not want to make Pike my ally when I thought he was the Swine? When I fell in Terra’s cave, one of Mare’s minions did not laugh. He looked at me with envy because I had a freedom he did not and a chance to keep it.
The Sea is not my enemy, and I should not label a Creature of the Sea villainous by default. Yet…
I fear Sal is a Sea Swine, and how very much I wish to be wrong.
A New Blade Forged
"We won't interfere with The Pirate's fight, this is something Mitch needs to settle with Petunia." Cerissa advised. "However, he won't be able to avoid those two diamond arms of hers with one blade."
"So are we going to provide another blade for him?" Essie asked.
"Exactly!" Cerissa said happily.
"Tam gave my helmet an upgrade that I could use to get another sword sent here by requesting it by thought." Rick suggested. "But it can take at least five minutes to arrive, and I don't know if Mitch can hold out that long."
"Essie and I will combine our magic to make a new sword for him instead." Cerissa replied. "We can only use so much magic right now due to our memory losses, but if we use our abilities together, we will each have some energy left over in case we have to fight Petunia too. Do you know a copy spell Essie?"
"Yes, I do!" Essie said enthusiastically. "Tell me what you need me to do!"
"First, I will need help from you three." Cerissa told Rick, Doug, and Dirk. "Please summon your swords and stick them in the sand."
Rick, Doug, and Dirk made their swords appear in their hands, then they thrust the swords into the sand.
"Alright Essie, now make copies of the three swords."
Essie waved her hand over the swords, and three duplicate swords appeared in front of each of the originals.
"Thank you Essie. Now gentlemen, you may take your swords back."
Rick, Doug, and Dirk retrieved their swords and made them disappear again by thought.
"Thank you friends. Now it's my turn!"
Cerissa waved her hand over the three new swords, and the swords floated into the air. Two of the swords flew rapidly into the third one, absorbing into it. The lone sword shone majestically in the sky, distracting The Pirate and Petunia from their fight.
"This should even the odds." Cerissa said confidently. "Pirate, catch!"
To be continued....
Pearl Before Swine ch 30: Choice
I float atop Issoria’s constant stream of words, but it is not a lazy ride. As often as I rise, I dive, gathering treasures in my arms. They sparkle, flicker, and pulse like jewels—like flames. The truths themselves are the gemstones, and the enthusiasm with which Issoria speaks is fire, granting movement and life. Its heat seeps through my skin and coils in my core.
Some of what she tells about the Stars is inaccurate, though I have no proof or reason to combat it. It is a feeling, as if she tries to convince me that joy is a myth when I hold it in my palm. Other things are as familiar as my own existence, as if she describes the shape of a hand, and I see mine is so.
I soak up every word and etch them on my soul so I can read them to Terra later. He surely already knows these things, yet I want to hear the poetry of his thoughts. He will craft an explanation so much better than I ever will, and it will not just be the what and the how. He will reveal the all-important why.
As I dream of his response, Terra’s face softens and lightens into copper and blue, capped with midnight’s shadow.
Jun will not say he loves me until he fully means it. I fancy showing him my realm and awe welling in those sharp eyes. Love for me waits as a seed in his heart, and beauty—the beauty of the Stars, a beauty intrinsic in me—will nourish it until it sprouts.
Yet, whether that love is a seed or a tree, I cannot bring him to Mare.
My daydream shifts again, this time to the gold of a healer’s uniform and eyes of indecisive gray. What would the inexplicably wise Sal think of these truths? He was the one with whom I first learned of the fourth realm’s existence.
I should have thought of telling him first, especially since I already have so much I need to discuss with him. My hands still on the tools Issoria explains to me as my breath flees. “I need to find Sal.”
The Pixie rocks back, lip curling, but before she can utter a sound, a blue smudge stumbles through the steam in the doorway, edges sharper the closer he comes.
Beau meets my gaze and stops, mouth ajar. “You’re here.” After a rapid blink, his posture loosens, and he grins. “Of course. Thanks for accepting my invitation, though I don’t recall giving you directions to this room specifically.” His pale green eyes cut to Issoria.
With fluttering wings, she inclines toward him. “What happened? You reek of panic.”
The frame of his rigidity returns. He is a spear, his hair a field of pikes coated in mud. “We had a guest, and someone let him out.”
My skin prickles, and my foot falls behind me, nearer to the star suit though further from the exit. “Your guests are not free to leave, Beau?”
He stretches out his grin again, its ends too pointed. “I use the word guest to be nice, but it’s not the most accurate description. You, however…” He approaches, arm aimed to wrap over my shoulders.
I retreat, wishing I could come and go through solid walls like Lance. It is a coward’s desire, as is the impulse to call for the Unicorn’s protection. If his mandate is to protect me, why does he disappear more often than not? So far, he has done nothing but manipulate humans and hurt other Creatures of Essence. Halcyon still lies on the floor, now wholly in serpentine Dragon form, his long neck crimped like folded paper.
Beau has not even glanced at him.
I can handle Beau on my own.
My feet become roots, and I stiffen my arms, miming a shove that does not touch him.
“You are a valued guest,” he says with a flicker of a frown. His freckles are like a storm’s first droplets darkening dry sand. “I came too late for the big reveal, but Issoria couldn’t have told you everything yet.”
Her laugh chimes like bells. “She belongs to the Stars.”
“I told you that from the beginning. Come here.” He holds out a hand—a command, not an offer—and I do not comply. He leans, fingers closer. “Come on, Pearl. You want to see this. Trust me.”
I do not trust him, but some gravity tugs at the fiber of my being. I am a simple cloth facing a simple choice: heed the pull of a single thread or come unraveled.
I step forward to a double-edged reward. The tension strengthens but through it, sweet energy flows. The wider Beau’s smile, the freer this nectar, and with only two steps, my head buzzes with its euphoria. In this daze, my feet do not ask for permission. They do not know the destination and do not care if one exists. The universe consists of each moment, of one more completed step.
In this way, he leads me down the hall and several ramps until the floor turns to sickly pale grass bent under the weight of the humid air. The turf ends in cliffs of sand and rock, some dipping low enough to taste the wide bay.
The water is unnaturally still—a sea without waves, a body without a heartbeat.
With a steadying hand on my elbow, he pulls me into a canoe. “Uncle severed this inlet from the ocean and closed it in—glass above, buildings all around. A bay this big is called a sound, but it’s sort of quiet.”
“Is it dying?” I lean over the rim and stare into sluggish darkness. It does not even return my reflection.
He hauls on a lever, and paddles stroke beneath the surface, but their ripples barely touch the stillness. We move faster than I can run, yet it feels as if a tree’s growth could outpace our glide.
“It doesn’t support marine life anymore, no, but sometimes things have to die to give birth to dreams.”
Frowning, I slide my gaze to him. “Things like Creatures of Essence.”
“No.” He chuckles. “They’re tough to kill and get ticked off when you try.”
“Why was there golden blood in your room?”
He pauses, lips pursed and eyes rolled skyward, before he heaves on the paddles again. “I’m wise enough not to target Essences and their property, but as you saw on the dock today, that’s a rarity.”
I straighten. “Sal?”
“Oh, it very much had to do with Sal.”
My throat tightens. “Was it his blood?”
His grin returns, slow and smooth as honey. “Uncle has strict rules about what I can say concerning Sal, and I’d rather not get kicked out of a second university.”
The slivers of information are as one raindrop for an entire desert. My face and posture crumple.
“Sal is annoying in the way that all long-lost cousins are, so let’s forget him.” Releasing the levers, Beau slides two fingers beneath my chin and tilts my face to the heavens.
The view pours through me like a deluge and carves out hollows my gasp cannot fill. While I was indoors, the fifth sunset came and faded, but tiny stars do not dust the velvet night. Globes of fire, varied in size and color, crowd the sky, and sparkling webs weave between them.
As Issoria described and I felt, each one is a sun whose light barely reaches us like the echo of a whisper. We associate night with the sun’s absence, yet it leaves us in the care of so many more.
“The dome isn’t just glass,” Beau explains. “It’s a network of lenses. I come to the dock at the middle of the sound whenever I need to be reminded of my dream, but I’m sure it doesn’t look half of what it does out there.”
“Your dream?” With some difficulty, I peel my gaze from the heights and focus on him.
He leans close, grin slanted and eyes glossed with reflections of the magnified sky. “The stars. Most of the world is caught up in trying to go back to the dimension we came from. They think that will solve our resource problem, but me? I say that’s moving backward. We have all the resources we need here. Or”—he points above—“there, actually. An endless sea waiting to be explored.”
This is the goal he came to this university to accomplish, and Tulip said goals pave the path to the human heart. I can walk it by helping him progress toward this dream. This confession has the texture of a gift. I need a human to love me, and I have so little time left. I do not like Beau, but my feelings were never a condition of the bet.
As Professor Ignacio once did, I mirror Beau’s posture, leaning over my knees. “You wish to be the first human to swim in that dark sea.”
“I will be. You saw the suit I built. It’s almost ready. Now with you here…” His teeth catch his lower lip as if that can keep his smile from engulfing his face. “Can I meet Astra?”
I blink. “Astra?”
“I named the Essence of the Stars, and if—”
“She will pick her own name.” Shaking my head, I straighten. The boat rocks dangerously beneath the quick movement.
Beau grips the sides, but his eyes never leave me. “Can we at least suggest the name I came up with? My genius is the reason she exists.”
“That would not give you any claim on her, even if it were true.” I stand, uncaring if the canoe tips, fists and jaw clenched against a fire greater than the sum of all the suns above. His ambition feeds it, and it may destroy him. “Your progress strengthens her, but she has existed for far longer than you.”
His face scrunches, but unheard logic works it like a river carving a canyon, loosening the lines until the expression is open and curious. “Sit, please.”
When I do not, he rises and offers both hands, stopping shy of catching mine—waiting for me to consent and close the gap. Again, I do not.
In this light of low contrasts, his skin is the opposite of the sky—a lighter gray speckled with darkness. “Astra has to have been around longer than any of the Creatures she made, and while the Auroras were first seen less than a week ago, you…how old are you?”
“I spent hundreds of seasons with Terra, and before that, time was not something I understood.”
His brows hop, and his head shakes. “So, older than my nineteen years?”
“Essences measure the angles of the light so we know when to expect dawn and dusk. We measure days so we know when the season will change, and we measure seasons so we know when a new era begins. To assign that measure to ourselves is unnecessary.”
“That’s fascinating.” It is a whisper and a laugh. “The simpler answer I’m hearing is yes, you’re older than me. That’s fine. I’ll still be the first human in space.” He grips my hands and winces as they sizzle, but he doesn’t let go. “Say you’ll help me get there.”
I sigh. “I must return to Mare within two sunsets.”
“To the Sea?” His nose wrinkles as if to keep his lowering brows from sliding down it. His grip loosens. “Astra didn’t send you to spy on me?”
“I have never met my Essence, and if I ever want to, I must win my freedom from Mare.”
The ice of his touch vanishes, and he wags an open hand at me. “That’s how you’re older. Astra didn’t make you. Mare made you, and you have to prove yourself worthy enough of being a gift for Astra.”
“You have a talent for finding the shiny slivers of truth amongst all the world’s grains of sand.” I wring my fingers, needing to use this energy, to run and jump, but this is a very small boat in the middle of a very big lake. I pour it into my words instead. “I must prove myself worthy of having a choice. To Mare. To Terra. To myself. If I fail, if I do not bring back a human whose love I have earned before the time limit, then I will only be a jewel on Mare’s necklace, and that is all I will deserve to be.”
“What if you don’t go back? Will she come after you?” The longing in his tone is like sugar dumped into the sea instead of salt.
“You do not want her to come here and destroy what you have built.”
He nods, eyes fixed on me as he sits, one brow lifting. “Then, I’ll go with you.”
“You just need a human to say they love you. I can do that.”
“It would be a lie.”
“Depends on your definition of love.” With a shrug, he hauls on the lever, and the canoe lurches forward.
I stumble back into my seat. I like Jun’s definition of love, and Tulip’s explanations, and Sal’s lessons. I do not care to know the angle Beau sees, even if it would win me the bet.
Righting myself, I sit with all the rigor of a mountain. My voice plays its jagged, snow-laden cliffs. “Love is a human emotion, and you are human, but you love nothing beyond your own ambition.”
He frowns, but I barrel on.
“Even if Mare does not call out that technicality, you will consider this favor a way of purchasing me. I will not be free, and I will not have proven I should be.”
“Way to hack at my character with a dull little ax. You done?” His glower grows a twisted smirk, his back as stiff as mine. “Can you blame me for hoping you’d choose to stay?”
He holds out a hand, and again I leave it unaccepted despite how the fire within me pulls toward him like a plant reaching for the sun. The hope and ambition he so freely wears is food more potent than coconut or deer jerky, the energy given to me by Halcyon or Lance, or even Jun’s awe. Though as still as the mountain I pretend to be, I am a volcano, danger sloshing within.
Fill anything too much, and it explodes.
With this feeling, my eyes jump to the bay’s borders in search of Aurora. I have more than enough to share with her this time. Yet, only the amplified stars wink back. Because no, I do not want Aurora here. I want her to stay as far from Beau as possible.
Impatience outweighs consent, and he grabs my wrist. A needle burrows in my skin, and ice shoots up my arm. I am a rock, a karst, harried by a thousand eras of erosion all at once. He lets me fall on the canoe’s floor, my head between his feet, my gaze on the unnaturally close sky.
“It’s so much harder when they’re always trying to escape,” Beau mutters as he resumes his grip on the lever and our boat glides onward.
I am not the first Creature of Essence he has taken against their will. As the scene melts beyond a film of tears, memory shines brighter, displaying golden blood in his room. He claims Sal is involved, or is that another lie? Another technicality.
Was it Sal’s blood?
I am not the first Creature of Essence that Beau has taken, but I will be the last. My tears crackle as they slide down my cheeks, wend over my ears, and drip onto the floor. Smoke coils from their kiss upon the wood. Water gurgles through the holes.
Beau glances at his soggy shoes, mouth open.
I burst. At the behest of my flames, white as starlight with a hint and flash of all hues, everything flees.
The water embraces me, bubbles dancing with my fire. I watch them with only the faintest of smiles. The ice still holds my muscles, and I cannot move. I am trapped in the water and sinking. Someone screams and thrashes, but it is not me.
Please, I do not want to lie on the seafloor alone. This bay does not even have fish.
My flames flicker and fade. There is only cold.
Arms wrap me and pull me up. I can neither fight nor accept them, yet some inner sense of myself leans into their warmth. The air tastes of salt and smoke as my rescuer tows me toward the shore. Some distance behind, Beau screams at Pike.
“Stop thrashing, you dolt! I’m trying to rescue you,” my hero pirate shouts.
“But it hurts! It burns!”
Perhaps it is the villain in me, but I am glad. I am a sun, and if Beau comes near me again, he will hurt even more.
My savior’s strokes are uneven and strained, yet we slip through the water with a dolphin’s grace. His every breath carries a wheeze of discomfort, almost a whistle, almost a song. One I almost recognize.
“Can you speak, Pearl?” The voice is Sal’s, said with an ocean’s worth of concern. “Tell me what happened.”
I seek out my tongue, chipping through ice and ash with picks of fire. Beyond it, I map out my jaw and lips, but it takes all the energy I have left.
As the stars wink out one by one, I force one sentence into the world, meaning to warn him of Beau, meaning to thank Sal for being here, but the words do not convey that at all. “You can swim.”
I do not know if the molasses nature of his voice stems from his fatigue or my own. “Yeah, I can swim. It’s one of the few things I’m good at.”
Continued in chapter 31: Evidence
Thank you for reading!
Daisy pinched her cheeks as she sat on the bench- waiting,~ and waiting. She stared at the large screen that showed the different colour markers & points of the various train routes. ‘‘Where was the train she needed to head back home?’’ She thought to herself.
Just as she got ready to close her eyes for a short nap, she heard the familiar sound of the train moving on the tracks and the sound of the powerful engine. Her heart beat fast. She did not want to miss her train!
She rose to her feet & quickly grabbed her luggage. The train came to a halt and she soon heard the conductor shout: ‘‘Get on ‘board!’’
Daisy dashed toward the train & hopped on. She slowly moved along the side of the path next to the reserved seats. Once she found a spot to seat past the reserved section, she crashed onto the leather seat. She was ready to sleep all the way to her final destination.
The sudden break on the tracks startled Daisy. She looked around wondering how long she’d been in dreamland.
Without even trying to ask where she was, Daisy decided to grab her luggage from the bottom of her seat— ready to disembark the train.
She managed to carefully use the steps & hop onto the sandy ground. Daisy heard the crunch of something below her feet. She looked down and spotted fragments of something brighly glowing in the sand.
Daisy bent down to examine the materials in the sand a bit closer. With her free hand, she picked up a tiny piece of the material to take an even much closer look.
She gasped. Was this the precious stone that she had heard stories about from her parents when she was a kid? She shook her head. That was not right. Her home town was not known to have such resources.
Daisy dropped the precious stone & wiped her hand on her ankle length pleated skirt. She stopped to really take a better look around her. The moment she did, she dropped to her knees and she shook her head: ‘‘What town is this?’’
She began to panic and turned around to see if the train was not too far away. But the train was gone. Well, actually there were no train tracks anywhere she tried to peer.
Daisy squinted her eyes and waved her free hand in the air. She couldn’t see a thing. This place wherever she was had such thick fog.
The only thing that she could spot from where she was were some lights. She scurried toward them.
When she was near the lights, the fog started to clear. Her eyes came to view a town with creatures that were all seemed to be busy. She spotted a toad wearing a giant yellow coat by a stand. The toad croaked & bellowed: ‘‘Why are all the oranges gone? Who bought the last ones?’’
Was this some kind of open market? She stood and blinked her eyes in awe. This was probably not real. She closed her eyes & counted backwards from 34 to 1. (That was how far she could manage to count backwards, for now).
She was about to finish counting backwards when she heard another croak & bellow: ‘‘You whatever you are~ don’t just stand there with your eyes closed! Did you buy the last oranges?’’
Daisy opened her eyes and blinked again. She pointed to herself, & looked to her left and right. The toad hopped toward her. She wanted to run, but it seemed as if her legs were not ready to do that.
The toad stared at Daisy as soon as he was right in front of her. She cleared her throat ready to speak..the toad interrupted her- ‘‘Oh my...You’re a human. What are you doing in our town? Go back to your own realm!’’
Daisy could not understand what that meant. Had she traveled here by some kind of magic? Then it came back to her in a flash, she had not paid attention when she boarded the train.
She reached into her bag & found what her train ticket. Daisy’s hand trembled. On her ticket the route number was: 13. The train she needed to take was route 31. How did make such a silly mistake of purchasing the wrong ticket route?
The toad watched Daisy. She looked as if she had heard news that someone was sick. Daisy stared at the toad & quietly asked: ‘‘How do I get back home?’’
#13 (C) 15.08.2021
Anomaly: the last chapter
From a dead wife who had been inexplicably resurrected to days missing from the Google calendar, from the ghostly appearance of people only he and his research assistant remembered to an audience with an octopus queen at the bottom of an alien ocean, it would be fair to say that many strange things had befallen Deke Jones that day.
Perhaps the strangest was yet to come, he thought as he stepped through the centre of the extra-terrestrial teleportation device.
He had no idea where he would end up, so was not too surprised to find himself in the middle of a forest. At least he was still in his own body, he thought with relief as he immediately checked his arms, body and legs.
A yard from him was Vaughn Lynton, a man he had recently met and who he did not believe had committed the murders the authorities suspected him of. Along with Roman Zorić and three alien octopuses, they were the only people to remember a past which was ever-changing.
In the past they shared, Deke’s wife had been killed in a car accident, Deke’s neighbours had a seven-year-old son and Marika Nowicki had been employed as the university receptionist. Upon waking that morning, Deke discovered his wife was alive but neither Jayke nor Marika had existed. What made matters more confusing was that Deke could see their spirits.
As Deke, Roman and Rosemary had consulted with William Bradshaw and Esme Sinfield, Bradshaw had suddenly disappeared, replaced by a Chō Morishita. While Deke and Roman had been shocked by this, neither Rosemary, Esme nor Chō seemed affected. They had no recollection of Bradshaw. Later, when Esme had similarly vanished, Rosemary and Chō expressed no memory of her.
Clueless to the cause of these bizarre events, they had considered either a collision of dimensional planes or that sections of the past were disappearing. If the day Rosemary had been killed no longer existed, she could not have died. Equally, if the days Marika, Jayke, Bradshaw and Esme had been born were erased, they would not have lived.
It was the latter theory that Queen, the leader of the alien octopus race, had deemed correct. She had stated her scientists had confirmed the source of these time anomalies was on Earth and had tasked Deke, Roman and Vaughn with finding and stopping the thief before all of history had been obliterated. To ensure her orders were followed, Queen had permitted the consciousness of three of her subjects to join the men.
Deke looked around expectantly. He did not have to wait long before Roman arrived, appearing from nowhere. Deke had a gut feeling his research assistant would follow. Whatever was occurring, only these three men – and their cephalopod escorts – were unaffected by the changes in time. He suspected that was because of something they would encounter here at the source.
‘Where are we?’ Roman asked.
‘Romania,’ Vaughn replied. He showed them his phone. ‘GPS still works.’
‘And how do we find… whoever or whatever we’re looking for?’
‘You could ask me.’
Deke spun around. The voice seemed to have come from behind the trees ahead of him. He peered into the gloom but saw nothing. His eyes were drawn to a gnarly tree trunk and he realised he was experiencing pareidolia; the knots and marks in the bark made the impression of a face.
‘But I can’t promise I would know whomever or whatever it is that you seek’, the face said.
‘You’re a talking tree,’ Deke said. He was accepting everything today.
‘Trees don’t talk,’ the talking tree said. ‘At least, not in English.’
The entity moved and Deke saw that it wasn’t a tree after all. It had two thick, squat legs and a long body topped with a head of the same width. It didn’t appear to have a neck or any arms. All over its torso, legs and head were leaves of various shape and size, as though it had fashioned clothes from the forest around it. As Deke watched, a leaf broke free and drifted to the ground.
‘What are you?’ Roman asked.
The face of the tree-not-tree looked affronted by the question.
‘An ent,’ Vaughn said.
‘What is an ent?’ it asked. ‘Is it an ent you seek?’
‘We don’t know what we’re looking for,’ Deke admitted.
‘Wait a minute,’ Roman said. ‘You said trees don’t talk in English.’
‘It is true,’ the creature said. ‘Trees do not speak a language that can be heard by the ears.’
‘No, but why are you speaking English?’ Roman asked. ‘We’re in Romania. Shouldn’t you be speaking Romanian?’
Shaking its tree-head slowly and causing another leaf to float loose, the native said, ‘I do not know what Romania is. I am speaking the only language I know.’
‘Vaughn, check your GPS again,’ Deke instructed as he pulled out his own phone. He opened his locator app and watched as a hologram of the planet spun and zoomed in until his bearings were reported: Nova Scotia.
‘We’re not in Romania,’ Vaugn confirmed. ‘We’re in Taiwan.’
‘Madagascar,’ Roman added, looking at his own phone.
‘We’re not speaking English, are we?’ Deke asked the not-an-ent.
‘We are speaking the only language needed.’
‘Do you know where we are?’ Deke asked.
Deke felt his frustration grow at the creature’s evasive answers, but he was not sure if he was feeling his own annoyance or that of his octopus passenger. Possibly both.
‘But where is here?’
‘Here is here,’ it said. ‘The place that was, that is and that will be.’
‘Eden?’ Vaughn suggested.
‘I do not know what Eden is.’
‘Are there any other… residents here?’ Deke asked.
‘There are trees and grasses and mosses,’ it replied. ‘There are rabbits and worms and doves. There are wisps and breezes and starbeams. Who is it that you seek?’ it asked.
‘There is someone here that is destroying our home,’ Roman answered. ‘Our past is being stolen by something that is happening here.’
‘Nothing here would destroy,’ the creature said as an oak leaf fell from its head. ‘Here is devoted to creation only.’
‘You said there are rabbits and doves,’ Vaughn said. ‘They eat the grass, and berries and seeds. Do you not see that as destroying?’
Roman nodded in agreement. ‘In that fashion, it is nature’s way to destroy.’
‘No,’ the thing said. ‘It is nature’s way to dream. This is how the rabbits and the doves – and the tiger cubs and the ivies and the spiders – survive here. They live, and they create.’
‘What do they create?’ Deke asked.
‘But dreams are not stealing our past,’ Roman argued.
‘Dreams,’ Deke muttered under his breath.
In this strange forest, in a place unlocatable by global satellites, a talking not-tree spoke of a pseudo-paradise in which the inhabitants created dreams simply by existing. Could there be a place that was tied to Earth yet not of the earth? A place where dreams were born.
‘Is this place imagination?’ he said out loud.
Deke felt Roman’s and Vaughn’s gazes fall on him. The creature looked at him in silence. A maple leaf drifted away from it. Deke realised the leaves were not part of its clothing.
‘You’re dying,’ he whispered.
The thing nodded sadly.
‘We create dreams here,’ it said, ‘but this place is in turn created by dreams. Dreams not of ours, but of others. For some time now, we have felt a loss of that which keeps us alive.’
Another leaf sprang free from the entity and Deke felt the loss of something from his past. His sixteenth birthday, the time he had spent with Skye Kendrick. The night she had made him a man.
‘You’re not stealing our past,’ Deke said, ‘you are our past.’
‘I’m not sure I’m following this,’ Vaughn said.
‘This place is not on our maps,’ Deke explained, ‘because it doesn’t exist in the real world. Call it a dreamscape or a collective subconscious, this is the place that fuels our imagination.’
‘But it is fed by something from our world,’ Roman said.
‘Like… magic?’ Vaughn said incredulously.
Deke turned to face him. ‘Yes. Magic, exactly.’
‘I was being sarcastic.’
‘Of course you were. Because magic doesn’t exist, does it?’
‘No,’ Vaughn answered. ‘We have technology.’
‘And science. God, I can’t believe I was so stupid. Last month, I gave a seven-year-old boy a chemistry set. How is that supposed to feed his imagination? Why didn’t I get him a story book?’
‘Like Enid Blyton,’ Roman said.
‘Wait,’ Vaughn said. ‘She’s been banned.’
‘Exactly,’ Deke said, almost screaming with the revelation. ‘Blyton and Carol and Potter and Kipling. We’re no longer allowed to teach our kids to dream. We want them to grow up and understand the real world, the working world, and it is costing them their imagination.’
‘Which keeps this place alive,’ Vaughn said, finally catching on.
‘Yes,’ Deke agreed. ‘By trying to deny our past, we are causing it to literally disappear.’
Silence ruled the control room. Barely a breath was taken as assorted eyes looked to the events unfolding on the camera feed. A bank of eight screens presented the viewpoints of the Crimson agents, with biometrical data beneath each operative’s display. Collectively, the images told the story of the final assault, the battle which would win the war.
In pairs, the Crimsons moved quicky and stealthily through a wooded area. When they converged on the Jade retreat, the enemy would be eradicated.
Spotting an anomaly on one of the screens, Sienna Claridge spoke into her mic.
‘Hadley, back up. Pan left.’
As one, the whole team stopped. Hadley’s screen showed him complying as he scanned the area.
‘What did you see?’ his voice crackled through the speakers.
‘Could’ve been a doe, but I want to make sure.’
Hadley’s transmission rocked as he stepped slowly forward. Furtive movement behind the trees caught everyone’s attention.
‘Careful,’ Sienna warned.
Hadley crept closer to the hidden creature.
The tension in the room became stifling, pressing in and making it hard to breathe. All eyes were now trained on the one screen.
The mysterious figure broke from cover. Hadley swore.
‘Abort. Abort.’ Sienna commanded. ‘Get them out of there.’
In an instant, the control room exploded with activity as controllers spoke urgent orders to their operatives. Though they worked with exercised authority, none could break their gaze from the image frozen on Hadley’s monitor – a mythical Albino rushing at the soldier.
Hadley awoke on a soft bed. Keeping his eyes shut and his breathing even, he focused his other senses. A sharp yet unpleasant smell filled his nostrils. In the distance, soft voices whispered words he could not discern.
After waiting two minutes, he peered at the room around him. Pale walls; one single bed, an easy chair, a bedside cabinet; one window and one door. The hush beyond the room was akin to that in a church or a graveyard.
Knowing that he was in a hospital did nothing to quell his concerns. Until he knew which sect controlled the facility, he had to assume he was in enemy territory.
The door swung open silently, startling him. A woman smiled at him as she approached the bed.
‘Hello,’ she said pleasantly. ‘It’s good to see you’re awake. Let me call Dr Mutuku.’
Hadley stared up to the nurse’s face and felt his head swim. He had expected to have either been rescued by the Crimsons or captured by the Jades. He had not considered that he could have wound up in the care of one of the other groups, yet the nurse’s blue eyes told him everything he needed to know – he was being held by the Cornflowers.
Scanning the room again, Hadley began to plot his escape. The chair appeared light enough to lift, sturdy enough to smash the window. Assuming he was not more than two floors up, that may be the easiest egress. His other option would be to break one of the pieces of furniture from which he could fashion a cudgel and take his chances through the door. Not knowing how many Cornflowers he would encounter between this door and one to the outside world made that plan the least favourable.
A black woman entered the room, head down as she read from a tablet.
‘Good evening, sir,’ she said. ‘I’m Anisa Mutuku, a consultant here. When you’re feeling up to it, there is much I’d like to talk to you about.’
Hadley raised his chin in defiance. They would get his name and rank, and nothing more. His determination faltered when the doctor raised her face to look at him.
He stared in fascination at her brown eyes.
Pain racked through his body, causing Daniel to cry out as he awoke. Every bone ached, every limb throbbed. Even lying still did not ease his suffering.
Gritting his teeth, Daniel pulled himself to his feet and looked around. Above him came unfamiliar birdsong while all around were the scents and sounds of small woodland animals.
Why the hell am I in a forest? he wondered.
‘Hello?’ he called out. ‘Can anybody hear me?’
With no reply, Daniel set off. He didn’t know where he was so he figured any direction was the right one. As he moved through the underbrush, stretching muscles and loosening joints, the pain subsided until it became a tolerable discomfort.
Confused with how he had ended up in the great outdoors, he cast his mind back to the last thing he could remember. There had been the excruciating chest pains, the ambulance journey to the St Aiden’s hospital and the Kenyan doctor telling him she’d be back as soon as she’d received the test results.
Daniel couldn’t remember the doctor returning. Has he passed out? Was this a dream? Or had he died, and this was the land of death?
‘Hello,’ he cried again, with more urgency. ‘Anyone? Help, please.’
Someone must have heard because there was movement ahead. A large form was striding in his direction.
Daniel felt queasy when he saw that the approaching figure was dressed in a cowled cloak. Not quite as black as the Grim Reaper’s, but close enough to frighten him. He considered turning and running but he knew, in his delicate state, he would not get far before he was caught.
The stranger drew nearer, stopped and pulled back his hood. His fine hair was white, his skin so pale it was almost translucent and his irises colourless. Daniel recognised that the man suffered from a defective melanin-producing gene; he was an albino.
‘I’ll give you the good news first,’ Anisa said. ‘You were not suffering a heart attack, merely a non-terminal – if incredible painful – case of trapped wind.’
Hadley could not take his gaze from the doctor’s eyes. Brown eyes, the colour of chestnut, the colour of chocolate. He had never seen such a weird, yet mesmerising, thing.
‘We believe you passed out from the pain,’ Anisa continued. ‘You seem to have avoided hurting yourself, however, when we examined you we noticed something has happened to your eyes.’
Hadley’s brow creased in confusion. He could see fine, so what was she talking about?
Anisa paused as she looked directly at him. She seemed to be steeling herself for delivering bad news.
‘Tell me,’ he said without emotion.
She leaned forward and took a hand mirror from a drawer in the bedside cabinet. Holding it out to Hadley, she did not release it when he grabbed it.
‘I want you to prepare yourself,’ she said.
With a pounding heart, Hadley lifted the mirror and, doing it quickly before he lost the nerve, looked at his reflection. Between his broken nose and the scar in his left eyebrow, his eyes seemed normal. The whites were not bloodshot or yellow, the irises were the same shade of scarlet they’d always been and the pupils were of equal size.
He closed one eye to inspect the eyelid. Seeing nothing untoward, he checked the other. Again, no laceration or screen growth.
He placed the mirror down and turned to look back into Anisa’s brown eyes. How can she have brown eyes? he asked himself.
‘I don’t understand,’ he said.
Confusion flashed on Anisa’s face. She looked to the nurse who seemed just as bewildered.
‘Your irises,’ Anisa said to Hadley. ‘They’re red.’
‘That’s because I’m a Crimson,’ he said. ‘Just as she’s a Cornflower,’ he added indicating the nurse. ‘But I have no idea what you are.’
The stranger pointed a white finger at Daniel.
‘You’re different,’ he whispered.
‘Yes, I’m–’ Daniel stopped himself from saying normal, not wanting to cause offence. ‘I have skin pigmentation, that’s all.’
‘No, no,’ the albino said, waving his hand dismissively. ‘I don’t mean different to me. You’re different to you.’
Daniel opened and closed his mouth, unable to find the words to express his confusion.
‘When I ran past you earlier, after you and your sect had seen me, you had red eyes. You were a Crimson. Now you’re Cornflower.’
‘I really don’t know what you mean. I’ve never seen you before.’
The man looked Daniel up and down, studying him.
‘It is you,’ he said. ‘But it’s not you. How can that be?’
Daniel wanted to get away from this madman in the woods, but he had no idea where he was or how to get out of the forest.
‘Look, I don’t understand what you’re saying. I just woke up in a strange place and have no recollection of getting here. I don’t even know where here is. Please. Can you lead me out of these woods?’
The albino lifted the cowl over his head. At least Daniel now knew why the man hid his face; his lack of melanin meant the sun’s ultraviolent rays were potentially harmful, so he protected himself in the depths of his cloak.
‘Yes,’ the man said in answer to Daniel’s request. ‘I will take you. People need to know about you.’
‘I already told you, I’m a consultant here at St Aiden’s. What do you mean, you’re a Crimson?’
‘Consultant,’ Hadley scoffed. ‘That’s just a job. What sect are you?’
Hadley did not know if the doctor was genuinely ignorant or if this was a new form of interrogation tactic. Surely there could not be a new kind of human. Well, if she wants to play dumb, I’m game, he thought.
‘I was born with red eyes,’ he explained, as if talking to a child, ‘so I was placed with the Crimsons. The Defenders of the Blood. It is our divine duty to ensure humanity is not removed from the land.’
‘A noble cause,’ Anisa said. ‘Though I do not see how that onus falls to just one group of people. Should we not all try to prevent mankind from becoming extinct?’ She seemed earnest in her question.
‘There’s a gulf between mankind and humanity. All the sects are human, so mankind will survive. But humanity is the thing that makes us special; our thoughts, our emotions – our blood.’
‘And who would try to stifle humanity?’ Anisa asked.
Hadley turned to the blue-eyed nurse. Though she was obviously a Cornflower, her face seemed as entranced as the doctor’s, as though she were learning about the world for the first time
‘Masters of the Seas,’ Hadley said.
The albino moved swiftly through the forest and Daniel struggled to keep up. He considered letting the man get so far in front, then head off in another direction. But Daniel had no experience at traversing through nature whereas the albino proved to be adept. Following him was Daniel’s surest way to find his way out of the forest.
Sometime later, Daniel’s spirits were lifted when they broke from the cover of the trees. Ahead of them a low valley stretched down to a small settlement of stone houses. Without pausing, the albino strode fearlessly toward the hamlet. Daniel followed.
As they grew closer, Daniel noticed none of the buildings had windows. There was nobody to be seen, imbuing an eerie atmosphere on the place.
His guide led him to a large house near the centre of the village and, after a customary knock, he opened the door and went in. Daniel paused briefly, looking around for signs of life – or help – before entering.
‘Sebastian, come in,’ the homeowner said, moving to embrace the stranger from the woods.
‘Jerimiah,’ Daniel’s saviour said. ‘I bring you an oddity. Perhaps a portent of better times.’
When the men parted, Daniel saw that Jerimiah, too, displayed the same pale skin and white hair. That would explain the windowless buildings, Daniel thought. A village of albinos.
‘You bring a Cornflower,’ Jerimiah said. ‘Nothing odd about that.’
‘Cornflower now,’ Sebatian agreed. ‘But not an hour ago, a Crimson.’
Jerimiah peered closer at Daniel.
‘Not possible,’ the homeowner said.
‘I haven’t any clue what you are talking about,’ Daniel snapped, feeling frustrated at being discussed as though he was not present.
‘Have you not heard of the Colour Wars?’ Jerimiah asked.
‘Of course I’ve heard of racism,’ Daniel answered. ‘I’m an adult living in the twenty-first century.’
‘Colour Wars,’ Jerimiah repeated, ‘not… racism.’ He spoke the last word as though he had never said it before. ‘Sect versus sect, killing one another over the colour of their–’
‘–skin,’ Daniel finished. ‘Yes. Racism.’
‘Eyes,’ Jerimiah corrected. ‘The colour of their eyes.’
‘The Masters of the Seas want to do away with humanity?’ Anisa asked.
‘Theirs is a false god of the sea, the ocean. They believe only water is to be revered and we, people, are nothing but vessels to keep the waters of the world clean and pure.’
‘Keeping the oceans clean seems like another good cause to me,’ Anisa said.
‘That is the way of the Cornflower. The false way.’
‘You mentioned other sects,’ Anisa said. ’How many are there?
‘You don’t know?’ Hadley was beginning to feel that she was playing with him. When she shook her head, he explained, ‘There used to be seven, eight if you count the Albinos.’
‘Used to be?’
‘Old legends tell of three ancient sects who were defeated hundreds of years ago.’
‘Which leaves five sects, including the Albinos, still around today,’ Anisa surmised. ‘You’ve spoken about Crimsons and Cornflowers. Tell me about the other two.’
Hadley was beginning to understand the doctor’s plan. She would test his resolve by flaunting the heathen beliefs. By feigning ignorance, she hoped she could get him to see similarities between the Crimson way, the true way, and the foolish ideals of the other sects.
But he still could not explain her brown eyes.
‘Why would people fight over the colour of their eyes?’ Daniel asked.
At the same time, Sebatian said, ‘Why would people fight over the colour of their skin?’
‘I don’t know,’ Daniel admitted. ‘I think it’s less to do with skin colour and more to do with cultural history. The way events of the past cast shadows on the present.’
Jerimiah looked at his friend. ‘Sound familiar?’
Sebastian nodded. ‘Modern society perpetuating the outdated standards of a bigoted past.’
‘But I still don’t understand,’ Daniel said. ‘If these Colour Wars are all about eye colour, why not wear coloured contact lenses?’
Cocking his head in puzzlement, Jerimiah asked, ‘What are contact lenses?’
‘You’ve never heard of a contact lens?’ Daniel asked in disbelief. ‘A small piece of glass, or plastic, that sits on the eyeball. They were originally used to improve eyesight, but now can make irises seem a different colour or shape.’
‘The people of this land have no desire to change their eye colour. It is what gives them identity, heritage, a place in the world. I suspect your racism people would not seek a skin dying solution?’
Daniel thought for a moment. Would he, a white man, consider changing his skin tone to that of his Ghanaian or Indian friends? He could not answer; and if he were hesitant, could he expect others to alter their own flesh?
‘Canaries and Jades,’ Hadley announced.
‘Yellow eyes and green eyes?’ Anisa asked.
Hadley was confused by the doctor’s methods. If she were pretending the sects were unknown to her, using a mind-trick to try to trip him up, she would not have made the connection so quickly. If she was truly unaware of the Colour Wars then she was learning fast, demonstrating her quick thinking.
‘So your sects are defined by iris colour?’ she continued. ‘Red, blue, yellow and green?’
Hadley nodded in confirmation.
‘And each sect wants dominion for their own cause?’
‘For their false causes,’ Hadley said sharply. ’The Canaries call themselves the Saviours of the Chakra. They preach that only by knowing the inner soul can people reach their full potential. They are the smallest threat and so will be the last to feel defeat at the Crimson.
‘The vilest enemy are the Jades, the Guardians of the Earth. They believe Mother Gaia is central to all and that people should honour and protect the land we live upon. They foolishly refute the fact that the earth is there solely to provide humans with resources. They would sooner fight and die to keep great seams of coal and valuable deposits of oil untapped.’
‘What of the Albinos?’ Anisa asked.
‘They are so rare we thought them nothing but rumour.’
‘You don’t think that any more?’
‘I encountered one during my latest mission. It ran right at me, pushed me to the ground as it sped past. That was just before I woke up here.’
‘So you don’t know what their… raison d'être may be?’
‘For all I know, they would kill the rest of us to bleach the world of colour.’
Daniel always knew that the colour of a person’s skin does not inform about the individual. As he contemplated chemically altering his skin tone, he realised how strongly attached he felt the ancestry it held. Not always something to be proud of – God knows there were multitudes of atrocities committed in his race’s history – but he derived some sense of identity from his Caucasian skin.
Right or wrong, Daniel would feel a traitor should he employ some type of skin dying technique.
‘No, you would not change the essence of your identity,’ Jerimiah said, obviously reading Daniel’s expression. ‘Not even to prevent future crimes in the name of racism.’
Daniel heard an accusation in the man’s words. He was acutely aware he was in a stranger’s house in an unknown location. As he didn’t know where he was, it was unlikely anybody else knew his whereabouts. Daniel was utterly at the mercy of the two albinos.
‘Changing things at an individual level is not enough,’ he said, discreetly eyeing the door. ‘The problem is systemic. It’s rooted deeply in society. It would require the conscious effort of everyone to successfully address.’
Jerimiah nodded. ‘Otherwise,’ he said sadly, ‘the end result is killing everyone with a different skin colour. A different eye colour.’
Daniel sensed an unspoken threat from Jerimiah and felt his heartbeat in his temples. He could rush for the door, but Sebastian was closer and would grab him before he had even touched the handle. His only option was to talk his way out of this situation.
‘Killing me would not end the problem,’ he pleaded.
Both Jerimiah and Sebatian looked shocked at Daniel’s outburst.
‘We don’t want you dead,’ Sebatian said.
‘You are special,’ Jerimiah added. ‘When Sebastian first saw you, you were a Crimson but somehow you have transcended. You are no longer part of the Colour Wars.’
‘I never was.’
‘Perhaps not,’ Jerimiah mused. ‘Maybe you are not of this world, sent here to bring people of all sects together in unity. You could be our saviour. Tell me, what is your name?’
Anisa was silent for a moment. Behind her beautiful brown eyes, Hadley could see her brain ticking along at great speed.
‘If I’m understanding this correctly,’ she said after a while, ‘each of your people live for a higher cause. Crimsons want to defend people’s individuality, Cornflowers care about the oceans and the seas, the Canaries push for the souls of the population and the Jades want to protect the land, the planet?’
‘An over-simplification, I think, but you have the crux of it.’
‘All to the exclusion of other sects’ ideals?’ Anisa added.
‘There is only one true way,’ Hadley stated.
‘Has any of the sects ever thought that all your goals are worthwhile? That you could combine your efforts to make a world which respected the land and the sea as well as encouraged the growth of humanity and the development of the soul?’
Hadley considered Anisa’s proposal. A world where all the sects’ visions were equal? It was preposterous. Each tenet was mutually exclusive. The Jades would never permit the expression of personality and the Canaries could not exist is a world devoted solely to the waters.
‘There is only one true way,’ he repeated.
‘Then let me ask you this,’ Anisa said. ‘Into which sect would I fit?’
Hadley looked again at her soft chocolate eyes. She belonged to none of the sects he knew, not even the ancient Pumpkin, Plum or Wisteria.
‘You don’t,’ he answered hesitantly. ‘There isn’t a sect that exists for you.’
‘And yet I exist. So if it’s possible for a person with brown-eyes to live, could it not be possible to meld your sects? To strive for unity with a shared hope for the future?’
Hadley had no answer for the doctor. A world where Crimson and Cornflower helped develop the spirit and the individual, where Carnary and Jade cared for the seas and the land? Could it be that the sects could work together for the betterment of both mankind and the planet?
‘If you were to put forward this idea of coalition,’ Anisa pushed, ‘people would remember your name. By the way, what is your name?’
Separated by worlds, the two displaced men answered:
Danielle Hadley climbed out of the PREC and flicked on the television. The twenty-four-hour news channel continued to report on the gender riots in China.
As a theoretical physicist, she believed in the existence of the multiverse. Somewhere, she knew, there was a parallel world in which men were not persecuted or seen as inferior. A world without a glass ceiling.
Hoping to reach this land and learn from its utopian standards, Danielle had built the Parallel Reality Excursion Chamber. She had applied her years of study, fine-tuned her calculations yet still remained in her own broken world.
Frustrated, she returned to her computer.
One day, when the apparatus worked correctly, she would be able to transport into another reality’s version of Danielle Hadley, effectively swapping places with her otherworld double.
Passing The Torch
Before the snake could devour Dirk and Doug, the brothers were surrounded by a white cloud of smoke.
"What's happening?" Dirk asked aloud. "Are we dead?"
"No, we were able to save you at the last minute, thanks to my brother's latest invention."
"You two won't be dying today. Your time hasn't come yet."
Doug and Dirk turned around to find two figures wearing dark helmets and body armor.
"I'm Mirk, and this is my brother Tam. We work for Hugh's hero network. We were on our way to Prosperity to meet with the king, when Hugh told us to stop here at this beach first."
"It seems like it was a good call." Tam continued. "That snake would have killed you for sure, but your bravery is to be commended. Which is why we're giving you both these."
Mirk and Tam each handed Dirk and Doug a dark helmet. After they put the helmets on, Dirk and Doug were covered in the same body armor as their rescuers. They also sensed that they could summon weapons and tools by thinking about them.
"We think the two of you would be great additions to the team." Mirk said proudly. "Hugh has already given his approval too. The choice is all yours, of course."
"Whatever you chose to do, you can use these powers to topple that snake and protect these people." Tam added. "Then go help your friends. Hugh will contact you later, and you can give your answer then."
"King Lenny Overature is expecting us, but we can stay if needed." Mirk said. "What are your thoughts?"
"You guys can get back to your own mission, with the tools you gave us we can fight." Doug answered confidently. "What do you say, bro?"
"Yeah, I agree." Dirk responded. "Let's save these people, then our friends!"
The white cloud of smoke cleared, revealing Doug's evil imposter and the giant snake eagerly awaiting their prey.
To be continued....