Her Sister’s Memory
Vera clutched the letter in one sweaty palm as she pushed her way through a curtain of vines. She hated that scrap of paper, the one delivered by frightened messenger to her in the dead of night three days past. It was the reason she was here now, tromping through overgrown foliage in search of a tiny crystal vial.
Once a quarry, this sunken cenote was rimmed with dripping limestone. Opportunistic plants crowded the bowl from rim to rim. Vera slid down a boulder, bare dryad feet nimbly dancing down the rock, and hissed as a random branch caught her and scratched her arm. She crouched and touched the red welt gingerly, sighing. It stung but barely bled. She shrugged it off and glanced up. She stood on an overgrown stone pathway that wound around an algae-choked pond. Long ago, someone had cemented bits of rock together to form a walkway and bridge across the pond. Vera picked her way down the path.
She paused beside a blushing hibiscus. So gentle and beautiful. Dela loved flowers. How could they have taken such a sweet young woman? And how on earth had the kidnappers known about the vial? Vera shook her head of brown wavy hair in frustration. It didn't matter now. The only way to get Dela back was to retrieve that vial. Vera couldn't even remember what was in it. But that was the point, wasn't it?
A twig snapped nearby and Vera froze. Her breathing stopped and her pupils dilated as she scanned the area. Birds continued to flash through the trees. Insects still creaked. A turtle ambled out of the underbrush and blinked lazily at Vera. She relaxed and breathed. Vera hurried across to where a thin stream trickled over the lip of the bowl, making a weak waterfall that fed the pond.
Her mind kept wandering back to Dela. The sisters had grown apart after their father’s murder. The murderer had never been caught. Worse, Dela had thought that Vera had something to do with it. That rankled Vera, and they hadn't spoken in months. But now her sister had been kidnapped, and no misunderstanding would stop Vera from doing whatever it took to get Dela back.
Even if that meant finding out what terrible memory that vial must hold.
Vera reached the waterfall. This was the place. Vera could remember drawing the memory out of her mind and pouring it into the vial and hiding it here, deep in the jungle. What memory could have been so important and dangerous? She plunged her hand through the water to a small alcove behind it. Her hand flopped around for a moment, meeting only slick stone. Vera's blood went cold. It wasn't here.
She pulled her arm out, looking about, panic pressing on her chest. She knelt down and swept her fingers across the slick rocks. Had it fallen somehow? Her fingers met only rock. Desperation started gnawing at her. She glanced upwards at the sun, approaching its zenith. Out of the corner of her eyes, she noticed a rocky ledge high above. A small monkey was peering down at her from a nest of sticks. In its hand, it held a small vial that shone softly, pale silvery white like the sky on an overcast day. The monkey's lips were probing the stopper absently as it watched her.
Great, Vera thought. All I need for this day to get better is for that monkey to pitch that vial onto the rocks. Then Dela will be dead, and probably me too.
Vera gritted her teeth. This was no time to be worrying about what a monkey might do. Perhaps she could reach the little primate before it broke the vial.
Vera cast about. Her eyes fell upon a clump of vines that had collapsed on itself and formed a pile at the base of the rock wall. It would do.
Vera closed her eyes and faced the sun above her. She let its warmth flow into her, energize her. The pale green of her veins in her arms and throat deepened to a rich pine green, and when she opened her eyes, they shone like emeralds cast into a fire. Wisps of golden smoke knit together the scratch on her arm.
She stretched out a hand and willed the energy coursing through her veins out, away and into the vines. They stiffened and then began to grow upwards, propelled by Vera's command. They twisted up the rock face.
A shadow lurched at the edge of her vision, shattering Vera's concentration. She spun, eyes wide—but there was nothing there but a tree. She edged around the tree slowly...and reached the other side. Nothing.
Vera shivered. Could someone have followed her? No, it must have been a bird, she reassured herself. No one could follow a dryad in the jungle beside another dryad, and most of them had been exterminated for their magic. Only Vera and Dela had survived.
Vera returned to the heap of vines. She glanced up to make sure the monkey was still there with the vial. It bared its fangs at her but otherwise didn't move. She sighed, but began again, letting herself savor the delicious sunlight for a moment. Then she sent the vines upward again, snapping them towards the monkey. This time, she gave the monkey a good prod with a woody stem, and it dropped the vial and fled screeching across the rocks.
Vera smiled as she commanded the vines to retrieve and deliver the vial to her. Her hand closed around it, and the vines sagged, Vera's energy withdrawn.
The dryad paused for a moment to watch the swirling, pearlescent liquid memory slosh thickly against the exquisite crystal walls of the vial. It glowed faintly and moved of its own accord, almost like a living thing. Vera tucked the memory away in a pocket. She only had three days to get home with the vial as per the ransom letter's instructions.
But before she'd taken five steps, several shadows disentangled themselves from the greenery around her. Vera screamed and stumbled backward, tripping over a rock. The shadows morphed into towering men, arms thick and rippling muscles laced with blue veins. Humans. One approached, looming over the small dryad. He held out a giant hand.
"Give me the vial."
Vera realized she was shaking. She took a few deep breaths to steady herself and shoved her fears to the back of her mind.
"I want to see my sister first," Vera said firmly. "Where is Dela?"
The human hesitated, then backed away. Behind him, a small figure strode forward.
"Dela!" Vera started to rush forward, but the man stopped her with a pan-sized hand.
Dela, small even for a dryad, stepped forward and stopped before her sister, green eyes calm and unwavering. She held out a hand. "The vial, Vera. Give it to me."
Vera hesitated. Were these the kidnappers? The humans weren't treating Dela as a prisoner.
Dela saw the reluctance in her sister's eyes. "It's alright. I'll explain everything. Give me the vial, Vera."
Vera frowned but obeyed. "I don't understand. Did you escape? Who are these men? Are you alright?"
Dela didn't answer. Her whole attention was fixed on the vial. A smile blossomed on Dela's face as her fingers curled around the vial. Her fingertips went white as she pressed hard on the delicate crystal. Then it burst into a thousand clear shards, many digging into her skin. Silvery memories mingled with Dela's blood. Vera could hear them whisper of death and murder. Dela sighed.
"Thank you, sister. I wish it hadn't taken all this--" Dela gestured to the humans around her, "--but I needed you to recover that memory. Do you remember what it was? Oh no, of course not."
Vera gaped at her sister. "You faked your own kidnapping just to destroy that vial?"
Dela shrugged. "It worked. You would never have given it to me otherwise." She paused, reaching a hand behind her back. "You should have been the one to destroy that memory. Then perhaps none of this would need to happen."
"But why? What was that memory?"
Dela moved in close to Vera until they were less than a hands' breadth apart.
"You saw the night I murdered our father," Dela whispered.
Vera gasped as a thin knife plunged between her ribs. Dela twisted the knife. "Farewell, sister."
Vera fell to the ground, gasping. Her body shook in pain. She couldn't understand the words spoken somewhere above her. Through the haze, she saw her sister's slippered feet walk away. Thick boots thumped after them. Then all was silent and still.
Vera felt her heart flutter weakly. Confusion and anger and pain writhed in her dying mind. Dela...My sister...how could my own sister...Dela...
Heat and light beat down on the side of her face. The sun...The faintest bit of determination found purchase in her mind. If I am going to die, I'm going to die facing the sun...
Vera rolled onto her back, gasping at the pain. The crumpled letter she'd been clutching fell forgotten from her bloodied fingers. The paper flitted away on a gust of wind.
Vera soaked up what sunlight she could, her veins darkening. Her wound began to knit together, but slowly, too slowly...