Ephemeral: Chapter 30
A promise to return.
Clouds rushing past a porthole window.
Guards surrounding the ship.
Electric staffs pulsing blue.
City of cylindrical buildings with black branching roads.
The cavernous Grand Assembly Hall.
Red glowing gem on man's chest.
Red flowing blood from man's chest.
Flight down the stairs, down the chute, down into the garbage heap.
Click, click, clicking.
Bones in the ravine.
Fiery sting of lizard teeth. Anguish.
Lifted, floating through the forest.
The safety of trees. Of soft pillows.
An unfamiliar voice sounded in the murky distance. “Didn’t you tell her to stay on the path?!”
Clara's heart beat quick in recognition. Aaric!
“And then you left her alone!?” accused the other voice.
“I did.” Aaric sounded tired.
Clara wanted to call out. But she lay paralyzed on something soft and could not even raise her eyelids. They felt as heavy as barbells.
“Cursed glimmer-snatches!” spat the other voice. “They flatter, then slaughter. It's the oldest trick on the planet!”
“She’s not from this planet.”
I'm here! I hear you! Why can't I move?! Clara screamed internally.
“How long were you two out there before I found you?”
“Since last Elpis-setting,” Aaric said.
“You survived the darkness? By yourselves?” Now there was a note of respect in the foreign voice.
Clara tried kicking her legs. She tried shouting. She wanted to let Aaric know she was alright.
“How long will it take for her to wake?” Aaric asked.
“Depends. The antidote should be in her system now. But glimmer-snatch venom is powerful. Lethal if one's bitten too many …”
“Look!” Aaric interrupted. “Did you see her eyelid flutter?”
“It may have been the light coming in through the window.”
“Perhaps.” Aaric said. “How long until your leaders return?”
“They usually come back prior to Elpis-setting. And this is a feast day. I need to help make preparation. Would you like to join me? You need not worry about your friend. She’s perfectly safe. No beast can infiltrate the perimeter.”
“Thanks, but I’d rather be here when she wakes. She may feel startled to find herself in unfamiliar surroundings.”
“But probably relieved to find herself anyplace at all – heaven excepted.”
“Of course. Thank you. Thank you for everything.”
Clara heard the click of a door open and latch shut. Then she felt — she felt! — a warm hand take her own and a warm pressure against the tops of her fingers.
“Oh, Clara,” Aaric's voice faltered. “Please come back.”
I’m back! I’m here! Clara tried to yell. But no sound came.
Aaric shifted in his seat. “Do you know,” Aaric said, unaware of Clara’s thawing faculties, “you are the most maddening, attractive woman I’ve ever met?”
If Clara could have blinked with surprise, she would have. But her eyes remained closed.
“And I have another confession.”
Clara felt the warm grip on her hand tighten.
Aaric took a deep breath. “When you visited us, I was afraid you’d leave and never come back. Time passes so quickly here, you know … So I purposefully drained the battery on your hovercraft to keep you a little longer.”
Aaric! Clara felt stunned. And pleased. A warm, tingly feeling started working its way up from her toes.
“But now look at you,” he continued. “Half your team is dead. Your best friend is mad. You’re on the run. And if you survive this, what will you meet next? I've brought you nothing but trouble. Please forgive me ...”
Then Clara felt a shy, tender kiss upon her hand. The warm sensation she’d felt earlier grew into a gentle flame that coursed through her system. She willed her hand muscles to contract, to communicate that she was well.
Aaric must have felt it, for he gasped. “Clara?”
She fought to raise her eyelids and succeeded in opening them at half-mast. She was lying on a quilted bed in a white-washed, wood paneled room. The light streaming through the large glass window smarted her eyes. “A-aaric?” Her tongue felt heavy.
“Oh, Clara!” Aaric sighed with relief and brought her hand to his forehead. “I’m so sorry!”
“M-my f-fault.” Why am I having so much trouble speaking? Clara furrowed her brow and concentrated on forming the words. “I l-left th-the path.”
“Try not to talk,” Aaric said, gently placing her hand by her side atop the quilt. “The doctor said you should rest. Glimmer-snatch venom takes a while to work itself out of one's system.”
“B-but h-how ..?”
“Did we get here?” Aaric finished. “An absolute miracle! A couple Silvan sentries were doing their rounds when they saw the glimmer-snatches rushing toward the ravine – one of their favorite hunting grounds. And thank goodness they found you before ...” Aaric shook his head, unwilling to complete the sentence.
Aaric rose to his feet. “You can thank them later. Just try to sleep. I'll be nearby if you need anything.” And with that, he limped toward the wooden door and grabbed the handle with his good hand.
Clara saw him wipe his eyes before she closed her own with a contented smile and took a deep breath. It felt so good to breathe. To be alive. And to be in a soft bed.
Clara slept hard most of the day. When she went to use the facilities, she gasped when she caught her reflection in the bathroom mirror; she looked like a monster with her hair all askew and dark circles under her puffy eyes. On her right shoulder was a six-inch jagged red scar edged in purple and green. She touched it gently and winced. It's better than what I deserve.
Clara then luxuriated in a proper hot shower and washed away the dust and brier leaves from her hair. Now feeling much more human, she donned the gray-green tunic shirt and olive leggings hanging on the back of the bathroom door. They felt silky-soft against her skin, and she smiled as she coiled her clean damp hair into a low bun. I look almost elvish in this.
When she emerged from her room, she found Aaric sitting and reading on a beautifully-carved wooden chair, freshly shaved and dressed in a similar tunic/leggings ensemble. He turned from the black leather book he was reading and smiled at her. “Feel better?”
“Much, thank you.” Clara smiled. She noticed his right arm hanging in a green cloth sling. “How’s your arm?”
“Much better!” Aaric said. “They just finished the surgery a few degrees ago. It should be good as new by Elpis-rising.”
“That’s great news!”
“I have more; this happens to be a Silvan holiday. There's going to be feasting and bonfires and athletic exhibitions – and did I mention feasting?”
At the mention of food, Clara's stomach rumbled something fierce. “When?” she asked.
“Almost presently, I believe. Elpis has starting to set – and I can already smell wood smoke in the air, can't you?”
Clara took a deep breath; the woodsy notes were unmistakable, conjuring up memories of campfires and s'more-making. Again, her stomach rumbled as her eye fell on two wooden bowls of fruit and nuts resting on the coffee table.
“Go ahead!” Aaric said. “Our host said we could help ourselves to anything.”
Clara didn't need to be told twice. She grabbed a tempting orange-red fruit and took a large bite. Its flavor reminded her of a mango, though its consistency was more akin to a grape. “Who exactly is our host?” she asked, reaching for the nuts. “Have you explained our situation?”
Aaric nodded. “This home belongs to Chaska, one of the Silvan scouts. He was the one who first found you. He knows our mission, but we'll have to make our case before the Silva Council during the feast.”
Clara swallowed a mouthful of fruit and voiced the question nagging at the back of her mind. “What happens if they refuse to swap heirlooms?”
“Then I’ll promise to give them anything in Almitas – land, tribute, whatever it takes. But if we don't strike at Raven soon, there might not be an Almitas left.”
Clara nodded her head slowly as she chewed, but felt torn. She wanted to do all she could to help Aaric and his clan. But she didn't like him talking about “striking” at Raven as if she were no more than a common criminal. There was still hope for Raven, she was sure. It's that Fire Stone which has poisoned her mind! We destroy the stone, we get the real Raven back ...
Aaric noticed Clara's frown and asked, “What are you thinking about?”
“I … I don't like thinking of Raven as the enemy,” Clara admitted as she tossed her fruit from one hand to the other. “It's the Fire Stone that's the real evil.”
Aaric adjusted the sling on his arm. “It wasn't the Fire Stone that killed Captain Karnak or ordered guards to attack us,” he said quietly. “I can’t deny that fact, nor neglect my people if she threatens them.”
Clara felt her hackles rise. Her fingertips punctured the peel of her fruit. “So, what are you saying? That you'd kill Raven if you got the chance?!”
Aaric took a deep breath and let it out slowly. He didn't want to offend Clara, but he had always abhorred lying. “I don't want to kill anyone, Clara. But if by her death I could prevent others from dying, then … yes, I would.”
Clara stared at him, agape. “Really?! You'd kill her simply because the stone seduced her? I made a bad choice too, but you didn't make me the enemy. You saved me. And if we remove the Fire Stone, we can save Raven. It's that stupid jewel that's making all this trouble!”
Aaric gazed at Clara and wisely said nothing.
“You disagree?” she challenged.
“I …” He adjusted his sling again. “I admire your loyalty. Truly. But the Fire Stone doesn't change people's hearts – it magnifies what's already there and twists it. No one can handle eternal youth. It would make anyone mad.”
“So you think Raven's beyond reason and recovery as well?! And you want me to give up on her?” Her brow furrowed. “You don't know Raven like I do! We've been through a lot together. And I can tell you, underneath that red stone, she's really good at heart.”
Aaric shook his head and sighed. “Hearts can be easily deceived, Clara.”
In the heat of the argument, Clara spoke without thinking. “At least on that, we can agree. I guess we shouldn't trust our hearts either.”
Aaric's eyes widened as if she'd sucker-punched him. He slowly rose from his seat and walked in his side-to-side gait toward the window, his back to her.
Clara knew she'd cut him deeply – especially after all that had happened. She knew she hadn't meant it. But she also knew she couldn't agree with Aaric. As long as Raven still lived, there was hope she could change, and Clara wouldn't throw that hope away. But her last comment had been harsh and unnecessary. She was about to apologize for being snappish when someone knocked on the door and let himself in the room.
Clara's demeanor instantly changed; he was the most beautiful man Clara had ever seen. The high cheekbones, the deep brown eyes, the coal-black hair that brushed his broad shoulders, and everything toned and tanned to rugged perfection made Aaric look like a pasty schoolboy in comparison.
Clara forgot to apologize.
“You're up, I see!” The man grinned in her direction. “Ms. … um ...”
Clara had also forgotten her own name.
“Clara Milton,” Aaric supplied from the window.
“That's right,” Clara said with a nervous laugh. “Thank you for rescuing me.”
“My pleasure. Chaska son of Hoska at your service.” He drew her hand to his lips.
Clara saw Aaric watching them from the corner of her eye. He'd flinched when Chaska kissed her. She wondered if he felt betrayed.
Chaska stood and turned to Aaric. “And how is your broken wing?”
Aaric pursed his lips together. “Fine, thanks.”
“You gave our surgeon a healthy challenge.” Chaska grinned. “When we brought you in, your arm was as crooked as a unus-bucina caught in a snare.”
“Unus-bucina?” Clara asked. “What's that?”
“Oh, a very elegant creature. Like a small horse, but more deer-like. Sounds like a brass instrument when it calls. But sometimes their horns get caught in the underbrush and go crooked. I saw one whose horn had practically snapped in half.”
“How many horns does a unus-bucina have?” Clara asked.
“Just one. In the center of its forehead.” Chaska raised an extended index finger against his own face.
“One horn? Like a unicorn?”
“Exactly!” Chaska said. “Do you have unus-bucinae on Earth?”
Clara could not resist giving Aaric a satisfied glance. “We have them in fairy tales.” At least we've settled one argument.
Aaric frowned. “Have the Silvan leaders arrived, yet?” he asked.
“Only just,” Chaska said. “They have invited you to dine with them and explain your request. They’re gathered in the chief's amphitheater. May I escort you?” He held out his arm to Clara.
Clara accepted, knowing full well Aaric still felt hurt. Her own conscience smarted her, but she flicked it aside. Right now, all I want is dinner.
So she and Chaska walked from the room as Aaric followed, limping much more noticeably than usual behind them.
So what do you think?
Ever been slow to reconcile because you were still angry? How did that go? Feel free to tell me about it in the comments below.
If you haven’t already, join the Cup & Quill community for new story posts!
I like how things keep getting more and more complex!