Category Archives: 5.09
As he saw Lookout raise the tabula, Chaff’s heart plummeted. Automatically, he began to stumble to his feet, but he knew he was too far to stop her. “Lookout, stop!” he shouted, hoping she would hear over the pounding footfalls and roar of the poltergeist. “Stop!”
His breath caught in his throat as the tabula began to hum.
Chaff squinted. From the first step he had taken into Kazakhal, everything seemed like such a surreal blur that he was unsure what was real and what wasn’t, but as he watched he saw an ethereal green patina begin to build over the surface of the disk. It wasn’t quite there: it flickered and twisted like fire, although Lookout did not seem to feel or even notice it.
Something was emerging out of the mist. Chaff’s mouth became very dry. Was it her? What would he say to her? How would he apologize?
It wasn’t though.
The bark-made man had returned.
It held out its hand, a single finger extended, and touched Lookout on the shoulder. Her entire body seized, and the humming stopped abruptly. The tabula fell to the ground, landing with a splash in the water.
Chaff looked from the bark-made man to Lookout, utterly and totally lost as to who he should be running from and who he should be attacking, when the big guy tossed his head and began to gallop forward, bleating.
“Big guy doesn’t like you, I doesn’t like you, yeah?” muttered Chaff. Behind him, the poltergeist was gaining ground, and fast. There was no time to think.
He charged, screaming.
The bark-made man raised a hand, and suddenly Chaff collapsed, face-first, into the water. Behind him, he heard a loud splash, although he did not know from what. The boy tried to stand, but it was like a crushing weight had fallen suddenly on his back. He managed to at least raise his head out of the water, but that took all the energy he had. Chaff laid there, spluttering and gasping, as a dull buzzing rang in his ears.
And then it stopped. All sound ceased. Nothing moved. There was no mumble from the poltergeist, no sound from Wozek or Lookout, not even ripples in the water. The marsh was so quiet that Chaff could hear the beating of his own heart, the gasp of his own breath, the trickle and slosh of his own blood.
“She is a vector,” intoned a flat, grating voice. Each word fell like the gavel of an arbiter, final judgment that brooked no argument. “I cannot allow contact.”
Chaff clutched his head, crying out in pain. Whatever was speaking, it wasn’t human. It made his head pound and his insides twist up, and he fell to his knees, gasping. Through blurred eyes, he saw the poltergeist kneeling behind him in the same position.
The poltergeist moaned as it clutched hands made of vines to its head, retching water back into the marsh as it shrank in size. Chaff couldn’t tell what it was saying anymore; from what he could actually hear, it was all half-crazed gibberish.
The only thing that moved was the bark-made man as it strode through the Quiet Marsh. Not even the mist seemed to stir, except when it parted to make room for the man.
Chaff’s neck was stiff as stone. He twisted it painfully, bit by painstaking bit, as the bark-made man passed.
It held up a wooden hand, right over the poltergeist’s malformed head. Again, in the same grating voice, it said, “Return to dormant state.”
The poltergeist cried out as it began to wade away, moaning and sobbing. “Back it calls us, back to sleep,” it said, staggering through the marsh. “Can’t hear us cry, can’t hear us weep. No mercy the warden knows, no mercy…”
The bark-made man followed the poltergeist a distance, then turned to consider the rest of them. Lookout was still on the ground, clutching her chest, while Wozek laid frozen against the back of the spiderwhale, who had been silently bleeding into the water.
“No risk of compromise present,” said the bark-made man, matter-of-factly. “Further action is unnecessary.” It took a step forward, before it paused. It turned towards Chaff, and though the boy had always been bad at reading faces, somehow he could tell the expression of contempt and disdain on its featureless, wooden face. It was in its eyes, the amber slits that narrowed as it focused on Chaff. “Do not return here, martyr,” it said, looking directly at him.
And then it strode away into the fog, without another word.
Chaff gasped as the weight on him was suddenly lifted. He nearly fell back into the water as his muscles, weak from stress and fatigue, gave out under him. He held onto the big guy for support, even as the big guy’s knees folded under him and the camelopard collapsed into the mud.
Chaff looked over his shoulder, but now there really was no hint of the bark-made man. There wasn’t even a trace of the poltergeist. All there was…
The boy looked away. All that was left was Al Innai, dead. Chaff hugged his waist, and kept his eyes wide open, because every time he closed them he saw himself being torn in two like he was a tuft of grass in a giant’s fingers.
“Why’s he talking to me?” Chaff muttered, as he thought back to the bark-made man. “I didn’t do nothing, yeah?”
The big guy had no reply. Chaff gave him a conciliatory pat, and made to stand up.
Immediately, his shoulder sent a shock of pain through him. Chaff shut his eyes tight, gripping his elbow as he rotated his arm slowly. He gasped as his arm popped back into place, blinking tears away as he crested whatever threshold of pain there was for moving his arm back into place. The muscles still hurt like nothing else, but at least Chaff was functional.
“Lookout?” he called, uncertainly, as the girl flopped over in the mud. She did not seem to care that her beige scarf was now, for all intents and purposes, black, or that she was sinking slowly into the mud as she laid there with her arms outstretched. Chaff walked over to her, and bent to retrieve his three tabula.
He held the girl’s very close. It was fortunate that the bark-made man had come when it did, although why it had come at all was still a mystery to Chaff.
The boy brushed his thumb over the tabula’s crack, turning it over in his hands. The green fire was gone, and seemed to have left no mark or burn or trace at all. The tabula was the same as before, unblemished. Chaff closed his eyes, ready to peer through the tabula’s surface and check on the girl again, but the moment the humming started his head began to spin. He stopped, and waiting for the nausea to pass. He did not have the energy for this.
“Chaff!” said Lookout, and the boy looked up. The girl was holding one hand up to the sky, her hair splayed and tangled around her head. “I fucking love being alive.”
“Yeah,” said Chaff, smiling. He took Lookout’s hand and pulled her up. “What’s the matter with you, huh? How’re you getting all the way out here?”
“Son of a bitch ambushed me,” said Lookout, staggering to her feet. Sinndi landed on her shoulder, hooting.
Chaff raised an eyebrow, and eventually Lookout turned away.
“And, yes, I will admit to wandering off on my own. I was just having a peek around since you and Sri seemed to have, uh, occupied each other.”
Chaff was amazed to see Lookout blush. They had been seconds away from being eaten by a rampaging swamp monster and she was embarrassed about this? The boy was flabbergasted.
“And then the son of a bitch ambushed me,” said Lookout, glaring at Chaff. “Although I suppose I shouldn’t speak ill of the dead.”
There was an awkward silence as both Chaff and Lookout pointedly did not look in the direction of Al Innai’s body. Chaff pursed his lips. Finally, he said, “Nah. He dead, yeah? He can’t do nothing to you.”
“That’s one way of putting it,” said Lookout, putting an arm around Chaff’s shoulder and leaning on him as the pair limped away. She whistled for Sinndi to fly, but the owlcrow remained resolutely perched on her shoulder and refused to budge. Lookout sighed, and craned her head to look manually, with human eyes. “Where’s the cavalry?”
And that was when Chaff noticed Wozek kneeling before the spiderwhale, as red pooled in the marsh. His stomach dropped. The beast was still moving, but it didn’t have long. Wozek knelt before the animal, cradling its monstrous head, and Chaff could only imagine how he felt. It must have been like losing the big guy, and that was something Chaff did not even want to think about.
The two had met them barely an hour ago, and they had already saved Chaff and Lookout’s lives at the cost of one of their own. If only the boy could do something…
Chaff had an idea. One death had already proven false today. Perhaps he could make it two.
“Sorry, Lookout, I gotta hurry!” shouted Chaff, shoving Lookout’s arm off of him as he splashed through the water.
Lookout nearly fell over as Chaff bounded away. “Chaff, what the hell are you doing?”
“Mystical healing bullshit!”
Chaff waded forward, through the water. He had no idea if this was going to work, but he had to at least try.
Wozek’s cap had been lost in the fight. His bare chest was spattered with blood and marked by raw red lines where the vines had snapped at him. He was speaking in low, soothing tones to the twitching animal. “There you are, you big lug,” said Wozek, his eyes closed, his voice shaking slightly. “We had a good run, didn’t we?”
“Wozek!” shouted Chaff, practically showering water onto the ground as he stepped back onto dry, sturdy land. “Wozek, give me the tabula!”
Wozek whipped around. “The plainsboy? I can’t just give you her-.”
“You save my life,” gasped Chaff, sprinting forward. “Let me save hers.” He held out his hand as he stood before Wozek, heart thumping in his chest. “You got nothing to lose, yeah? Trust me.”
The marshman looked at Chaff for just a second before the spiderwhale shifted behind him, a mournful song rumbling from its throat. He did not hesitate after that, dropping the amber disk in Chaff’s outstretched palm. He did not say a word, just watched.
Chaff closed his eyes tight and focused. The tabula remained inert in his hands. He blinked, sweat beading down his forehead. How had he done it? What was he supposed to focus on? He couldn’t remember. Was it the wounds? Good health? The face of the person he was trying to heal?
His fingers drummed on the tabula. Now, of all times, he needed his leaky memory to come through for him. What had he focused on?
Chaff closed his eyes, focused, and did not let another thought through his head. He focused on the feeling of the tabula shaking in his hands, the tingle of the mist on his skin, the gritty dirt under his feet. He focused on the other soul, beating right next to his, and he felt…fire.
The visions he had seen all those years ago in that terrifying moment when the tabula began to break had been surreal, too bizarre to remember in their entirety. The second time, with Lookout, all Chaff had felt was utter terror at what he thought was his impending death. Now, he felt calm. He felt something more primal, more animal, a deeper, inexplicable force that surrounded him, as Chaff felt a fire in his chest swell until his whole body was filled with warmth. For some reason, the poltergeist’s words began to echo in his head. Our essence is energy, it had said. And energy-
A furious clicking sound broke Chaff’s focus. He opened his eyes, and saw the spiderwhale standing, its side whole and healed, two of its three legs firm and steady again. The third, it seemed, was beyond repair, although the leaking blood had stopped and the spiderwhale stood well enough with seven.
Suddenly, muscled arms wrapped around him. Chaff gave an undignified squeak as Wozek picked him up bodily. “With all the strange things I’ve seen today,” he said. “I shouldn’t be surprised.”
Chaff blinked. He was not exhausted but rejuvenated. He looked around, wide-eyed, as if seeing the marsh in a new light, and as he looked at the spiderwhale again he could see its beady eyes meeting his. Chaff stared at her, as Wozek crushed him in a hug that Chaff swore was going to break his ribs, and gave the beast a curt nod.
It could have just been his imagination, but the animal closed its eyes and inclined its head, as if nodding back.
Wozek finally let go, and Chaff gasped as he could breathe again. Lookout, Sinndi, and the big guy had all caught up with him.
“I don’t know what they teach you in those libraries,” said Wozek, stroking his stubble and shaking his head. “But they should keep teaching it. That’s the last time I’ll even consider turning down a plainsman in my marsh. You’re damn useful.” He paused. “And damn nosy, too.”
Chaff shared a look with Lookout, and smiled. It was true.
“I need to find the little family, Gopal and Sri. If you don’t mind, could you stay here? It’d be easier to rendezvous in a fixed location.”
“Not a problem,” said Lookout, shoving Chaff aside. “Right here, then?”
Wozek nodded. The spiderwhale moved to follow as he walked away, but he raised a hand. “Oh, no, you big lug. You stay here and rest. I can handle myself just fine out there.”
Watching the muscles moved in his toned back and shoulders as Wozek walked away, Chaff believed him.
“Man of the hour, huh?” said Lookout, as Wozek left. She patted Chaff on the back. “Come swooping in at the last second to save the day, is that right?”
Chaff shrugged sheepishly.
“That thing you did…you think you can do it again?”
The boy looked around. “I think so. Nobody else hurt, though, yeah?”
“Everybody’s fine. But, like he said. It’s damn useful.” Lookout stared at Chaff, and her expression was pensive. “I mean, Wozek seems like a nice guy, but…if it’s all the same to you, Chaff, I wouldn’t do that in front of anyone else. People might want to use you.”
“OK,” said Chaff, and that was that.
Lookout shook her head. “Look at you, anyway. Fit as a fall hopper. By the Ladies Four, I’d assume that those kinds of tricks with a tabula would be tiring as fuck.”
Chaff grinned, ear to ear. “I feel real good, Lookout.”
“You remember my theory, on how tabula worked?” Lookout stared at Chaff, her frown deepening. “I’m just wondering, about this healing people thing. If it doesn’t cost you energy…what else are you losing?”
This was getting too abstract for Chaff. “You need patching up, Lookout?” he asked, staring at the dried blood on Lookout’s forehead.
She held a hand to her head, as if she had just noticed the injury there. “No, I’m- I’m good.”
“You sure? It looks pretty bad, yeah?”
“Chaff, I’m fine.” Lookout furrowed her eyebrows, as if her own statement confused her. “I’m fine.”
They stood there, together, waiting. Behind them, the big guy seemed to be having something off a stand-off with the spiderwhale, while Sinndi perched himself comfortably on the camelopard’s back. A little sound had returned to the Quiet Marsh, although Chaff still heard no signs of life but for them.
“Chaff…” began Lookout again. “I saw what was in that tabula.”
The boy froze. His hands darted protectively to his side, and he tensed immediately.
“Relax, kid. This is a sore spot for you, I get it, but we’re just having a conversation, OK? Conversation between friends. That’s it.” Lookout folded her arms and looked at Chaff. “How long have you had it?”
“Since the Four Years’ Fallow, yeah? I always had it,” said Chaff.
“Don’t bullshit me, Chaff. I know better than that. Did you pick it up before you joined our crew? After? Somebody want you to run this girl out of the city or something?”
“I always had it,” said Chaff, shaking his head. “Nobody told me to do nothing with her.”
Lookout straightened. “So you mean to tell me, Chaff, that you picked this tabula up when you’re four years old, and you’ve been carrying it around for, what, seven years?”
“And you don’t think that’s strange?”
Chaff shook his head.
“That you’ve had it for this long, and you’ve never summoned the girl, and nothing has happened? Her Fallow time didn’t come up? The tabula didn’t activate on its own?” Lookout gaped. “You never once wondered about that? Chaff, you’re dumb.”
“Yike,” muttered Chaff. Now that Lookout mentioned it, of course it seemed a little strange. He had always assumed that it had just…turned off somehow.
“Four years is all you get, Chaff. Ever. Doesn’t matter if you’re grown-old already, if you’re separated from your tabula for four years, then assuming it hasn’t been broken and no one’s messed with it since, then you go back like that.” Lookout snapped her fingers. “Just like that. Of course it never happens because anyone stupid enough to lose their tabula isn’t going to survive another four fucking years. By all the Ladies, Chaff!” Lookout held her head in her hands. “I know you’re telling the truth because no one would try to tell a lie this stupid.”
Chaff was beginning to feel very uncomfortable. He hugged his sore shoulder and scuffed the dirt with his foot. “Doesn’t matter, yeah? Everything works out the way it should, that’s right.”
“Of course, yeah, it doesn’t matter,” said Lookout, shrugging. “It just begs the question…why?” She looked at Chaff. “Which one of you is lucky, and which one is special?”
The boy stared at the tabula, and not for the first time wondered who was really on the other side.
“OK, moving on. Ignoring that.” Lookout gripped Chaff’s chin and held his face up. “Look at me, Chaff, look at me. What was the plan? Why are you carrying it around? Why can’t you summon her? Was it something you saw her do in there, or- or are you planning on selling it, or what?”
“I’m going to give it back,” said Chaff, and this time there was no hesitation in his voice. He met Lookout’s gaze squarely. “I’m going to find her, and give it back.”
Lookout scoffed. She backed away, halfway between laughing and stunned silence. “You’re serious? Chaff, you can’t be…” She paused. “You are. That was why you left Shira Hay?”
“That’s why I come to Shira Hay.”
Chaff stood, resolutely, as Lookout paced. This was something he would not yield on. He didn’t need Lookout’s approval to finish his journey.
“When’d you make this plan, huh? When you were four summers old?” Lookout gripped Chaff’s shoulders. “Grow up, Chaff. There are better things to be spending your time on than this impossible quest. You’d be better off without this.”
“No!” Chaff said. He could feel his pulse pounding in his temple. “No, no, no.”
“Is that all you can say?” said Lookout. “Is that your whole argument? No? Is that what you’re going to tell the world when you find that she’s already been raped and killed, assuming that you find her out of all the people in Albumere? I’m telling you this because I care about you, Chaff, and I’m in this with you too. Move on. Live.”
“No, Lookout, I won’t!” said Chaff, stomping his foot down. Behind him, all the animals had fallen very still, and silent.
“Why, then? Why is this so important to you?”
“I was four years old when the world took me away!” Chaff screamed.
Lookout didn’t say anything. The marsh did not make a sound. He stood there, panting for breath, rubbing the tears from his eyes.
“I was four years old,” said Chaff. “I didn’t see another human being for another four years. That’s half my life, yeah? Half my whole life the only other face I knew was hers. Not my mama’s. Not my papa’s. Hers. So don’t tell me I’d be better off without her, because that’d just mean everyday I’ve forced myself to keep living since the hollow took me away has been for nothing.”
Chaff’s face was ruddy and red. He could barely keep himself from breaking down as the nerves and fatigue and stress clawed at the crumbling pillars that held up his sanity.
“What’s so great about life, anyway?” asked Chaff, his voice low. “Why’s it worth it without her?”
Lookout took a step forward, and Chaff flinched. She didn’t move to strike him or hurt him, though.
“If it’s that important to you,” she said, holding him close. “Then fine. OK. But, Chaff, I mean it when I say it gets better. You’ll find something worth fighting for. Something else.”
Chaff didn’t say anything. The thought that there was something more was almost heretical.
“Come on, then. Enough of this,” said Lookout, letting him go. She sat heavily on the ground. “Hey, you still got that book? Let’s take a peek.”
The boy dashed to the big guy’s side and, to his utter shock, found that the book was intact. “Thanks, big guy,” he said, grinning, and the camelopard spat on his face by way of reply.
“Hey, Lookout,” Chaff said, as he handed the heavy volume over to the girl. “I got a question.”
“Go for it,” she said, opening the cover delicately. “I know the answer.”
Chaff thought back to the bark-made man, who was already fading into a distant memory. There was something it had said that stuck with him, though. “What’s a martyr?” he asked, as they settled down to read and wait.
Lookout stared at him for a long time. “It means…” She paused. “Well, Chaff, it means someone who dies for his cause.”