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He spoke nervously at first.
"I guess you're probably really confused right now, but trust me, it will make sense when I explain it."
He slightly adjusted the sail.
"I should start at the beginning."
Tying the rope to the metal cleat on the floorboard, he sat back and looked out onto the ocean. The overcast sky let through misty light, and a dark cloud rolled by now and then. The waves were calm, but the wind was evident. Hunter perched atop the mast, overlooking the ocean in a similar fashion. Wake fidgeted in his seat and decided to skip the part with Inasahan.
"On the night of the festival, I was in a..."
He considered his word choice
"A bad mood."
"Instead of going to the festival, I ended up taking this boat and sailing out. I needed time to calm down and gather my thoughts. The ocean always helps me relax. I just like the rhythm of the waves slapping against the boat, the smell of the air, stuff like that."
His thoughts trailed off.
"It's almost like a source of stability. I know the pattern will continue, and I like that kind of consistency. Plus, the walls of my hut are so thin that they don't block any sound, so I wanted some peace and quiet."
"Anyways, I was out at sea, getting really sentimental, and when I looked back toward the island, I saw the most amazing sight. Thousands of floating lights rose in the air, and it looked so cool, almost unearthly, against the black sky. I remember sitting in the back of the boat, where you are now, just watching the lights until I fell asleep."
He turned away from the ocean and stared fixatedly at the wooden floorboards.
"When I woke up the next day, I felt kind of weird. I didn't know where I was, how far I floated, where I wanted to go, but I decided to return to the Island because I..."
A knot formed in his throat.
"Well, because I had something important to do."
"The wind was perfect, so we ate up a lot of distance and got back to the Island quickly, but when we got closer, I knew something wasn't right. The water blackened with some kind of dirty substance, which I found out was ash. When I looked for the forest tree line, there were only skinny branchless trunks."
His voice was calloused and rough.
"I docked and walked ashore, not knowing what to expect. Nobody was there, and everything was silent except for my footsteps in the sand. And then I went into the village and I saw-"
He stopped and closed his eyes.
"And I found you," he exhaled.
"You were covered in rubble, unconscious, and barely breathing. I had no idea if you were hurt or anything like that, and I didn't know what to do if you were. All I knew was that there was nothing left. My survival instincts took over. There was no food or shelter left on the island, so I was left with no choice. I carried you to the boat, and then we left."
He turned his attention to the sail flapping in the wind.
"We're on course for the east. The fishermen used to talk about people living in the mountains. They told stories about lush forests full of exotic fruits and animals. They said the people live in giant palaces cut directly out of the mountain face. I know they're just legends, but I had nothing else to go by. I had to make a decision, so I did. Hopefully when we arrive, there will be people who are willing to help us."
The afternoon light faded from the thick layer of clouds, and the sky darkened. The calm water almost came to a standstill. Wake wouldn't have been surprised if it had started to drizzle, but it never did. Instead, a chilly wind skated over the flat water and caused him to shiver. The chill wasn't the crisp freshness of autumn but an emotionless cold that pierced his skin and drained the color from his face. Out at sea, there was no escape from such a wind, no trees, no buildings. Wake rubbed his hands together and blew.
All the while, the girl remained silent in the back of the boat; she never said a single word. Wake looked at her. She was curled into a ball, sitting motionless in the corner like a statue. Her knees were hugged to her chest, and she crossed her pale arms over them. She hid her face, and her white hair whipping in the wind. Goose bumps dotted her skin, and her fingers trembled. She seemed, Wake thought, like a ghost, stone cold, lifeless, and weak, as if she belonged back on the island among the skeleton trees coated in ash.
He thought back to the Island, the smell of cinders, the colorless surroundings, the charred tree trunks standing like lonely spires. He wanted to speak out, to say something to her, to give words of comfort, but for some reason he couldn't. He didn't know where to begin or what to say. He felt like Inasahan, forced to watch quietly from a distance as someone else suffered. He wished he could offer a blanket or clothing to replace her tattered dress, but he had nothing. Instead, they both shivered in the cold and listened to the howl of the wind.
What exactly happened while I was asleep?
Hunter folded his wings and hid his head from the cold. The three survivors remained numb; shaking in the open air until the light vanished from the sky and the darkness of the night crept in. Wind shrieked from all directions, sporadically, chaotically, forcing the boat to a standstill. The sail flapped violently and the mast creaked. The girl with white hair stayed in the back of the boat with her knees tucked into her chest, her arms crossed over. Not once did she look up. Wake imagined her expression, faint and heartbroken over whatever she experienced.
Mustering up some strength, he flexed his fingers to regain a bit of feeling. He stood up. He made his way to the opposite end of the boat and began rummaging through the supply bucket. Every now and then he stole glances at the girl, still curled up in the back of the boat. He tried to think of things to say, anything at all, but whenever he opened his mouth to speak, his voice went mute and the unspoken words left a bitter taste on his tongue. He sifted through a mess of frayed string, rusty hooks, and knotted line until he found what he was looking for: two stones.
They were flint stones, to be exact, used for starting fires. He emptied the bucket and found a small tin cup. After filling the empty bucket with tinder made of leftover straw, rope, and broken bits of wood, he bent over the side of the boat and scooped up some seawater into the cup. Then, striking the flint together, he lit the tinder at the bottom of the bucket and started a small, contained fire. Without speaking, he brought the bucket over to the girl.
"It won't last too long, but it will keep you warm for a little while," he said.
Slowly, she lifted her head from her arms. Her slender features flickered in the firelight, but she lowered her line of vision, refusing to look directly at the flames. Trembling, she stretched her hands over the fire. The warmth calmed her nerves, and she began to breathe easier. Hunter flew down from his perch and joined them.
With a makeshift rod, Wake hung the small tin cup over the fire. Gradually, bubbles formed at the bottom, and the impurities like iron and ammonia boiled away. He wrapped the cup with a piece of cloth and handed it to the girl.
"Here, it's really hot, so don't try to drink it. Just breathe in the steam; it has good properties. I promise it will warm you up from the inside."
Timidly, she looked up. Wake didn't notice it until now, but her golden eyes were quite unusual, and while he thought she looked defeated before, her eyes told a different story. The glowing warmth enlivened her with spirit, color returned to her face, and he noticed a spark, a sort of wildness in her eyes. She took the cup and stared into the hot liquid. When she breathed in the warm air, her shoulders relaxed, and she settled her legs. She closed her eyes and breathed comfortably.
The tin cup warmed her hands and sensation flowed through her body from the tips of her fingers to her toes.
Looking into the fire, she bit her lip.
Her painful grimace eventually faded into contentment. The initial brightness of the fire began to dim as the light flickered lower and lower inside the rusty bucket. The fading of warmth caused her to notice the boy shivering in the dark spot of the fire.
Her voice was soft.
"I'm Grace, by the way."
She handed him the tin cup with an ashamed look on her face.
"You need this just as much as I do."
The stone walls of the room were cold and grey, chilly air suppressed the tiny warmth of the candles, and the floor felt like ice. Every now and then, a piercing wind snuck through the window and the flames flickered. Motionless, the little boy watched all of this from the far corner. Although there wasn't much to watch, there was plenty to hear.
Wailing echoes reverberated throughout the halls of the temple, and he recognized the pitter-patter of raindrops hitting the ground outside. Wind chimes, light metal tubes hanging from the roof, jingled; it was a delicate sound, melancholy, not light. They were meant to frighten away lurking evil spirits.
He could tell when the wind changed direction because the resonance of the chimes became more and more irregular. In his mind, he played a game, a game that involved discerning the difference between the pitches. The longer tubes sounded deeper and lasted longer compared to the shorter tubes. Together, they created a woeful melody, peaceful but sad. He went to the window.
From his room high in the tower, he could see all of the temple grounds and into the forest. Raindrops pooled together on the mosaic tiles of the balconies below, but the wind was most noticeable. The entire forest, a mixture of different shades of brown, swayed unpredictably, the trees' leaves flying in the air, powerless against the wind. The sky was grayish white, and the biting air numbed his ears. It was the kind of day that induced silence.
And the temple was silent. Lonely statues stood resolute as they watched over the deserted pathways. The meditation pavilion was empty and so were the gardens. Summer was gone; the colorful flowers had long faded away. All that was left were spindly skeletons of leafless bushes. Sighing, he watched with sullen eyes as droplets dripped off the ledge of the roof.
On the far side, near the cliffs, something moved. At first, it just looked like a speck, probably a tree on the rocks, but it continued to move, not side to side but up. The form eventually took a distinct shape, a human shape.
It's a man. He's trying to climb the mountain.
In the wind and rain, the man continued upward, reaching from each slippery ledge to the next. His bare hands and feet were frozen and bleeding from the cold, and all he wore was a simple orange robe. Strapped to his back, he carried a wooden walking staff. The expression on his face was of sheer determination, but he was in trouble. The slope was getting steeper and steeper.
The boy snatched the blanket from his bed and rushed out of his room.
He ran through the lifeless halls, banging on the doors, shouting.
"Help There's a man on the cliff!"
His voice echoed off the stone, but nobody answered. He continued to cry out desperately as he ran down the long flight of stairs, and then he came outside into the open air. He ignored the sharp cold as his feet touched the tiles. When he arrived at the edge of the cliff, the man clung to the side, just barely.
"Help! Somebody! Anybody! He's going to fall!" shouted the boy over the howl of the wind.
Still, nobody came.
The boy was alone. Rain streaked down the man's face, and his eyes flashed. It was as if he wasn't scared of the long way down and the sharp rocks at the bottom. The wind and rain pounded him from all directions, yet he kept his grip.
"Here, take hold of this!"
The boy slung the blanket over the edge.
The man stretched out, but he was still too far away.
"Tie it to this!" the man called out.
He took the staff from his back and tossed it to the boy. After pulling up the blanket, the boy began tying it to the staff, his icy fingers shaking the whole time.
He stretched the blanket and staff down to the man. Sure enough, the man was able to reach it.
Taking hold, he used the tension to grab onto the next ledge while the boy used his own weight to balance. Shifting his footing, the man took a risk and jumped up to grab onto a rock protruding from the cliff face. The boy's heart stopped momentarily as the man almost lost his grip and dangled in the air for a second before he regained his balance. Near the top now, the boy put all of his weight into pulling, and the man propelled himself upward with is feet. Gritting his teeth, the boy disregarded the wind and rain blasting his face, and finally the man gripped the top of the cliff. Pulling himself over, he collapsed face-first on the stone tiles.
Immediately, the boy went over and helped lift him up. He draped the blanket around the man's neck and back, and even though the man was much taller, the boy did his best to offer a shoulder for support. Together in silence, they limped back to the safety of the temple.
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