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Her legs wobbled and shook underneath her weight. Unable to keep her balance, she collapsed, face first, at the water's edge. The soft whitewash of the waves tickled her ankles, yet she felt no compulsion to move. Closing her eyes, she dug her hands into the wet sand as if it were the most beautiful thing in the world. She couldn't control her smile as she enjoyed the familiar earth at her fingertips. The ground wasn't moving anytime soon, and that reality caused her to breath a deep sigh of relief.
For the first time in a long time, she heard the wind rustling the leaves of trees. There were so many things she had forgotten while sailing. She had forgotten that the sun slowly sets under the tree line. She had forgotten the lovely unevenness of the ground. She had forgotten how the air could be filled with so many different scents and smells. Everything came back to her at once. Lying in the sand and shells next to the sea, she remembered the world from which she came, not a world of ash and fire but a world filled with green and delicate sunlight.
Brushing her tangled white hair from her eyes, she pushed herself up. The shakes and wobbles faded from her legs as she stood at her full height. She turned back to the boat with its wooden bow and white sails. Wading back into the water, she found the anchor rope and pulled with all her might. The heavy iron grapple fell like a weight into the water. Using the same rope, she hoisted herself over the edge of the boat. Carefully, she helped the boy with black hair to stand. She wrapped his thin arm over her shoulder to help prop him up. Step-by-step, together they made their way to the front of the boat, and once there, she helped him down over the wooden ledge. The osprey-dove glided freely overhead, flapping its wings every once in a while.
Wake gasped as he plunged into the cold water, but she was right there to lift him back up. The wet sand felt soft and refreshing between his toes. He cherished this feeling as he slowly learned how to walk again. He leaned on Grace as they passed the edge of the sea and the sandy beach, until they reached the first sightings of roots and grass. There, he sat down, back against a tree.
"I'll unload the boat and make camp," said Grace to Wake whose eyes were closed. "Just stay here and rest. I won't go far."
The girl returned to the boat to unload the rope, equipment, and tools they would need for camp. Meanwhile, Wake rested against the base of the tree with his eyes closed. He could barely open his eyes or move without feeling tired. The texture of grass felt alien to his rough skin. In the blackness of his mind, he immersed himself into the new surroundings. The air was crisp and clear, the sunlight filtered through a canopy of leaves, leaving dappled streaks of light on the ground. Something about the world seemed so much simpler than before.
All the while, he could not stop thinking about the droplets of water, the way they spiraled and danced as they rose into the clouds. For those moments, he felt power and life surge through his veins. Through blazing eyes, he had seen a vivid world more precisely than ever before. For those moments, he breathed through the ocean and the sky and felt the entire world breathing in unison. Everything was connected; he had felt it.
But now, sitting at the base of the tree, he struggled to remember that perfect balance. The power and life had long faded from his veins; he felt cold and utterly human, utterly weak once again. His skin still stretched over his ribcage. His hands still bled through cracked scabs. He still had no idea where he was or where he was going, and everything was just as confusing as before. Hunter landed softly beside him.
He was Wake once again.
The sun melted from yellow to orange to red as it streaked across the sky and stained the clouds. From the sandy shore, Grace watched the last light of day glint off the calm waves. The unforgiving, emotionless ocean that caused so much suffering was still beautiful in some way. Its beauty was far away and out of reach; it wasn't the type of beauty that could be captured, only seen from a distance. Grace watched the sunset for a short time, but the cooling of the air and the onset of night forced her to resurface to reality.
Their fight for survival was not over; it had merely changed location.
The Eastern Mountains towered above. Their peaks rose into the clouds and out of sight. They had withstood roaring storms and fierce rain; they had endured the test of time. Craning her neck, she peered up into the sky and couldn't see where the mountains ended. She had never felt smaller in her life.
Slinging two coils of rope over both her shoulders, she returned to the Wake. Wordlessly, she tied rope to the branches, creating a weaving pattern that spanned multiple trees. Wandering deeper into the forest, she found ferns with flat, broad leaves. Taking as many of these as she could, she fixed them in between the rope so that the leaves faced outward. If rain decided to fall, it would roll of the broad leaves, and hopefully they'd stay relatively dry. With a remote shelter set up, Grace turned her attention to the next order of business: building a fire.
She kneeled next to Wake whose eyes were still closed. Hunter sat in his lap with his wings folded back, and Wake methodically stroked the bird's head feathers.
"Night is falling quickly," she whispered softly. "I'm going into the forest to find some firewood and maybe some food if we're lucky."
He smiled behind tired eyes at the sound of her voice.
"Thank you, Grace," he said quietly.
She wrapped a coil of rope diagonally across her back and fastened Wake's knife to her makeshift belt. Then, without looking back, she entered the unknown forest.
The ferns and bushes that covered the ground reminded her of the trail back on the Island. The only difference was this forest was denser and wilder. The trees were silent, too. Vines hung from the branches of thick trunked trees. Large slabs of stone were completely covered in moss. Each time she took a step, fallen leaves crackled beneath her feet, breaking the tranquility of the forest. Something about the atmosphere compelled her to remain as quiet as possible. It was a place of reverence, similar to the pond where Ren used to sit alone beside the swaying cattails. Grace could tell it was an ancient forest. She felt as if each tree and rock watched passively and smiled inwardly at her naïve youth.
Each time she found a desirable log or tree branch, she cut it down to size and tied it with her rope. To keep track of her surroundings, she made small tick marks in the solid trunks with the knife. Calmly and methodically, the red sunset dipped deeper and deeper until only slight cracks of light split through the dense trees. As her surroundings darkened and grew more obscure, she felt a compulsion to return to camp. Getting lost in an ancient unknown forest was the last thing she wanted to do. She had to get back to Hunter and Wake.
The name ran through her mind once again. She couldn't stop thinking about what had happened.
How could she?
She remembered how the life-giving rain had fallen like mist on her face. It had tasted sweeter than anything she'd ever tasted. He had cooled the stagnant heat with a western wind at their backs. His eyes had blazed with pure white energy unlike anything she had ever seen before. He had moved in-tune with the wind and rain, almost like a rhythmic dance. All the while, he never said a word, and when he had finished, he spiraled down on his vortex of water and sat quietly in the back of the boat. When the light faded from his eyes, so did the energy from his face. He had been exhausted.
The next morning, she had tried to ask him about what he did. He could only recall bits and pieces as if the event were a half-remembered dream. He couldn't explain what he did or how he did it; all he could do was describe the sensation of the wind and water. It seemed he was just as surprised and confused as Grace. Never before had she witnessed such raw, untapped power. It was unbelievable and terrifying.
She slung the rope over her shoulder and began her return to camp.
Wake remained at the base of the tree. Still, his eyes were closed, yet he wondered that if when he opened them white energy would blaze forth. The darkness of his mind was soothing. His joints hurt, his bones ached, and he still felt the pangs of hunger, but for some reason his thoughts were sharper than ever. He breathed deeply and relaxed his head against the wood. At the same time, he crossed his legs, one over the other. He faced his open palms toward the branches over head. Then, he listened.
He listened with careful attention to the sounds of the forest. At first, he heard the rustling of the leaves, then the chirping of crickets, and then the softer sounds of droplets plunking on stone. The closer he listened, the more he heard. A lone firefly beat its wings as it refused to go quietly into the cold of autumn. Water traveled up and down roots and into the veins of tree trunks. Young wolfbats hung upside-down from the tall ceilings of caves far beneath the ground; they flicked their eyes open as their nocturnal senses kicked in. He could feel the forest living and breathing all around him.
One sound unified them all. The wind was everywhere, in the trees, wrapping around thin branches, curling through the ferns, whispering softly in his ear. The tone rose and fell in an inexplicable pattern, a random harmony. In some places, the wind was strong, in others weak. Somehow, the wind resonated through the entire forest, and in a way, Wake could feel it speaking in the depths of his mind.
The more he concentrated, the more clearly he heard. The mysterious voice surrounded him and originated from him at the same time. It was calling to him.
Louder and louder, "Wake..."
Clearly and irrefutably, "Wake..."
So close he could reach out and touch it, "Wake..."
His eyes snapped open.
Grace stood in front of him with a pile of sticks at her feet.
"I got the firewood."
"Just thought I should inform you," she added.
She began to sift through the scattered sticks and twigs, picking out the larger ones to go at the bottom and the thinner ones for the top. Only when she looked up did she notice Wake out of the corner of her eye. His face was pale, and his hands trembled.
"What's gotten into you? You look as if you've just seen a ghost."
He glanced around frantically.
"Did you see anything strange when you were in the forest?" he asked. "Did you hear voices calling to you?"
Grace raised an eyebrow "Um...no?"
"Why, did you?" she asked.
He rubbed the back of his neck.
"No, of course not. What would make you ask such a thing?"
She dropped the sticks she was holding and put a hand on her hip.
"First of all, you were the one who asked me that question." She sighed. "And second of all, after what I've seen over the course of this journey, I wouldn't be surprised if we woke up tomorrow morning and it was raining purple lobster-dragons."
Wake chuckled unconvincingly.
"Yup! Strange things happen to us! Voices calling? I was just testing you to make sure you've acquired your land-legs after all this time."
He continued to glance around as if someone were spying.
Grace noted his increasingly odd behavior but opted to continue building the fire. Once the pyre was complete, she used the flint to douse the wood in a shower of blazing cinders. A couple of the twigs caught, and she blew rapidly around the edges until the logs caught as well. Gradually, the flames grew and gave off bright orange light that cast shadows on the survivors' faces.
The warmth soothed Wake's eyes and cleared his mind. On the other side of the fire, Grace used the knife to stab into the nearest tree. She brought her ear up to the handle and listened for vibrations. She concentrated for some time, and then she grinned. Wrenching the knife from the trunk, she began to tap against the bark until the tapping echoed a hollow sound. She marked the spot and quickly retrieved the tin cup from the pile of supplies. Then, with the knife, she punctured the hollow spot, and when she pulled the blade, water trickled out like sap. She placed the tin cup to catch the water droplets. They tinkled and pattered against the metal.
Wake watched as fiery flakes of wood broke and chipped off the logs. They rose through the air and into the black night sky. He followed them as they faded into grey ashes. His eyes lingered on the sky. The stars were out, visible in the clear, cloudless night. The rough scent of smoke calmed his nerves. The dim light was soothing, and for the first time in a long time, he felt relaxed, content even.
Once the tin cup was filled with water, Grace hung it over the open fire just like Wake had done the first night in the boat. It seemed like an eternity since that freezing night. Back then they barely knew each other. Now, Grace could understand him without speaking. She could tell when he had something on his mind simply by reading his expression. His eyes wandered far away, and so too did his thoughts. Whatever he thought about demanded his full attention because even when she tried to talk to him, her words rolled off his subconscious like raindrops.
Bubbles formed at the bottom of the cup, and the water began to boil.
Careful to avoid touching the metal, Grace removed the cup from the fire. She wrapped it in the same old rag as before. Only now, the rag could barely even be called a rag. The threads barely held together and every single edge was frayed.
"Here," she held the cup out to Wake. "Breath in the steam. It will warm you up from the inside. Be careful, it's hot.
His dark eyes lifted from the flames, and he smiled.
"Something about this seems oddly familiar."
Bringing the steaming cup to his lips, he took a sip of the liquid heat. Just as Grace had said, the warmth flowed down his throat and into his stomach. He imagined a bonfire igniting inside him. Immediately, his spirits lifted, and he could feel the tingling sensation spread from his stomach, to his arms, and to the tips of his fingers.
He took another sip.
He held the cup in his hands, and he noticed Grace on the other side of the fire. Her white hair was tied back. It no longer streamed like silk. The weather and elements left it twisted and curled, but she didn't seem to care. Using the knife, she carved into pieces of wood. Wake couldn't tell what she was carving, but he could tell by the determination in her eyes that she was focused. What was left of her dress was ripped and tattered. Her bare arms were wiry and strong; her hands rough and calloused. The firelight illuminated her slender face. Dark lines and wrinkles streaked beneath her eyes. Where her skin had been soft, it was now tanned and tight. Her mouth formed an emotionless scowl. Despite her visible discontent, her golden eyes still flickered with the same intensity that they did on the cold night they first met.
When she finished carving, she dropped the knife and blew the dust off the wood. For a few moments she stared at her creation. Then, without blinking, she tossed the wood into the fire. She slumped back against a tree. Cinders exploded for a brief instant, and then the fire returned to its soft, quiet dance. Wake watched as the flames enveloped the carving of the white lotus. Its curved petals charred to black. The blackness spread from the petals to the middle of the bud until all was black. The wood burned to a uniform char until it could burn no more, and it snapped in half with a resounding crack.
Wake stood up.
Quietly, he passed the fire and went over to Grace. He offered her the tin cup with an outstretched arm.
"Thank you, Grace, but you need this just as much as I do."
She didn't say anything as she accepted the tin cup with a wan smile. She took a sip, and almost immediately, color returned to her cheeks.
Wake sat down beside her.
"I wasn't completely honest with you earlier," said Wake. "When you were gathering firewood, I began to meditate beneath the tree. At first I was just breathing, but then I began to listen. The more I listened, the more I heard. I came to a place deep inside my mind, and I could hear everything in the forest all at once."
Grace set down the cup and sat up.
"I could hear crickets," Wake continued. "I could hear the water moving within trees, the wings of a lone firefly, the slightest moving of wolfbats hanging from caves underground."
He paused and gazed into the smoldering embers of the dying fire.
"I know it may seem hard to believe, but I could hear the wind calling my name. It called from every direction, even from within myself. At first I thought I was just crazy, but the more I listened the more I began to realize the truth. It called to me; I could distinctly hear my name."
For a while, Grace didn't respond. She, too, gazed deeply into the fire, ruminating on what Wake had told her. The embers faded to deep red and the smoke rose grey into the black sky.
"I believe you," Grace stated.
She poked at the dying fire with a stick to open it to the air.
"Ever since I met you, I knew you had a gift. What I told you on the boat, I meant it. You're one of the strongest people I've ever met."
"And it just so happens that your gift makes your eyes light up, allows you to levitate water droplets, create wind, and hear random voices in the woods."
"I already told you. I have no idea how I did it," Wake said seriously.
He remembered the distant sensation of controlling the water, how it felt under his power. Sitting beside the fire, he could hardly believe that he actually did it. He couldn't explain how or why he did it. In his mind, he thought he couldn't do it again no matter how hard he tried.
Grace continued with utmost certainty.
"That's why we're going to help you learn how to use your gift."
"So you and ... Hunter?" asked Wake. "You and Hunter are going to teach me to master my gift?"
At the mention of his name, the osprey-dove fluttered down from a branch and perched on Grace's shoulder.
"That's right," she replied. "Your magic water training begins first thing tomorrow morning."
Grace's confidence and support made Wake feel better.
"I'm a bit surprised you haven't ditched me by now," he joked. "If I ran into someone who could speak with thousands of voices at the same time, I think I'd be too freaked out to stick around."
"There's no doubt about it. You're a full-blown freak at this point," Grace said bluntly, "but your freaky powers saved all of us from dying out there."
"Thanks...I guess," said Wake. "Though I am a bit skeptical about this whole training idea. How exactly do you plan to teach me when neither of us know what in the spirits I did?"
"As far as training goes, I've learned just about everything there is to know about The Way of the Sword. I've also studied other forms of martial arts. I know you weren't exactly aware of your actions, but I saw everything from the boat."
"The way you moved," her voice trailed off.
"It reminded me of my mother."
"Oh." His expression dimmed. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to -"
"It's fine," she cut him off. "None of this is your fault."
She stood up and dusted herself off.
"We didn't come here by choice. It's not like anything we did or didn't do caused everything that has happened to us. For whatever reason, destiny forced us on this path."
The fire all but faded to ash.
"Now we're here. It's just the way the world is."
Wake sat in the silence, trying to think of some kind of response. Her expression was solemn and serious, and Wake understood why. The true nature of the world reflected in her soft golden eyes. He saw this and knew it to be true. Nothing he could ever say or do would change the reality of that expression.
"I'm going to get more firewood," said Grace after a while.
She picked up the rope and knife. Like before, she made a makeshift sling and hung the knife from her belt. Without speaking, she turned her back to the dying fire and entered the darkness of the forest.
Wake watched her disappear into the murky depths of trees, and part of him wished he could go with her, but he knew inside that she would be fine. She didn't come across as someone who would be afraid of the dark. With that peace of mind, he fell into the soothing sounds of the night, closed his tired eyes, and drifted off.
The moon trickled down through the trees. The forest seemed alien, and she couldn't recognize anything she'd seen earlier. Feeling her way through the darkness, she searched for the ticks she made in the tree bark. After about five trees, she finally found one of the jagged grooves carved by the serrated knife. Here, she stopped and drank in her surroundings.
The forest was quiet at first. After some time, small noises filtered into her subconscious: rustling leaves, cooing wind, creatures stirring. She was about to continue collecting firewood, but she was interrupted by a disturbance in the wind and snap of a tree branch. The noise was both noticeable and too close for comfort. Her warrior instincts kicked in, and she immediately raised her guard.
Through a small clearing in the woods, she recognized the shape of a figure moving in the shadows. Her heart jumped through her chest, and she could feel her pulse in her neck and wrists. It was the first person other than Wake she'd seen since she left the Island. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. Quietly, she maneuvered through the trees, keeping a careful eye on the whereabouts of the shadowy figure.
Whoever it was didn't seem to be in a great big hurry. The figure walked casually through the forest, glancing at the sky from time to time. At one point, Grace could almost here the sound of whistling. She stalked the figure by moving stealthily from tree to tree and staying hidden from the moonlight.
The figure lead her to an opening in the forest. The canopy yielded to the sky and the white moon shone down over the tall grass and a lone tree. The dark figure stood in the middle of the large expanse. He gazed nonchalantly up at the stars in the sky.
He turned directly towards where Grace hid behind a tree.
"I know you're there."
The words froze Grace upon impact. The palms of her hands felt clammy, and a knot formed in her throat. She remained still.
The figure laughed. The laugh was light and carefree, and it caused her to drop her guard.
"I've known you've been following me this entire time, and I got tired of waiting for you to show yourself."
Hesitantly, Grace inched out from behind the tree. She kept a firm hand on the hilt of her knife. For the first time, she got a good look at the figure. A sigh of relief immediately washed over her.
"You're just a child."
"I'm a bit short for my age. No need to for insults," he replied sourly. "You really need to work on your manners. I was simply trying to enjoy a leisurely stroll through the forest until you decided to start stalking me like some kind of headhunter."
The boy couldn't have been more than twelve years of age. In the light, she noticed that he wore light orange robes and his head was shaved. His face was round and bright as if he constantly tried to conceal his happiness. He looked unlike anyone she'd ever met before. He looked completely and utterly harmless.
"And let go of your knife." He motioned to her hand still clasped around the hilt. "You're making me nervous."
Embarrassed, she blushed and returned the knife to her belt. "Sorry."
The boy looked at her with a childlike curiosity, like a young cat-owl examining an insect on a blade of grass.
"I like your hair," he said. "I've never met someone with white hair before."
"If you knew I was following you, then why didn't you run?" Grace inquired darkly. "You didn't know who I was. How could you have known that I wouldn't capture you, or worse? Who knows what kind of people live in these woods? I could have been a thug."
He laughed again. The light, carefree sound reminded her of the jingling of wind chimes, and she immediately felt childish for what she had said. She clearly didn't threaten or intimidate him in the slightest.
"You look sort of like a thug," he said.
He walked directly up to Grace and sniffed her.
"What do you think you're doing?" She moved away from him in shock.
"When's the last time you had a decent shower? You're more of a picken than a person," he said ignoring her.
"You didn't answer my question. Why didn't you run?"
The wind picked up.
"I didn't run because I had no reason to be afraid."
The boy in orange robes whistled a sweet melody that carried into the wind. Out of the starry sky, a large form darted across the white moon. The leaves on the trees caught the wind like tiny sails, and some fell from their branches and spiraled into the sky. The large form flew in on a gust of wind and landed softly in the clearing in which the two strangers stood.
This time, Grace's heart stopped completely.
The enormous creature had six legs, a paddle-like tail, and an unmistakable arrow on its massive skull. It snorted in a huff of air that lifted dust from the ground.
"This is my friend, Hava," said the boy, patting the flying beast on the shoulder. "And my name's Sikhi. Pleased to meet you, girl with white hair."
Grace rubbed her eyes and thought she had to be dreaming.
"What is it?" she asked.
"It has a name," Sikhi muttered. "Hava is a sky bison."
"He, unlike you apparently, is very well-mannered. If I were you, I'd introduce yourself."
"Hi...Hava," she said hesitantly. "I'm Grace, pleased to meet you."
The sky bison's eyes lit up, and before she could even react, she was knocked to the ground by a huge slimy tongue. Gooey saliva found its way into her hair, and it covered her face. She spit and scraped the gunk off of her while Sikhi doubled over on the ground in laughter.
"Gets 'em every time," he cried in between laughs.
"What's your deal?" Grace seethed. "Is this some kind of joke to you?"
She imitated Sikhi's voice and demeanor.
"Hi there! I'm Sikhi and this is my good friend Hava! Wanna be my friend? Oh I see you there in the trees, but it's not a big deal because I'm just taking a stroll through the woods. I'm going to play a little trick on this girl just because I can."
Sikhi felt a knot twist inside him. His laughter fell to the bottom of his throat like iron. There was nothing funny about the look in the girl's eyes. He looked closely into her expression, and he saw something he'd never seen before. She reminded him nothing of Tai or Dai. She certainly didn't remind him of Jifu. The way her tan skin stretched tightly over her cheekbones, the way her mouth formed an eternal scowl, it silenced his briefly enjoyed hysteria. Her steely golden eyes were weathered and too tired to care about him.
"Nice to meet you Sikhi, but I don't have time to be the butt of your stupid little jokes," she said coldly. "I have to collect firewood because my friend needs to stay warm through the night. In fact, I'll be collecting firewood every day for the next few months of winter, at least until he regains his strength."
"I hope you enjoy the rest of your walk. Sorry I interrupted it."
Grace walked past him with the intent to reenter the forest, but his voice stopped her.
"Grace, wait," he called, his voice now serious and decades older. "I can help you."
Wake fell into a deep sleep, and all the while he smiled. He dreamed that he was back on the Island. He dreamed that Inasahan was still alive. He dreamed that everything was back to the way it was, that there were no more problems, no more struggles. He felt his spirit rise, and at one point during the night, he awoke slightly.
The stars were very close, closer than he had ever seen. He saw them through the flickering slivers of his tired eyelids. He dozed in and out of sleep. The ground felt softer than before, and he briefly noticed that the tree was gone, too. He wondered when Grace would get back with the firewood.
The cadence of the waves breaking on the shore faded away. A soothing breeze combed through his dark hair, and the touch reminded him of the vision of his mother. He closed his eyes and imagined her by his bedside whispering to him in her lovely voice. He imagined himself as an innocent child lying on a bed of clouds, pretending to be asleep. He imagined himself without scars running down his back, without splintered feet and calloused hands. In the blackness of his mind, he drifted back to sleep, to the comfort of his fabricated memories.
All the while, the air was crisp, sweet, and clearer than ever.
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