Another day had come and gone. Another day of trudging through a cold, wet forest, worrying about what was to come. This wasn’t what Iona had in mind when she was planning her heroic rescue. She knew it wouldn’t be easy but she never expected the forests of Selson to be this unforgiving. She’d thought her trips out with Sahel and Boltan had prepared her for anything it could throw at her. If only she’d known how wrong she was.
The sun was barely risen when Iona awoke to find her mysterious guide floating above her face. Straight away, it was nagging her to get up and moving again. Iona wanted to argue, but then she remembered what was at stake, and did as she was told.
She sleepwalked through most of the morning. Her stomach complained with almost every step. It was the longest she’d ever gone without eating. She wasn’t sure how much longer she could last. Her heart sunk at the sight of the hill ahead, especially when she saw the light go floating up unperturbed. She guessed there was no point complaining and did her best to follow. Her legs felt like they were splintering. More than a few times, she felt like she was about to go tumbling back down. Iona persevered and her silent prayers were answered when she reached the top and found herself staring at a jumble of dark green and vivid yellow gleaming in the late-morning sun. Her eyes adjusted and she discerned the big bulbous shapes hanging from the branches. Kenga Fruit, a whole bush laden with fat, yellow bulbs in bunches of anywhere between four and twelve. She didn’t bother asking if they could stop, rushing over and ripping off the first fruit she could reach before sinking her teeth into its pulpy body. In no time, she’d stripped it to its core and was tearing off another. It wasn’t hugely substantial, but enough to take the edge off.
The light appeared beside her. There isn’t much time. You must follow.
“In a minute”, Iona replied with a mouth full of pulp. She tore off half a dozen of the biggest she could find for the road ahead, cradling them like a big baby.
Thirst was the next thing to plague her. She’d barely drank a drop since being separated from Sahel. So far, they hadn’t come across anywhere that offered the chance of a drink. Iona remembered seeing some lakes and streams on the maps she downloaded to her holo-pad but that was in a rucksack next to the charred remains of a fire miles away. The best she could manage now was tilting her head back and opening her mouth whenever rain fell but it was nowhere near enough. She needed something better, fast. Her head was pounding, her mouth dry as old bones. She was starting to feel dizzy. It was getting harder to keep up with the light, which either hadn’t noticed she was falling behind or didn’t care. Her pleas to slow down went ignored. Disorientation set in as her energy was sapped. She could barely keep her eyes open.
Don’t give up, she told herself when it felt like she was about to. Just a bit further. We can do this.
Every moment, the temptation grew harder to fight. Her legs wobbled like jelly. Any moment she’d fall, but then came a sound that almost brought tears to her tired eyes.
Water, flowing water, no more than a hundred yards away. Iona forced herself to keep going. After pushing through another green barrier, she was overjoyed to find her ears had been correct. She paid no mind to where she was putting her feet, tripping and rolling down the bank before stopping at the river’s edge. Iona dragged herself over and immersed her hands in the cold water, then brought them to her face. Immediately, it seemed like a weight had been lifted. She cupped her hands beneath the surface, then held them to her mouth as she lapped up every drop. It was nowhere near enough, so she did it again, and again, and again. Eventually she gave up and put her mouth to the river itself. It might have been dirty and there may have been all manner of diseases flowing through it but she didn’t care. All Iona cared about was not dying of thirst in the middle of nowhere. She drank more than she ever had done in one sitting. Her belly felt like it could burst. It didn’t take long for her symptoms to subside but she was still in no condition to continue. She’d need a rest before she had the strength to move. Iona looked over her shoulder and found the light floating nearby.
You must follow.
“I can’t. I need to rest for a while”.
There is little time. You must follow.
Rage flowed through her like the water down her throat. “Listen! I will follow you. But it’s not gonna be any good if I can’t stand up when we get there. Just let me rest for a while, OK”? Iona braced herself for the inevitable answer.
Very well. But we cannot stay for long. Time is running short.
“Thank you”. She’d had almost all she could take of this thing bossing her around.
Iona looked down at her skin practically concealed beneath a shell of mud, dirt and blood. She stood and stripped out of what was left of her clothes, leaving them in a pile on the bank as she waded in. The water was a lot colder than she’d thought. She continued until she was almost knee-deep. The current wasn’t too rough. She squatted and splashed water over her skin, rubbing up and down her arms, chest and stomach and as much of her back as she could reach, then standing up and doing the same with her legs and backside. Then she took a breath and dove beneath the surface to wash her neck, face and hair, emerging refreshed and renewed. She almost felt ready to take on the remainder of her journey.
Shivering, Iona returned to the riverbank where she allowed the breeze to blow her dry. It was surprising how much the act of bathing could make a person feel better. Her headache was almost gone, and she felt like she was getting some of her energy back. A little longer and she’d be ready to set off again. She was starting to feel more than little exposed, standing in the middle of the forest in the nude. The light was hovering not far away. She was certain it was watching her. Not quite ready to put on her filthy and ruined clothes, Iona settled with just her underwear. It wasn’t much better but she didn’t have much choice. She found a patch by the water that wasn’t too dirty and lay down. She must have made for a real sight; she didn’t want to think what Sahel would have thought if he found her right now. Sahel.
“He’s fine”, Iona quietly told herself. “He’s a master arcanist. They couldn’t have killed him so easily”.
More images of her mentor’s mutilated corpse filled her head. They made her queasy. She’d always had a vivid imagination. It seemed the best way to put it out of her mind was to get moving. Iona returned to her clothes and got dressed, or as near enough as she could. She didn’t bother with her socks and shoes, carried them by her side instead.
The light headed straight across the river, just as Iona guessed. The current had gotten a little rougher since her bath, forcing her to take care not to lose her footing. It was deeper than she’d thought too, coming up to her middle in some parts. They managed to cross without incident and on they went. There’d been no more encounters with the Mahleeka. Iona wasn’t sure whether or not that was a good thing. She’d thought there’d be more the closer they got to their camp. She could only hope they were going the right way. She supposed she’d find out soon enough.
Things seemed to be looking up. The walking was no less tiring but the warmth of the afternoon sun was a welcome change. There was the odd shower here and there. They came across some more Kenga Fruit bushes which helped keep her hunger at bay. The sky went from ocean blue to tangerine orange with the setting of the sun. Soon enough, it was the colour of ink. She should have been thinking about settling down for the night. It was no good travelling the forest in the dark, but her companion was having none of it.
They came to a point where the ground took a sharp incline, steeper than any hill yet. It was so dark Iona couldn’t see how far it stretched. This seemed like a good place to stop; there were too many trees and she didn’t feel like any more climbing today. It was too dark to go any further and she was tired again, but her guide was already making its way up, unimpeded by the slope. If it had feet it would be a different story. Iona sucked it up and followed, but once they reached the top, she would go no further. She didn’t care how much it bothered her.
The hill kept going, never relenting in its gradient. It seemed to get even steeper in parts. Iona’s thighs burned with exertion. She prayed she was near the top. The foliage and darkness made it impossible to see more than a metre ahead. The temptation to lie down and go to sleep was like acid the way it dissolved her will, but then she looked up and felt a shot of relief. The light appeared to have come to a halt, floating against what looked to be the night’s sky. Iona dragged herself the remainder of the way. The light didn’t move, almost like it was waiting for her. Hope started to blossom within.
Iona pushed through the last few bushes and found herself on a ridge overlooking a deep valley bathed in the light from Valarayan above. It didn’t look like any valley she’d seen before. The ridge stretched far in both directions before curving around, the ends meeting miles away on the other side. Then she realized it wasn’t a valley she was looking into, but a crater. Iona wondered if it was the Juhyrut Crater, the largest on Selson. She’d read about it on the shuttle ride from Valarayan, formed by a meteor strike some twenty five million years ago. It was located in the Dorta region, she remembered, like the bulk of the Mahleeka’s territory. The crater was mostly dark, even with the glow from the giant pearl above, but, when she squinted, Iona saw the lights at the centre like flickering embers, faint but with the orange of campfires. The longer she stared the more she made out. At first, it looked like a camp they’d come upon but, on second glance, it seemed more like a town, perhaps even a city.
Iona gave a breath, not quite able to believe they’d made it. “My friends… are they alive”?
Some. The weight on her heart suddenly got a lot heavier.
“Can you take me to them”?
“What does that mean”?
You must follow.
“I came here to save my friends”!
There will be time for that. But first you must follow. It started moving again, floating like a bubble over the edge and down the side of the crater. I must leave you now.
I must prepare. You will find me. It then shot off like a speeding bullet toward the camp, and was gone in the blink of an eye.
You’ve got to be kidding me, Iona thought as she stared at the spot where she last saw it.
She’d lost the will to question anything anymore. Instead, Iona focused on figuring out her next move. She couldn’t see much, but it didn’t look like the camp had much in the way of defence. There didn’t appear to be any walls although there’d probably be plenty guards. Her newfound abilities would help with that. She had no idea where her people would be, and guessed the only way to find out was to go and look for herself. The way down was even steeper than the hill leading up. Almost immediately, Iona lost her balance and nearly went rolling down. That wasn’t a great start. Rather than walk, she sat and slid herself along on her hands and bottom. The ground was soft enough and there were no trees or bushes in her way. The gradient declined and she was able to move on her feet again. The night’s peace died as the sounds of the camp faded into earshot, an ensemble of cheering, screaming and chanting, along with what sounded like the beating of drums. Something was happening. Iona hoped she wasn’t too late.
The camp’s border was a stone’s throw away. Iona couldn’t see much from where she knelt. Just a few tents and the orange of firelight seeping between. She couldn’t see the Mahleeka, but she could hear them, the screams of the inhabitants growing louder as she neared. Her heart pounded but she didn’t stop until she’d reached the nearest tent. She’d never been so nervous. She wasn’t ready, but she’d come too far to turn back now. She took a moment to rest as she thought about what to do next. Her people were probably being held in one of the tents. Finding out which was the next challenge, not to mention getting them out without the Mahleeka catching them. What was she doing? She was so in over her head.
Iona almost jumped at the electric jolt that shot down one side of her body. At least she had her abilities, even if she didn’t understand what they were trying to tell her. She felt it again, stronger this time. Iona listened, and detected an aberration in the sea of noise, a group of voices poking out from the background. They were close; she needed to move. Iona looked for a gap between the tents wide enough to fit through. They weren’t very well built structures, just some wooden beams tied together and covered with animal hide. It didn’t take long to find one with a hole to slip through.
Inside was what looked like a couple mats for sleeping on but nothing else. Iona headed for the opening. A muddy path separated one row of tents from the next. The way was clear. The glow of firelight emanated from the centre of the camp, rising like a tidal wave about to sweep away everything unfortunate enough to be caught in its path. All she had to do was follow the light. Iona moved as quietly as possible, stopping for breaks between tents to make sure the coast was clear before continuing. She peeked through flaps and holes in hide along the way but found only more empty tents. The deluge of cheers and screeches was getting louder and her nerves grew harder to control. One mistake would see her dead.
Iona felt another jolt, then almost recoiled at the sight of the towering tribesman who emerged from the tent opposite. She froze; he was staring straight at her. He just stood there. Then Iona noticed his eye, cloudy and not looking at anything in particular. She stayed as still as she could, didn’t even breathe. The tribesman stared incredulously, as if wondering whether or not he heard something. Iona’s guts practically turned to water when she saw him sniff the air. He knew something was amiss, but then turned and sauntered off. Iona needed a few breaths before she could move on.
She had to be getting close. The glow of the campfires made the sky look like it was was burning. The tapping of wood and banging of drums joined the all-consuming din. They came together to form a kind of primitive music. With all the activity towards the camp’s centre and the near desertion around its outer reaches, Iona guessed she’d caught them in the middle of a celebration of some kind. The number of tribespeople increased the further she went. Her heartrate rocketed as she observed them from her hiding places. Entire groups wandered about almost naked. Others sat outside their tents, laughing and joking and dancing to the music coming from the centre. If it weren’t for her previous encounters, Iona might have thought the Mahleeka to be quite a nice bunch of people.
Iona snaked between the tents, climbing over and under the ropes tied to the ground to keep them from toppling. The sounds of celebration enveloped her. Her flesh tingled. The heat upon her skin swelled in intensity, warm and welcoming at first but soon difficult to bear. Ahead looked like the surface of the sun, so bright it almost blinded. Iona saw movement in the glow, dark whispers flitting around at the end. Sweat drenched the remnants of her clothes. The voices and music raged like aircraft engines, so loud she could barely hear herself think.
She felt her knees weaken when she reached the end. There were more Mahleeka here than in all her previous encounters combined. There had to be over a hundred, standing and sitting around the bonfire that towered like a burning mountain. Men and women, old and young, all practically naked and having a good old time. Iona watched them from behind a pile of animal hides. Many danced around the inferno while many more sat on low benches, listening to the music from the banging of drums, the shaking of shakers, and blowing of flutes. There was no melody or structure. Everyone just seemed to be having a good time making noise and dancing to it. Some looked to be eating meat from wooden plates and drinking from wooden cups. A grim thought came to Iona as she wondered what it was they were eating. Her concerns were then put to rest when she noticed the animal carcasses on spits near the central fire with much of their flesh stripped away.
Her relief turned out to be short-lived. She hadn’t given much thought to the stone slab off to the left of the bonfire, but then she noticed the dark liquid dripping from it. It glistened black and orange in the firelight, still fresh. Her suspicions deepened when she saw the wooden buckets around the slab, no doubt meant to catch the messy liquid. It didn’t take long to realize what it was. Not just a slab, but an altar. She guessed many people had met their ends upon its surface, perhaps even some of those she’d come to save. She needed to move before any more did. She looked around for any indication of where her friends might be. They had to be nearby. One tent caught her eye, to the right of the fire, with a pair of particularly tall and muscular tribesmen standing outside. These weren’t like the others. They neither laughed nor danced or cheered. Instead they were like statues, a spear clutched in one hand and a stern look upon their faces. They were guarding something, and Iona was fairly certain what.
Heading directly there was suicide. The tribe was too busy partying to notice her crouched in the shadows, but she didn’t fancy her chances of sneaking by. She snuck back the way she came, the heat and noise fading as she left the party behind. It’d be much easier to sneak around the camp’s outer reaches. Iona was surprised she’d managed to remain undetected this long. She’d always been something of a klutz. She had her abilities but even they had their limits. She soon made it over to the right side of the camp and started making her way back toward the centre, the air growing hotter and the music louder once more. Soon enough she was at the back of the tent she was looking for. She peeked through the gap between the hide and corner post, and saw only darkness. She was about to try another when she heard a muffled but distinctly human-sounding moan from within. This had to be the place.
Iona looked for a way inside, a gap or a hole in the coverings. Then she tried prying the cover from the frame. That didn’t work either. There had to be another way. She was too close to give up now. Then she noticed the mud at the bottom. Unable to think of anything better, Iona plunged both hands in and started to dig. She must have looked like a dog searching for a lost bone, hands and arms once again caked in mud. It was freezing, and she hated the way it squelched between her fingers but she kept going. Eventually, she had a hole that looked big enough to fit her. She wasn’t happy one bit, having had enough of mud to last the rest of her life, but then she lay down and pushed her way through, pressing her face into the sludge as she slid her head under the hide. The cold, moist feeling at her cheek sent a shiver through her. Her head was through but she still couldn’t see much. She wiggled her arms and shoulders under, then dragged the rest of herself through.
It wasn’t much easier to see on the inside than from out. As her eyes adjusted, Iona started to make out shapes. There were posts, with something (or someone) sitting in front of them. She squinted, and then she saw them. They were sitting in front of the posts, with their legs outstretched and hands tied above their heads. They were mostly human, but there were a couple aliens too. When she looked closer, Iona saw the cuts and bruises littering them, far more severe than what she’d accrued. She crept over to the nearest person, a young Ralenta, not much older than herself. She had a thick cloth stuffed into her mouth and held in place with a leathery-looking strap. She seemed unconscious at first, but then her eyes flicked open, expression a mix of terror and disbelief. She started shaking her head, trying to say something only for the gag to render her words incomprehensible.
“It’s OK”, Iona whispered. “I’m here to help”.
The girl kept shaking her head. The noise roused the other captives. The one beside her, a blue-skinned Rylukan, looked to Iona with similar terror in his eyes. All of his arms were bound above his head. Iona found it hard to believe such ropes could bind a Rylukan so easily, but then she noticed the shards of broken bone sticking out of bloody wounds. He too shook his head, and the others followed suit. They wanted her gone, but she couldn’t just leave them after everything she’d gone through to find them.
Iona almost didn’t hear the raised voices until it was too late, ducking behind the Ralenta girl just as the flap was ripped back and the light of the bonfire flooded in. The captives fell silent, and the light lingered a few moments longer before disappearing. Iona tried pulling the gag from the Ralenta girl’s mouth but the strap made it impossible. Then she tried the ropes at her wrists though they were just as tight, cutting the skin and leaving bloody wounds. She tried another captive, an older Haelqen, but still no luck. There had to be something she could use, a knife, or something sharp. The darkness made searching all but impossible. Iona was starting to panic. There had to be a way. She couldn’t give up now. Then she felt something else, a feeling that was all too familiar. The same she felt in the forest, that forced her to follow the light. It beckoned her to the entrance she’d made for herself. No; she wouldn’t leave them, not now. She had to help. But it was so strong and it wouldn’t leave her alone. The last thing she wanted was to leave them, but it was no use resisting.
“I’m sorry. I’ll be back. I promise”.
Iona did her best to ignore the forlorn gazes, cursing herself as she pulled herself back through. Outside again, she knelt and looked around. There it was, hovering at the end of the row. She knew better than to question, gave only a sigh before heading toward it. The sounds of celebration once again became a murmur in the distance. It stayed, like it was waiting, only to shoot off again when Iona got near. Her anger boiled. She had no time for games. She should have been looking for a way to free her people, not following this thing. But she couldn’t help but follow. It was in her head, leaving her powerless to disobey.
Every time she got near it shot away again. Her frustration intensified with every instance. It was leading her away from the centre, the exact opposite of where she needed to be. Iona kept going, furious, with the light and herself for being too weak to resist its pull. It was as her anger was reaching its peak that she watched it disappear into one of the tents. She didn’t bother wondering why, just went to where she last saw it before pulling back the flap and stepping inside.
It was waiting just past the entrance. “What is this?! Why did you bring me here”?!
There was a flash, and then it was like she was standing inside it. A second ago it was dark but now all around her was white, so bright but not hurting her eyes in the slightest. Iona almost felt like she wasn’t in the same world anymore. The tent was empty, except for one thing. She’d never seen anything like it before. It stood opposite the entrance. A tall rectangle, black and ominous, and with a presence that was difficult to place. Iona couldn’t help but be transfixed. Something about it unnerved her, but, at the same time enchanted. It was so smooth and enthralling and, as she stared at it, she couldn’t help but feel that it was staring back.
“I don’t understand. What is this”?
You must help.
“But I need to help my friends”.
This will help everyone.
“What does that mean”?
There is no time to talk. You must help now.
Darkness returned to the tent, the original ball floating in front of Iona’s face.
This is everything you have been searching for, Iona Aventius.
Iona watched it disappear into the block like how a ghost might pass through a wall. She understood; they were one and the same. It led her here because it wanted her to find it. But why? So many questions filled her, and something inside told her they would all be answered once she lay her fingers upon its surface. She edged toward it, feeling the invisible eyes boring into her. It was alive, and it wanted her, and she wanted it. Iona raised her arm. She was so close.
One by one, her fingers met its glossy surface. She’d never felt anything so smooth. The seconds ticked by but nothing happened. It soon seemed like she’d been standing there for an eternity. Confusion slithered into her mind. Why wasn’t anything happening? Was she doing something wrong? Iona pressed harder, but still nothing. She didn’t understand. She’d been sure something would happen. Was there something else she was supposed to do?
It became clear, and confusion gave way to rage. Nothing was happening, and nothing would ever happen. It lied to her. There were no answers to be had or great power to be obtained. She was just the first idiot it found who was dumb enough to follow. She felt so stupid. Never had she been so blind. It was true. She was stupid, a stupid girl blinded by stupid stories.
Iona didn’t hear or feel a thing. One moment she was cursing herself in front of the thing that brought here and the next she was in the air. She felt a strong arm wrap around her neck and begin squeezing the life from her. She kicked and struggled as hard as she could, but it was no use.