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My nightmare wakes me while the sun still shines. I draw a hand over my face. The vision, unchanged in all my years on Ira, keeps changing since we reached Izyphor. Now, I dreamed of the sultan threatening death to Maraiah, but a gigantic corpse arose and started consuming first Maraiah and then all of Orrock.
I turn over, seeking Saviayr. The dirt is scuffed where he slept, but he isn’t there. My heart beats faster than it was already beating. My breaths come in short gasps.
A noise nearby. I bolt straight up, eyes stretched wide. Is Aivenah coming to devour? Have the Izyphorns found us?
Oh, Aia, don’t let Aivenah kill Savi!
The noise comes again–just a pebble drawn off the side of the canyon by the inexorable pull of the ground. I press against my forehead. Calm down, Rai. It was just a nightmare. Aivenah is not here.
When my breathing slows to almost-normal, I look closer at my surroundings. Sky so blue it rivals the depth of the ocean on a clear day stretches overhead. The canyon walls, red ribboned with white, block the horizon with edges like jagged coral. Sage dusts the canyon top and huddles in the shadows down here on the dry riverbed.
Nihae, Forziel, Laen, Hoenna, Liwin, and Drigo sprawl, still sleeping, on the ground, separated by piles of pebbles. We had to clear the gravel away this morning to make sleep on the ground possible.
I adjust my sandal strap and pick my way along the canyon floor, searching for Saviayr. Out of sight of the camp, I find him. He sits hunched forward on the ground, face in his hands.
He can hear me approach, the pebbles on the ground make sure of that, but he doesn’t acknowledge me. I stop at his shoulder. “Savi?”
I sit next to him. When my hands rest on his back, he shudders. “I didn’t want⎼” A gasp interrupts him. He heaves for breath.
I wrap an arm around his back and draw his head to my shoulder. It used to be a familiar gesture. We had our share of comforting each other when we were children, adolescents in an unjust world. Now, it feels awkward.
Savi doesn’t protest, though. His arms wrap around me, and he hides his face against my neck. Just like that, the awkwardness disappears.
A tear trails down my cheek. Savi clutches the fabric of my vest. He tenses, then a sob rips through him.
That sob seems to crumble the defenses he’s been holding onto since Elesekk died. He weeps. I stroke my fingers through his sandy curls and cry with him. My shoulder quickly grows damp, but I don’t care. He needs this. We both do.
When his sobs abate, Savi says, in a voice thick with tears, “It’s not right. Death isn’t right.”
I feel that truth to my very core. Elesekk’s death, and those of my parents, chafe against my soul like sand rubbing on a sore. Death is not right. It’s not natural. “Life was never supposed to end,” I agree.
But if life was never supposed to end, what do we do now? How do we live in a world that isn’t what it should be?
Savi is crying again. This time is less violent, not grief pushed down and held at bay for too long. This time is lighter, somehow, but lasts longer. When his shoulders lose some of their tension, Savi lifts his head and blows out a deep breath.
The bright blue sky is darker now, signalling the onset of evening. “Do you think you’re up for going back to camp?” I ask.
He sits up and rubs his sleeve over his red face, though one arm stays around me. He sniffs. “We ought to.”
I stand and offer a hand to help him up. He keeps holding on as we return to camp.
Everyone is awake now, though Forziel is still sitting where he slept, rubbing his drooping eyes. Just before we reach them, Savi tugs my hand until I meet his eyes. “Thank you, Rai.”
“Of course. Any time,” I assure him. On impulse, I raise to my toes and brush my lips over his.
Forziel cheers. “That’s right, remind us you’re actually married.”
My cheeks heat as I pull away. The upward quirk of Savi’s lips makes it worthwhile.
Nihae looks over at me, and her eyes widen. She covers her mouth. “Rai? What are you–hae-Aia, you’re alive!” She runs toward me and wraps me in a hug.
I frown. What? Belatedly, I hug her back. “Of course I am. Mama, I was just talking with Savi.”
Nihae pulls back and cradles my face. “Where have you been? We thought you were dead.”
“No–no, we didn’t think that,” Forziel assures us. His forehead is creased. “We’re just waking up. Hardly had time to miss you.”
Nihae’s eyebrows lower. “Of course we missed you! We had a funeral for you when the slave master showed us your chanavea.”
Hoenna makes a noise of understanding. At least someone knows what’s going on. I feel strangely suspended in air, about to fall. He steps up beside Nihae and, with a stern look at the rest of us, says, “You’re right. There must have been some misunderstanding. What a blessing that she is alive and leading us to freedom from Izyphor!”
A smile eats the confusion on Nihae’s face. Her hands drop to my shoulders. “Hae-Aia you are alive,” she repeats softly.
“Now, let’s get ready to go with her.” Hoenna hands Nihae a crust of bread and nudges her toward the blanket she slept on. When she shuffles away, the Rhilissi steps closer to Saviayr and me. “I’ve had suspicions,” he whispers, “but I’m pretty sure now. Your mother has the Wasting Curse. Did you know?”
Acid grows in my stomach. Savi’s hand tightens in mine. “What do you mean?” he asks.
“The Wasting Curse.” Hoenna waves at his head. “My people say the ghouls choose the kindest souls and kill them by drinking their minds. Has she been forgetful?”
It is too dreadful to admit out loud. I barely nod. Savi doesn’t even move.
Hoenna rests a hand on each of our shoulders. “My deep condolences. The long goodbye of Wasting Curse is the greatest evil the ghouls have devised. In the meantime, it is kindest to her to play along when she forgets. Don’t try to correct her or remind her. She won’t remember.”
“But she knows Rai’s alive,” Savi protests. “She was there when we found her on Ira. She was the first of us to hug her again! She’s been around Rai for two weeks.”
Hoenna nods. “I know it seems that way. But the Wasting Curse, it starts by drawing away recent memories first.”
I have few tears left after crying with Savi. Even though Hoenna’s announcement makes me want to cry, I can’t. I take a slow breath and focus on the present. “That’s horrible. But, if there’s nothing we can do to stop it?”
Hoenna shakes his head.
“Then we have to keep moving forward now. How long till we’re ready to leave?”
“Good news is we’re traveling light,” Drigo says. He raises one of the three packs of supplies we have. “So if you’re ready, we can breakfast as we walk.”
Forziel bounces over the ground. “Yes! Let’s go! We’re getting close to the Ruined City of Tivanik. I’ve always wanted to see it.”
He’s already skipping up the canyon. Liwin grabs his pack and jogs after Forziel.
“I’ll get Mama,” Savi says.
Before the sun sets, we’re back on the way to the capital.
“We won’t have time for sightseeing,” I warn Forziel. The days are slipping away too quickly, and our legs cover the desert too slowly. “The Feast is only three days from now.”
Forziel waves dismissively. “Yeah, but it’s carved in the canyon’s side, and they say it looks like a gigantic scorpion from above. That’s why they named it after the Izyphorn divinity Tivan Firebringer.”
Liwin tilts his head. “How do they know what it looks like from above?”
Forziel shrugs. “No idea. But the insurgent sultan Sheved hid out there, and they say he smuggled in piles of Izyphorn royal treasures. I wonder if we’ll find any?”
Drigo’s attention focuses on the two Maraian boys. “Treasure? Where’d he hide it?”
“Who knows?” Forziel laughs. “Isn’t that the fun of it?”
Hoenna throws a stern look at Drigo. “That’s Altik the Carinite’s territory.”
“I ain’t scared of Altik,” Drigo grumbles. The dip of his shoulders and disappointed droop of his face suggests otherwise.
The back of my neck prickles. The hairs on my arms stand straight up, even though the evening is scarcely cooler than the day. “Be quiet,” I snap at Forziel, who keeps rambling about the Ruined City of Tivanik.
“Thank you,” Drigo groans. “Is he always this annoying?”
I shush him and glance over my shoulder. Something isn’t right.
“What,” Drigo says, “do none of us get to talk?”
“Hush,” Savi rebukes him. He rests his hand on Elgarnoseth. “Rai?”
No dust cloud, behind or before us. No grating of the ground shifting. And the sky–too little of it is visible to tell, too much hidden by the canyon walls.
“We need to hurry.” I walk faster, but it’s not fast enough. A fresh wave of apprehension, and I break into a run.
The bandits call out questions. Savi, Nihae, and Forziel just follow. Nihae seems to have regained her memory, hae-Aia. I don’t know how we’d face what’s coming otherwise.
Ahead, west, a tendril of cloud unfurls over the edge of the canyon. It moves fast, the harbinger of a fleet of clouds. Only they aren’t normal clouds rolling like puffs of cotton.
The bandits pull up short. “What…” Laen trails off, mouth open. Hoenna stumbles forward a couple more steps, eyes wide, to fit himself between Liwin and the clouds.
Why did I send Nhardah with the baby? He can’t fight aivenkaites, but at least they can’t kill him. I need him as an extra barrier for these six people who are completely unarmed against the aivenkaites.
“Are you seeing what I’m seeing?” Drigo points at the clouds, which are now an ever-deepening gray. “Those clouds look like–like lions and snakes and scorpions and–and other things, right? But clouds don’t do that.”
“I thought Onili said you all knew about the kaites and aivenkaites,” Savi says.
Drigo sputters. “Yeah, but…but they can do that?”
Hoenna shifts on his feet. “Which ones are those?”
“Aivenkaites,” I say.
“They don’t like us,” Forziel adds.
“Can we outrun them?” Hoenna glances back.
Of course we can’t outrun aivenkaites, but we might be able to avoid their scheme this time. “Forziel, is there a way we can get to high ground?”
He rubs his shoulder. His chanavea flashes. “Yeah, but not back, not for a ways. The closest is forward.”
The aivenkaites are being smart. They know we have the Swords of the Champions and won’t easily be defeated, so they’re attacking from a distance. They’ve drawn up water and made themselves into clouds, and they’ll release it over the canyon.
“Unless we get to high ground,” I say, “we’re about to be swept away in a flash flood.”