Time started to blur for Ben.
The voyage to Terenful across the East Ocean had remained largely marked in his mental calendar. Even the tunnels through the Fire Teeth Islands hadn't deterred his sense of time passing. By the time they reached Chinzik, he had calculated that they were two weeks into their quest. That was a little under half the time he was expected to be away at the Grand Canyon.
Of course, Ben had little cares for whether that excuse held or not with his parents. Maybe they had learned on the second day that he wasn't with the Grand Canyon group, fearing he had vanished off the face of the Earth. And that was entirely accurate. Even if his folks still blissfully assumed he was off hiking through the Grand Canyon, Ben couldn't place any certainty on returning within the time frame of when they expected him to return.
This was made ever clearer by how long they had traveled now deeper into Terenful. By the time they had arrived in Baravo and met Jesk, Ben was already losing track of the passage of time. He was somewhat confident that they had just passed their three week mark, but now it was completely lost from his mind.
He knew for certain that the last three days had been spent under Jesk's guidance, sticking to the back trails the slavers favored. But as they penetrated deeper east into Terenful's fallen lands, the endless chains of mountains, densely humid jungles and steep pathways all started to blur. Ben tried to make mental calculations of their speed and distance, but it always confused him more than actually framed their journey in his mind. For all he knew, they had wandered less than twenty miles from the coast. But from his perception of things, he was certain they had crossed a distance as great as all of Colorado.
Ben smirked at the thought. He remembered back to the summer before Mike moved away; he had suggested the idea that they make a non-stop hike from Durango all the way east to the Kansas border. They could camp the whole way, maybe do a little hunting for food, and stick to the southernmost rim of the Colorado Rockies. Mike hadn't been too keen on the idea, but Ben was glad he had suggested it. Now he was living it, and if it wasn't his idea, he wasn't sure he would have taken to it so well.
Whenever he got tired or the path steeped up high in front of him, he simply had to remember who he was after.
This is all about Kyyra. Wherever you are…
Without Aadyn's failing health to slow them anymore, Jesk moved the group at a rapid pace. That gave Ben worry for some in their group, particularly Cyasa. But she seemed propelled forward by a hidden strength Ben hadn't granted her. Sure, she was full of squeaks of complaint every so often, but she bore it all and pressed on.
Of course she has magic to sooth her weary feet and bind up blisters.
Ben had his own fair share of blisters, most of the early ones calloused over. For the three weeks he could with certainty account for in his mind, his body had adapted well to the repeated rugged travel day after day. But that didn't keep him from getting sore, forming a couple of new blisters, or needing the occasional spell from the others to bind up worn clothing.
So yes, Cyasa was bearing it well, but she had a power to help her along that Ben was devoid of. It was even possible she had even conjured up some kind of magic that was turning the wear and tear of walking every day into instant strength that could be harnessed by her body.
Imagine that; if we had tech to harness the harshness of life, we would all be Olympic athletes.
Ben tried not to let it bother him too much. He didn't have magic; it was as simple as that. He should count himself lucky that he had been out on the mountain the day Kyyra made her fateful discovery of Earth. Otherwise he would never have known the wonders of Izik, let alone envied after the powers it peoples wielded.
And who would have gone after Kyyra then?
Mostly he kept his attention focused on Jesk. After the first couple of days, his trust had grown enough to stop watching his every move. He hadn't cleared Jesk entirely, considering how strange it was that he had willing come with them. But Ben wasn't watching his back as much anymore.
No, what he was more interested in was whatever Jesk was planning for their eventual encounter.
"Yes," Jesk said, studying a new memorite he had prepared from Jillayr's recollections. "Yes, that was excellent there. Swift attacks; no waiting for them to make a first move."
"That was only the bandits," Jillayr replied. "You saw what happened with the original slaver."
"Only because he will be much more magically stronger. The slavers come from a different order than your typical highway bandit. They will be more prepared for combat; they learned tricks to topple even the mightiest warrior. But the principles are still the same."
Ben always listened whenever they stopped—whether for day breaks or to set up camp in the evening. Jesk rarely spoke when they traveled, and even when he did during their rests it was usually with Siessem and Jillayr. He had singled out Jillayr more so as of late to prepare her for the final meeting with Kyyra's captor.
Jesk seemed convinced it wasn't coming soon, but he was preparing them all the same.
"If we catch him before Auraura, the slaver will be solitary," Jesk explained on another occasion. "I've reviewed your memory of the first slaver encounter enough now; we will be fine. Between all of us we can handle him alone."
"And what if he isn't alone?" Taren grunted skeptically.
Jesk cast a weary look up the new canyon they were hiking through between rows of low lying peaks. "We are traveling into especially dangerous territory. The slaver will be alone, but other forces of darkness will not. And it is them we must keep our guard against."
The thought made Ben involuntarily shudder. He tried not to let himself get worked up about whatever Dark magic awaited them, but the more primal part of him couldn't help fear things that went bump in the night of these jungles.
The mountains they hiked between through the canyons started growing farther and farther apart, leaving wide open plateaus and gorges filled with dense jungle. Over the tree tops, Ben could make out distant plains and deserts, all at least another couple of days journey away.
"Holek," Jesk said at one point, pausing at one point to gaze down the last spine of mountains stretching to the east like a single talon. "The last time I was aware, the border was somewhere just past the mouth of the river from the canyon running alongside us to the south. But that's likely changed."
"What do you mean?" Ben asked.
"Wars," Taren added. "I'm sure there's plenty of border disputes between Holek and Doravo."
"And Gessin to the north," Jesk added. "The desert waste east of here has been the contention point of the three nations and empires throughout time immemorial. Certainly after Doravo, Holek, and Gessin wipe each other out, new nations will rise up to contend for that desert waste."
Ben glanced Jesk's way skeptically. "And what exactly is down there that the three of them are fighting over so much?"
"It's of no concern to us," he replied sharply. "All you need to know is that once we get past these jungles, we will be in contested land. Warriors and Guards run amok in these parts. If Dark enchantments weren't worry enough, we'll have those to deal with as well."
Jillayr shook her head, arms folded as she peered out at the distant scene. Ben wasn't sure if her Warrior's Inge gave her an enhanced sight so that she could pick out details. They were still far enough way and high enough up in the mountains that Ben thought he could see the curvature of Izik.
"Border crossing is going to be a challenge," she said aloud.
"We only need to get into Holek," said Jesk. "The slaver no doubt had an enchanted pathway that is hard for watching eyes to spot. Or perhaps the slave trade is prosperous enough these days that they enter freely. Either way, we are probably going to have to enter Holek to catch up to your friend, which means we will follow the same path her slaver took."
"Sounds simple enough," Ben added. He tried to ignore the part where they were still so far behind that they had to cross over into another nation to catch up to Kyyra.
One step at a time.
"Unfortunately it is not," said Jesk. "The slaver's path will be met with traps and attacks. Those who travel the secret ways must pay the price. And seeing as how we are uninitiated to their enchantments, we will have to meet them head on."
"Great," Ben muttered.
They continued down the ridge of mountains closer and closer to the desert waste. Soon they were far enough down that the trees towered high over them, blocking out the horizon and any view of how much closer they were getting. But it didn't matter. Ben knew this leg of the journey would be quick. Perhaps only two days at the very most.
On the second day, the only visible landmark was the steep grade to their right, leading down into the southern gorge where there was an unseen river feeding into the Holek border. Ben tried in vain to spy it through the trees, but he knew it was a long shot. The gorge had easily been two miles across back when they came out of the mouth of the mountains down ridge. This close to the plains, it was probably three times as wide and still fairly deep. Occasionally he caught a sight through the treetops of a distant canyon wall many miles to the south. He briefly wondered what dangers lurked down below, grateful that they were taking the high road above it all. Ben knew they would have to follow the river eventually, but for the time being it was not his concern.
As they came around a bend in the path, hugging close to the steep canyon wall on their left, Taren suddenly inhaled sharply.
Most of the others had missed it. In fact, now that Ben realized, everyone had missed it. Without realizing it, the two had drifted to the very back of the group. His head shot around to glance her way, where she now stood frozen in the path looking a little pale faced. The others continued on a few steps ahead of them unaware.
Taren took a few calming breaths, shaking her head. "It's nothing. We will be fine."
Ben arched an eyebrow. "Will be? There something you know that I don't?"
Taren quickly shoved past him. "It's nothing," she grunted.
Ben followed after her closely. He hadn't forgotten her strange conversation with Jillayr over a week past before their encounter with the highway bandits. The one where she seemed to pep talk Jillayr into revealing the full extent of her Warrior's Inge to protect them.
So what was the deal now? Did Taren's Inge have some sort of perception of danger? Was she aware of something coming and keeping her mouth shut to avoid panic?
"If there's something you want to tell the rest of them," Ben said, matching pace beside her, "now would be a good time."
The others were far enough ahead to be out of earshot. Ben completely lost sight of Jesk, having rounded another bend altogether. Part of him felt anxious being this far removed, but if his hunch was correct, the danger was somewhere up ahead of them.
"Don't worry about it," she growled.
"Sure, whatever. Never mind that I can't do anything to protect myself."
She shot him a glare. "If your people really are devoid of magic on that world you call Dirt."
Ben frowned. It was a little unnerving to hear her refer to Earth the way Kyyra had when she had first heard the translation. Part of him wanted to lash out her; what right did she have to use Kyyra's words?
Another part of him got an idea.
"Fine, you just sit back here while we walk into a trap. I'm going to have a word with Jesk."
Ben jogged on ahead, quickly catching up with the rest and spotting Jesk around the corner with Jillayr tailing behind him. He was passing Siessem when Taren suddenly ran up beside him, trying to tug him back by the sleeve of his cloak.
"Ben, leave it. We'll be fine."
Ben shook his head. "You keep saying that, but what assurances do the rest of us have?"
Siessem glanced at them pointedly. "What are you two talking about?"
Taren bit her lip, eyes darting frantically between Siessem and Ben. For the first time, Ben realized how anxious she was about the topic. She knew there was some kind of danger, and yet she was terrified of giving warning.
Ben slipped out of her grasp, running now to catch up to Jesk. He heard Taren quick on his tail.
"Hey, Jesk, I think we've got trouble up ahead."
Jesk froze, glancing at Ben sideways. "Did you sense something?"
Ben rolled his eyes. He had forgotten that they hadn't told him yet about his lack of magic or origins. It simply hadn't come up, but now he was beginning to wonder if they would have to have another talk about it. Ben felt even less thrilled about revealing that kind of information to a native to the dark continents like Jesk.
"No," Ben began slowly, glancing back towards Taren running full out towards him. "I didn't, but she—"
Taren tackled Ben, knocking him flat on the ground. By the time the wind had been knocked out of him, he saw the green bolt of light singe right overhead, smashing with explosive force into the canyon wall along the path.
Holy crap! We're under attack!
…And Taren just saved me!
He heard a rush of activity as Jillayr and Jesk no doubt took up defensive magic. There were several crackles and sizzles as parties exchanged bursts of contact magic. Ben took in several ragged breaths, managing to get enough strength to stumble to his feet. He took in the sight.
Cyasa was crouched low behind a boulder along the path. Siessem stood nearby, casting up bright light bolts of enchantments that swirled through the canopy of trees before descending on unseen targets. Jillayr was rushing about the path somewhere up ahead, trading salvos of contact orbs that glowed bright green and blue in the shade of the jungle. And Jesk was actually up in the trees, leaping from branch to branch while launching his own bursts of contact magic with their foes below. They seemed to be far enough ahead to be of no threat to Ben or the others hanging back.
Ben rounded on Taren. "How did—?!"
She tackled him again, and this time they went over the edge of the canyon running along the right hand side of the path. As Ben felt his stomach lurch with the ground dropping out from under his feet, he saw another burst of contact magic that would have hit from behind.
The soft earth eventually met them, but that didn't stop their momentum. Taren tumbled out of her collision with Ben, disappearing over his head as they continued down the slope. Ben felt himself collide a couple of times with thin, spindly trees, but aside from a nasty smack they sent him on unhindered. He started feeling sick as the world turned over and over without ceasing.
Then he did hit a tree, which stopped him dead and nearly gored him through the stomach. Ben groaned, feeling waves of pain rush up through his gut.
Coughing, he rolled himself flat on his back. Absently, he brushed dirt out of his eyes, nose, and mouth. It was all over his face, almost choking him as he sucked in several painful gulps of breath.
He heard Taren nearby, a little higher up the slope from their position. She also sounded in pain, but a moment later her moans subsided and she was standing over him.
"Here, this will help." She bent low, placing a warm hand over his stomach. Almost instantly, the pain faded and Ben felt renewed strength rush into his limbs.
He stood up quickly, ready to tear her a new one.
"Really?! Off the side of the path?"
She scowled. "You're welcome again. Glad I saved your life…"
Ben exhaled angrily, looking up the slope they had just come tumbling down. He was surprised when he couldn't spot the top of the ridge through the trees. He only saw a faint scuff in the dirt under the ground foliage that marked their tumble.
Ben started forward, trying to figure out if the ground wasn't too steep to climb. Taren suddenly grabbed his arm, hard, yanking him back.
"We were followed."
She pulled him along with her, running further down the slope. Ben was about to object when a contact orb smashed into a tree on his left, exploding in a burst of splinters and embers. Ben instantly slipped out of her grip, leading the way as they fled through the jungle.
"Do you know any contact magic?" Ben managed between breaths.
Taren shook her head fiercely. "Not enough to match whatever these foes are throwing our way."
Ben exhaled angrily. "Well that's just great."
They were probably being hunted by Dark Lords, they were probably using powerful magic, he didn't have a single drop in his blood to save his life, and the one person with him had only cursory experience in defensive magic. At least there was running.
There was always running.
The slope became steep in a few places, Ben nearly losing his feet beneath him. Taren always seemed to catch him right before he lost balance, giving him a sharp yank back onto more steady ground. About the only thing he knew for sure was that they were heading downhill, southward into the gorge. It seemed to be the most certain away that they could get from their attackers.
Sometimes the trees spread out, leaving them plenty of room to dive and dodge either way. Most of the time, the trees clumped together, forcing them to take a fairly consistent path. Gradually, the sounds of contact magic bursting and exploding behind them began to die down. Whoever they were, they either weren't good at keeping up or they were fast losing interest.
The ground suddenly descended sharply into a tight hollow. Ben reacted quickly, intentionally taking the short plunge and crouch landing to absorb the blow. Two large, collapsed trees lie sprawled in front of them, providing further shelter within the hollow.
Taren dropped down from above, yanking Ben backwards against the edge of the drop and below the lip. Anyone passing by wouldn't see them unless they ran out beyond the hollow a decent ways and then glanced back.
Then they sat quietly, listening.
The sounds of battle were already long faded. At one point Ben heard Jillayr yell out fiercely, but it sounded more like a battle cry than panic. That gave him a little boost of moral. Whatever was happening, however Taren had known it, at least she was right. They seemed to be winning.
Soon the whole jungle was silent, save the loud squawks of birds and insistent hum of insects. Ben hadn't realized how easily he had tuned them out over the last couple of weeks of hiking.
"We're safe," Taren said definitively. "We lost them."
Ben grunted, deciding which choice words he would use to ask how she could possibly know that for sure. He halfway expected one of their pursuers to drop down from above suddenly and roast them with contact magic at point blank.
"And I believe you."
Ben frowned, glancing over at Taren. "Can you read minds now?"
She shook her head. "No, I believe you about not having magic."
He gaped. "We run through the jungle, nearly die, and that somehow convinces you that my story is true about being from Earth without magic?"
Taren stared at him fiercely. She wasn't angry, but there was intensity in her eyes. "You wouldn't have run the way you did back there unless your life depended on it."
Ben was about to open his mouth and protest how quickly she had run away despite having magic of her own. But that thought was quickly squashed out when Ben realized that if he had magic, he still would have charged headlong into the fray.
It would have made him at least partway useful in finding Kyyra.
Exhaling loudly, Ben slid back against the side of the earthen wall of the hollow, resting on the ground. "Now how am I supposed to rescue her?"
"Step one," Taren muttered. "Get back to the rest of the group."
The first problem was immediate.
The particular part of the gorge they were stranded in sloped up in nearly all directions around them. Even from where Ben stood up top on the edge of the hollow, he couldn't pinpoint where exactly he had come tumbling down. He couldn't even find scuffs in the dirt or plants knocked aside. Any which way might as well be the right way.
"Crap," he muttered, hands on his hips as he pivoted around looking for familiar landmarks.
"Don't make too much noise," Taren muttered from below. "We might still attract our attacker's attention."
Ben scrunched up his face in annoyance. Of course the one person he would get lost in the jungle with would be her. Even with Cyasa he figured she might have some kind of magic that could help them get back to the others. She at least had her empathy; that would sense presences.
"Don't suppose you have any way of figuring out which direction is which," Ben called back.
Taren poked her head up over the edge of the hollow. "Nothing. I can sense outward, but I can't feel any specific direction we should go."
Ben growled. Even with magic they were hopelessly out of their league.
The matter was further compounded by the fact that the jungle canopy was so thick overhead. Ben couldn't even figure out where the sun was. At least that would have told him which way the cardinal directions existed. Suddenly he felt very turned around.
He let his eyes wander up from the edge of the hollow and along a particular slope. It seemed…right.
"All right, I'm headed this way."
Taren cocked her head. "I thought we curved around from that way behind you."
Ben didn't even bother looking. He was confused enough about which way was which as it was; he didn't need her counter opinions messing him up further.
"I'm trying this way first. You're more than welcome to pick your own pathway."
He heard her scurry up out of the hollow, trampling through the undergrowth until she was beside him.
"Someone has to keep an eye on you. Especially if we run into more trouble."
Ben rolled his eyes. Yes, I don't have any magic. But at least I have a knife on my person. That's gotta count for something.
The ridge turned out to be a lot steeper now that Ben was standing right in front of it. He hesitated, scanning the immediate vicinity for shallower inclines. The nearest one was a good twenty yards to his right.
"Don't suppose you can fly?" he suggested.
Taren shook her head. "My sister can…little bit. But I never really got much of a talent for it."
Ben glanced at her sideways. "And what exactly is your Inge?"
Taren narrowed her eyes. "None of your business, Earthling. You seem to know a lot coming from a world without magic."
Whatever. Ben started the march over to the easier climbing spot. He still had to hunch over, grabbing at gnarled roots for support as he ascended. Taren did a fair job keeping up with him, though.
"I really don't think this is the way we came down."
"What makes you say that?" Ben grumbled.
He pulled himself up to a level spot, finally standing up fully. The trees parted before him, revealing a new expanse below. Taren quickly climbed beside him.
"Because of that," she retorted.
The new view was like something out of a postcard. The ridge dropped out below him, nearly ninety degrees in angle, descending far, far below into a deep canyon gorge. A waterfall flowed a good ten stories below their feet. The mist it kicked up created a rainbow that shimmered off the crystals and glass that broke through the canyon walls.
The cascades descended another drop into a wide river valley. It carved through sheer canyon walls that grew easily a mile wide as far as Ben could see in the distance. And somewhere, way over the descending levels of jungle and rivers, he could see the yellow and tan splotch that must have been the desert wastes of Holek.
Ben immediately glanced around, trying to spy any sign of the mountain spine they had been hiking down. The problem was that they were already a level deep into the descending gorge, the rising jungle and treetops blocking out any sign of mountains to their north or south. Furthermore, the terrain he did spy to the north looked way too steep to bushwhack through.
"Well," he began resignedly. "I don't think we're getting back to the main road the easy way."
Taren staggered back past him along their narrow ridge, scanning the jungle immediately behind them.
"You're probably right," she said. "We would just get lost stumbling around back there. And there's no guarantee that even if we got back to the mountains that we would find the road."
Ben was surprised she had agreed with him. He thought she had made it her personal mission since to take a counter stance to whatever he suggested. Once she was in on the secret of his origin from Earth, it had been easy enough to keep a distance during their travels. Still, she managed to weasel her way into his conversations with Cyasa or Jillayr and stir up some sort of strife.
But Ben was honestly less concerned with Taren for the first time since she had joined their circle. In fact, the more he thought about it, the more he realized he couldn't have cared less about Taren making some snarky comment or agreeing with him or whatever absurdity prompted her to speak. Right now, he was overcome by the profound realization that the two of them were lost deep in a jungle filled with danger, far within a lawless continent and with only an inkling of where to go.
What were their chances of surviving? What were their chances of making it over the borders into this new territory called Holek? Would they find a way to meet up with the others? Could he even begin to hope catching up to Kyyra at this point?
Suddenly Ben's determination from before was fizzling out. He just wanted to sit down, legs dangling over the sheer drop into the lower levels of the jungle where the waterfall poured unceasingly.
"Whoa there, Earth boy," Taren said, rushing beside him. "Don't sit down on me now. Not when we've got a long way to go."
Ben let his eyes lose focus on the vast gorge spread out before him. He had almost tuned out Taren entirely.
Until she yanked him up with a surprising burst of strength, yanking him around by the scuff of his cloak to face her. Her typical expression of annoyance was replaced by something that looked like a mix between anger and fear.
"Ben! Come back to me! We need to keep moving!"
Ben shook his head, trying to come to his senses. "Yes," he replied simply. He slid out of her grasp, dusting himself off. He was still covered in dirt and other detritus from rolling downhill through the jungle. He was also feeling sore from the tumble, too…
"You're zoning out again," she said sharply, bringing him back to reality. "Look, I know this sucks. And I wouldn't be surprised if we don't end up dead trying. But we don't have much choice do we? I for one can't just give up."
"Well neither can I," Ben retorted, feeling his cheeks grow a little hot. "Just give me a freakin' second, all right? I'm trying to wrap my head around all of this."
Taren folded her arms, glancing down the series of steep drops that led along the waterfall and canyon rim. Ben followed her gaze, fighting to keep his mind in check.
Okay. This wasn't so bad.
He made a guess. Maybe a day to work their way down from the top of the gorge and down to ground level. The hardest part would be negotiating the ledges. Once down, maybe another day to reach the edge of the jungle and the desert wastelands. They really weren't that far away; he could see that now. Terrain would be their main obstacle. But Ben wasn't afraid to walk, climb, or swim if need be.
And best of all, they still had Taren's magic. That was one advantage Ben wasn't going to forget.
"All right," he said at last.
"All better?" Taren quipped. She really hadn't meant to sound that way; Ben knew it. But it still irritated him all the same.
"Look," he began slowly, "it's no secret I don't really like you. And you certainly don't like me. So let's try not to get in each other's way while we try to stay alive."
Taren nodded, her expression softening. "Okay. Good point."
Ben turned fully towards the ledge, making the movement as deliberate as possible. In a way, it was a signal to the defeatist part of his mind that he wasn't giving up. He was going to find a way down. It might take awhile, but patience was something he had right now, strangely enough.
Rushing into trouble was their enemy.
"Step one," he said more to himself than Taren: "figure out the safest place to climb down."
"I vote towards the waterfall," Taren quickly added, pointing southward, off to their right. "The water should have carved some nice stoneways for us to climb. And we'll need to stick close to the water anyway. It's probably the surest way out of the jungle."
Ben nodded in agreement, casting one last wary glance back northward to the lone spine of declining mountain peaks. There was still a part of him debating whether or not to bushwhack it back uphill towards the road. The road had to be somewhere up there close. And would the others continue on without them?
"Wish you could send a Summoning," Ben murmured. "It would sure help to know what the others are doing right now."
Taren shrugged. "I can project out a general message, but there's no telling whether they'll receive it…or whether it'll attract unwanted attention."
Ben chewed on his lip. "Send it. We'll have to take our chances."
Taren nodded, her eyes defocusing and turning luminescent blue for a moment. "It's done," she finally said, her eyes returning to their lighter, pale blue color.
"Good. Now for the waterfall…"
It took a lot longer than Ben realized to hike along the ledge, ducking back and forth through the jungle where it wasn't feasible to hug near the edge. After about an hour, they finally arrived at the edge, the roar of the falling water guiding them the last little way.
"There," Taren said, point to a steep trail of eroded stones that had collapsed out from the edge of the sheer cliff side.
It wasn't easy going, Ben losing his footing several times. Taren managed a few spells that kept him from toppling forward, anchoring him backwards against the rock pile. It took much less time to get down this and into the next level of jungle. The falls continued somewhere up ahead out of view now that they were lower down.
"So," Taren began, brushing a fern out of the way as they plunged back under the treetops, "are we going to walk in silence the whole way?"
Ben huffed. "Well, what did you want to talk about?"
Her tone softened. "Tell me about Earth." It was so sincere compared to her usual mood that Ben couldn't help but answer it.
"What did you want to know?" he asked. "There's a lot to say."
She chuckled. "I'm still trying to understand how you can live without magic. Not without Aroism," she clarified, "but without the day to day help that the power gives."
Ben nodded in understanding. "Well, I guess to answer that question I'll need to give you a little history."
It was easy enough launching into general history, starting with ancient times that Ben remembered from school. Especially about Egypt. That had always been one of his favorite topics in earlier grades. And it was something he actually remembered from history to set the stage for Earth development.
Over the course of their continued climbs down each level of the cascades, he made it farther and farther along the basics. Greek and Romans; Chinese and Japanese. Dark Ages, not too unlike the Dark Centuries of Izik after their apocalyptic Dark War. The renaissance. The payoff from digging in the dirt and the many tools and machines that were born. New nations, new wars. All the way down to present days, where apparently there was magic on Earth after all.
"What?!" Taren staggered.
Ben grinned sheepishly. "Yeah…guess I should have mentioned that when I said the whole there's no magic from my world part." He continued with what Kyyra and he had surmised from their encounter with Philip Housten.
"So no one else knows about it?" Taren clarified when he had finished.
"Yeah. And besides meeting Tom Twin Snakes, I still haven't seen much evidence of it on Earth. If it is there, it is well hidden."
Of course, that was ignoring the stories he kept track of coming out of the backwater parts of the world. Mysterious, strange events that seemed unconnected and too bizarre to be regular occurrences. Most people ignored those.
But most people hadn't been to Izik like Ben.
"Tell me how you first met Kyyra," Taren suddenly asked, changing gears. "You told me how you two were pursued by this hunter, Philip. But how did you ever meet?"
Ben smirked. "Ah, now there's a story."
It was a fun story to tell, too. Ben remembered well how scared he had been the first day she showed up on Perins Peak. He also remembered how they had bumbled about after the fact, going between each other's worlds and trying to understand things so vastly different. It seemed laughable in hindsight because they had simply accepted things as they were. Izik was perfectly well governed by magic and Earth was perfectly governed by tech.
Ben decided to continue with their stories and dealings over the last year and a half. He made a special point to explain the Shrines.
"If there's one thing we learned," he finished, "it was that there were important bonds between our worlds."
"But you keep it such a big secret," Taren muttered.
Ben glanced back at her. They were nearing another waterfall in the cascades. If he guessed correctly, perhaps the last one before they were down from the cliffs. He certainly hoped so; the sun was far below the mountains and canyons overhead, casting deep shadows across the jungle.
"We must," he said forcefully. "Could you imagine what would happen if either world discovered the secret before we were prepared?"
"Were you prepared, Ben?" Taren asked with seriousness in her voice. "Really? Were either of you? All you two managed to do is have fun little day visits and occasionally get yourself into trouble. How can you say you're fulfilling some ancient duty like this?"
Ben felt his jaw tighten. He turned back to walking forward. Who did Taren think she was passing judgment on what he and Kyyra were doing?
They walked and climbed in silence for a time. Ben's guess had been correct; once down from the next falls, they were down into the lowest part of the jungle. From a few places he could see the lighter color of the vast empty deserts in the distance. But that was hard to see properly in the dusk lighting. It was time to set up camp for the night.
"Here," Ben said, indicating a small hollow close to the last ledge they had climbed down. "We should probably seek some shelter here. Somewhere obscure and out of the way for the night."
Taren complied and they started unrolling their packs. As Ben settled down onto the ground, searching through his meager traveling food, he realized how tired he was from the day's hike. His body was still sore in a few places, especially his gut, from the tumble off the road.
He also had a slight unrest from Taren's earlier judgment. At first, it had annoyed him that she could call everything that he and Kyyra had done as little more than playing around with grave responsibility. But the more he had thought about it, the more it had dawned on him that Taren might be right. He and Kyyra weren't diplomats or ambassadors between worlds. They weren't opening up trade routes or trafficking. They weren't negotiating with the populaces of each other's worlds for the betterment of each other's societies.
So what were they doing?
"Why did you come?" Taren finally said in the darkness, breaking their mutual silence.
Ben tried to glance towards her, but she was more or less a darker shadow in the blackness. As if in response to that thought, an orb of light suddenly winked to life in the palm of Taren's hand, casting a small ring of illumination between them. Nothing bright enough to attract attention, if someone was watching.
"What, to Izik?" Ben replied.
"No," Taren grunted. "I mean, why did you come to the dark continents? Why did you come after Kyyra when you knew you had no power to help her?"
Ben held her gaze, finally sighing and lying back against his bedroll. "Taren…I couldn't just leave her out here on her own."
"No, I get that, but you had all of your friends coming after her. Friends that had magic and power, which, despite the terrible idea of coming to such an awful place, would do much more than anything you could ever do."
"Wow, thanks for reminding me. That certainly makes me feel better."
"So were you just crazy then?"
Ben grunted. "Taren, would you have done any differently in my place? If someone you cared about was in danger, you wouldn't worry about what you can't do. You'd only try to do something. Anything was better than just sitting on my hands and never seeing her again."
Silence drifted over their hollow.
"You love her, don't you?"
Ben found himself smiling in the darkness. The faint light from orb might have cast strange shadows across his face as a result. He wondered if it made him look sinister.
"Yeah," he muttered. "Yeah, I do. So I guess in answer to your earlier question, I guess I was crazy."
Taren hummed thoughtfully. "Better to be crazy, I think."
Ben woke with a start.
His mouth was dry, his breathing suddenly sharp. He propped himself up on his elbows, glancing around their little hollow. It was still early, the morning sunlight in front of him filtered largely near the ground through thick shrubs and partially behind tree trunks. A few birds squawked, but largely the jungle was silent and empty.
Glancing over, he spotted Taren rolled on her side, still snoozing peacefully. Ben shook his head, half tempted to lie back down. He wasn't sure what had woken him, but he could still feel his heart beating a little faster. Something had definitely agitated him.
Gingerly, he crawled out of his bedroll and found his boots nearby. As he slipped his feet inside, the leather immediately readjusted itself to form around the contours of his feet and ankle. In an instance, it was once again the most comfortable footwear Ben had ever worn. That was half the reason his feet weren't aching after the last few weeks of hiking.
Or yesterday's off trail adventure.
The thought of that gave him momentum to stand up and walk around the length of their hollow—their impromptu encampment. He paused every so often, letting his ears attune to natural ambiance of the jungle. Mostly he was searching.
There were no rustles; no far off sounds of approach. If someone or something nearby had startled him in his sleep, he couldn't detect it. He partly wondered if he should stir Taren and see if she sensed trouble. Ben knew enough now about stealth magic that his enemies could surprise him without making a sound before being right on top of him.
He nudged Taren gently and she immediately woke.
"There's no danger," she murmured matter-of-factly. For a moment, it looked like she would roll over and go back to sleep.
Ben cocked his head. "One, how could you possibly know that? And two, we should probably get an early start anyway."
Taren exhaled, finally sitting up. Her hair was a bit disheveled, but a quick flick of her wrist set it back into its natural, straight flowing features around her face. She cast a similar enchantment Ben's way and he felt his own hair readjust.
"I don't know how your people could stand to go out into public without magic."
"It's called a hairbrush," he added with a chuckle. Ben started rolling up his pack again while Taren went some distance into the jungle to answer a call to nature.
"Yes," she called back, "and I'm certain you have solved all hygiene problems with your fancy machines."
Ben laughed out loud. He had forgotten how skeptical Izikians could be when first introduced to the concepts of Earth. Granted, Jillayr and Cyasa had been too mesmerized by everything to really care much for the finer details that seemed to clash with Aroism. And Siessem hadn't piped a single word during his own expeditions. But Ben suspected that had more to do with his innate scientific nature to observe and form conclusions first. He certainly would have made a good scientist person on Earth.
Kyyra was really the only one who had been so outspoken. But Ben was beginning to realize that was just her inner politician, trying to be pragmatic and definitive on a position.
Where did Taren fit into all of this?
As they finished packing and headed near towards the river, Ben posed the question.
"What did you say your craft was going to be?"
"Merchant," she mumbled automatically. "Something simple."
Ben cocked an eyebrow. "You don't seem like a salesperson to me."
It took a moment for the translation of salesperson to click for Taren. "I need to make a living somehow."
"And your Inge can't give you some direction in that choice?"
"Not all of us have well-defined craft choices from our Inges; not like your friend, Jillayr."
Ben nodded to himself. It was a fair point. Jillayr didn't even want to be a Warrior; it seemed more of an expectation that had fallen on her with the associated magic. An obligation, really. So what did that leave Taren with? Some oddball Inge that didn't really have any specific field it influenced?
Or perhaps something of a social obligation on its own that she was running from?
At the river's edge, Taren knelt down with her water carrier and dipped it into the murky depths. Ben cringed, watching the dirty contents drip from her pouch.
"I wouldn't drink that…"
Taren whisked her hand again, watching as a slightly luminescent glow shined through the hole in the top. A moment later, it cleared and Taren took a quick sip. The sight of it made Ben's mouth feel even more parched.
"Well we're going to need to replenish our water supply somehow."
Shrugging, Ben dipped his own pouch in the river. Apparently they knew enough about disease without science to know to sanitize against it.
"And that kills all the bacteria inside?" he asked as she performed the same spell on his carrier.
"Not quite. What you call little life invisible to the eye we simply command to cause no harm."
Ben blinked. "So it's all still in there?"
"Yes. But it has been instructed to do us no harm. You won't get sick; I promise it's safe to drink."
Ben hesitantly took a sip. It tasted a little off, but Taren had just said she hadn't really filtered it. She had apparently given any diseased or harmful substances within new programming of sorts to do them no harm.
Sometimes Ben forgot how truly awesome magic could be.
"If we even had that power alone on my world…"
Taren smirked triumphantly. "And you claim your people have gotten along just fine without the blessing of magic."
They started down the riverside, deeper through the jungle. They were moving at a much faster pace today, now that they had no steep cliffs to navigate. That didn't alleviate the rough and uneven jungle terrain or the thick undergrowth and mud. But it was better than negotiating with gravity and a rocky drop.
"We do," Ben emphasized. "We have many machines and systems that purify our water. It would just be a lot easier to do it…that way."
"Purify." Taren tested the word out on her tongue. Ben had a hard time believing she had never heard it before. "You change the water to suit your needs."
"Not change. We remove the harmful substances. We can't very well tell them to leave us alone. We can't command them. And we have more than just tiny little invisible life forms. There's chemicals, and waste, and pollution…"
Taren waved him off. "It doesn't matter. Magic could command them all the same. None of it would do any harm."
Now that was an interesting idea. So it was more than just magic telling bacteria to chill and not infiltrate their bodies. It was something much more pervasive; some kind of command that kept foreign substances from ever interacting with the body, simply passing right on through after consumption.
"That…that sounds pretty loud."
Taren rolled her eyes at the unfamiliar slang.
Ben found them falling back into more debates about tech versus magic; Aorism versus science. This time, Ben was a little more prepared, having faced off on all the same arguments with Kyyra the first time around. Of course, Taren was a lot more stubborn, clearly more interested in being disagreeable than actually learning any new ideas or ways of thinking.
"Agh!" Ben exclaimed at one point, the sun now high in the sky and heating the jungle profusely. "This was so much easier with Kyyra. At least she wanted to understand why we were different from Izik."
Taren glanced at him sideways, her expression softening. "You two discovered a lot together, didn't you?"
"Yes!" Ben replied instantly. "Yes we did."
Taren hummed thoughtfully to herself, going quiet for a moment. Ben decided to enjoy the brief silence. Then he got to thinking that there was something that Taren had realized; something that had apparently changed her opinion about the two of them a little.
"Does that surprise you?" he ventured.
"Surprise isn't the word I would use."
He tried not to be too snarky about his reply. "Well what word would you use?"
Contented? Ben was halfway trying to figure that out when an amused smile crossed her face. Ben rolled his eyes.
"All right, you've gotta tell me: what is so funny?"
"You said it felt like a strange force leading you to the cave that first time you went looking for Kyyra?"
"I think the Aroginis chose well."
Ben about threw his hands up in the air. One moment she was critical of how well the two of them had spent their time as representatives between worlds, and now she was going off about how they were fated to meet by powerful magic and it was a good thing. In her mindset, at least.
Ben exhaled out loud. "Girls are confusing."
"Don't blame your lack of intelligence on the other gender. There's plenty for you to share, too."
Okay, now she was just playing around. Time for serious discussion was over. But at least he had won some ground with her. Maybe not enough to stop her sarcastic quips, but perhaps to mitigate her abrasiveness. They weren't halfway through with this journey. Getting Kyyra was the halfway point.
Then they had to somehow get along all the way back across Terenful and to the Eight.
Ben shook his head, glancing around at their current venue. He was surprised to see sharp inclines on both side of them; pale, bare rock and glass jutting up out of the soil. There were fewer trees around them now. Through a few gaps in the endless jungle line, he spotted large cliffs rising in the distance.
"We must be getting close to the wasteland," he commented out loud.
"Try not to freak out on me," she muttered.
Ben glanced her way. "What is that supposed to me?"
The ground in front of them began to slope downward. As they passed through one last line of trees, the jungle opened up into a large clearing, down a jagged ravine washed out by the river in eons past. The jungle foliage was much more sparse here, the landscape dominated by rough stone, glass, and few ground shrubs.
And standing on one of those ridges was a skeleton.
Ben jolted, blinking hard to make sure he was seeing what he was seeing. But it really was a skeleton. Its bones were a matted green and gray, and it stood completely erect, unsupported by any natural force.
But this was a world of unnatural forces.
"Is that— are you seeing this?"
Taren marched past him, not the least bit phased. "Yup."
Ben watched her weave down the jagged slope, headed closer towards the riverside. When Ben glanced up again, the skeleton was gone. He immediately scanned the surrounding foothills, but saw no other figures. Still, he was getting the distinct impression that they were being watched.
"Well you seem completely unconcerned."
Taren shrugged. "Nothing to worry about for now. Not yet, at least…"
Ben got a very bad feeling in his gut. Taren's seeming confidence didn't do anything to help him. And if memory served him correctly, she always seemed quite calm when trouble was about to go down.
"What was that thing?"
"Could have been a few things. Not sure yet."
Ben felt his insides knot up. They were definitely in a dangerous part of the world. Up till now, he had feared only the Izikians. Maybe a few of those strange creatures he had witnessed before in the port cities. But he had simply ruled out anything overtly stranger. He had forgotten that Izik was a land of magic; anything could happen.
And now there were boogiemen out.
Swallowing hard, he noticed that Taren was taking them right up to the river's edge. The soil here was muddy and slick. Ben watched his steps to make sure he didn't slip in by accident.
"Taren, the easiest way between the rocks is over there."
"We should probably find an easy place to cross, though," she added cryptically.
Ben cursed under his breath. "What aren't you telling me?"
"We just need to find a safe place to cross, that's all…"
Ben heard a clatter. His head shot up, glancing around quickly. He knew exactly what that clatter had sounded like; bones rattling on bones. Was it just the one skeleton thingy he had seen? Or was there a whole group of them silently watching them? Stalking them?
"Taren…" he breathed warningly.
Taren paused, putting her hands on her hips. She frowned, scanning up and down the river. "By the Aroginis, where are some simple stepping stones when you need them?"
Ben heard the rattle of bones again. Now it was somewhere behind them. He spun around, eyes darting over the jagged rises of earth, stone, and glass. There still stood a few jungle trees around them, but they were way out in the open. If the terrain weren't so varied and jagged, he might have guessed this was a pleasant river valley.
Ben spun back around, blinking as Taren took off at a brisk pace along the river bed. He dashed after her, still glancing over his shoulder occasionally.
Taren led them a little ways downstream, where the river curved behind a small outcropping that hid its continued path. Over here there were indeed several strewn rocks and boulders making a tentative path through a narrow part of the river.
Taren immediately leapt onto the first stone. "Don't wait around on my account. If you can swim, go for it."
Ben watched her make several gutsy jumps before glancing over his shoulder again. "Why are we hurrying—?"
There were at least ten of them now. And not all of them were purely skeletal. A few still looked like men and women, their skin rotted and exposed to muscle and organs beneath. One person had half her face peeled away, revealing the skull beneath. Few of them still had eyes, yet it was hard to mistake that they were watching him intently.
They all stood atop various rises and ridges, making a semi circle that surrounded Ben's position by the riverside. The nearest one was probably a good twenty yards off. Not far enough, in Ben's opinion.
He took a nervous step back, glancing sideways to see that Taren was now on the other side of the river.
"What do I do?" he hissed.
Taren didn't say a word. Ben hesitated, not sure at all what he was dealing with. What kind of creatures were they? Living dead, preparing to go in for the kill? Something more sinister? Or perhaps simply enchanted men and women with really bad wounds? It didn't help that they were out in the middle of nowhere, in a jungle without a main road or path anywhere nearby. These might as well be beasts of the jungle, coming in against fresh prey.
Ben took another nervous step backwards.
The woman with half her face rotted off leapt down onto the ground. Ben jumped, startled, but she didn't come closer.
Ben took a deep breath nervously. "We were just leaving..."
The woman cocked her head. She had no eyes, so Ben couldn't read much expression. That and she only had half a face with muscle features to express any sort of emotion. But if he had to guess, he would say she looked puzzled.
She spoke, her voice unnatural and ethereal. "None have stayed long to talk."
Ben felt the soil beneath his right foot slump. He must be right at the river's edge.
"Yeah," he said, "well, here we are. Talking."
"So young," the woman continued. "None so young have ever come into these lands alone. Such a strange passage."
Zombie lady was suddenly feeling very chatty. Ben wondered if he could use to his advantage. Aside from quick glances at the other creatures, he kept his attention focused on the woman. He had no idea what Taren might be up to. Hopefully nothing that would provoke action from the rest of these things.
"We came after a lost friend," Ben said aloud. "To save her and bring her home."
The woman started taking a few steps forward. "Little to save from out here in the deep. Let her be and accept your new fate."
Ben spared a quick glance to make the leap to the first rock. He glanced back, noting that the woman had paused. That caused him to hesitate, trying to keep his balance and not fall in the water. If she were to run now, he figured he still had time to get across the river without her catching him. The question was how nimble she was; her and the others. Would they funnel through taking the rocks or charge full out through the water?
"We have other fates to deal with," Ben retorted. "If we're trespassers, I'm sorry. We'll be out of your hair before you know it."
His Earth expressions must have been translating quite strangely for zombie lady. She cocked her head again, as if trying to make sense of it. Ben took advantage of the lapse and leapt to another rock. He paused again, trying to gage their reactions.
"This one is different," one of the men grunted from up high, his voice guttural, but still no less wraithlike.
"Yes," Ben agreed. "Not your usual meal. So I'll just be hittin' the old, dusty trail…"
"He stalls!" the woman hissed. "Get them both!"
All of the creatures immediately sprung into action, leaping down from their perches and charging full out. Ben didn't hesitate a second longer, quickly jumping from rock to rock with abandon. He thought he tweaked his ankle once, but aside from a quick burst of pain it didn't flare up again. He was almost to Taren on the other side when he heard his pursuers splash into the river.
Guess that answers the question about how fast they'd get across.
Ben had expected Taren to have taken flight by now, but she stood almost looking bored in front him, her eyes glazed over.
"Go!" he called out. "What are you waiting for?!"
He could hear them close behind him now, the depth and force of the river having no impact on slowing them at all. Ben made one last leap, landing off to Taren's side.
The moment his feet touched down, Taren suddenly sprung into action, casting up both her arms fiercely. Ben turned with just enough time to watch a massive tidal wave rise up from their side of the river, crashing through the pursuing undead with ease. It was so powerful that it left the river bed below bare for the briefest of moments.
The wave continued up onto the shore, carrying its unlucky occupants past the first row of jagged rises and rocks. Even then, it didn't finally die down until somewhere near the jungle's edge. But Ben didn't wait around to see the aftermath. He was quickly on Taren's tail, she having started off back down the riverside. They soon disappeared into a maze of sheer ridges and glass geology that hid them from view of the other river bank.
They didn't run long. Taren soon lost breath, nearly collapsing as they divided behind a particular boulder for safety. She closed her eyes, breathing hard.
"You okay?" Ben managed between breaths.
She shook her head no. "That took a lot of strength."
"No doubt," Ben said with a chuckle. "You must have some kind of Inge with water, eh?"
She didn't answer at first, still breathing hard with eyes closed. "No," she said at length. "I just knew an enchantment to push it. I built up the strength while you kept them talking."
Ben shook his head. There was always another surprise with this girl.
Later that evening, the jungles were far behind them.
Ben glanced back warily from their place atop another steep rise. He could see the sun hovering over the distant mountain peaks and jungle, no further sign of pursuit.
They had stayed along the riverside the rest of their way out of the valley. Now the terrain and hill tops had become largely barren and devoid of any foliage. Up ahead, perhaps no more than a mile, the terrain leveled out into a steady incline that rose up into the desert wastelands as far as the eye could see. A few foothills and lone peaks varied the horizon.
Taren had kept entirely silent after her recovery from the powerful spell, focused more on moving quickly and quietly away from more of the creatures. Ben hadn't plied her with anymore questions for the time being. It took a good hour before he stopped checking over his back every few moments. It still gave him shudders thinking about that woman with only half a face.
Now he was starting to get a little bored and curiosity was getting the better of him.
"What were those things?"
"Reritau," Taren said simply, "if my guess is correct."
"Rare-ut-ow," Ben repeated, trying the word out on his tongue. "And what exactly are those? Some kind of…zombie?"
Taren didn't say anything for a moment, letting the translation for zombie sink in. "That might be one way of putting it. But I wouldn't call them soulless. There is something that lives in those bodies."
Ben made the connection. "They're scavengers. Like jackals."
Taren nodded. "Good connection, if the word jackal means the same thing on Earth that it does on Izik."
Ben explained and apparently it did. It never ceased to amaze Ben how there was such a similarity in wildlife between their worlds.
"They usually keep to the dead, though," Taren added. "Seeking new bodies. That's why graves must be given the proper enchantments. It's easy to find cemeteries that have malnourished upkeep. Reritau always lurk about."
"So what's their deal, then? Run out of graveyards and stick to making their own corpses from unwitting travelers?"
"Ben, there's a lot more history to these lands that you're forgetting. For all we know, that jungle valley may have once held a great and prosperous city. Or maybe a dark city that was lost in the various border disputes between empires of the dark continents. I would not be surprised if the Reritau are infested all over Terenful; cropping up wherever great battles were waged and the proper death rituals never performed."
Ben exhaled. Great, they sounded more and more like zombies every other description Taren gave. Undead souls never put to rest, taking up whatever leftover bodies they could find like some kind of bad voodoo.
"What I don't understand," Taren continued, "is how you struck up a conversation with them." She stopped suddenly, turning to stare at him sharply.
Ben frowned, stopping as well. "Was I not supposed to talk to them?"
"Yes," Taren barked. "They don't have gauveros!"
It took a moment for the meaning to sink in. "You mean I shouldn't have been able to understand them? Because I don't have the magic of a gauvero?" She was referring to the translation of tongues present in all who experienced magic on Izik.
"Exactly," she said, jabbing him with her index finger in his chest. "So explain to me how you not only communicated with them, but somehow piqued their interest with your words."
Ben threw up his arms. "How should I know? I wasn't trying to impress them. Just stall them. And even they got wise to that."
"That still doesn't explain how you were able to bridge the language gap. You heard them in your own tongue, didn't you?"
"Yes, but couldn't that just as easily have been helped along by your gauvero?"
Taren hesitated. Apparently she hadn't considered that.
"I don't know," she said. "I didn't think so. As I understood it, the gauveros only worked one way."
"Well everybody on Izik has one, so it's not so hard to think cross-translation occurs somewhere in the mix. Everyone on Izik never needs to learn languages because you're always just hearing the same thing in your own native tongue. That's a lot of languages getting mixed up around a lot of different gauveros."
Taren shook her head. "I don't think so, Ben. And remember, the Reritau don't have them."
"That you know of."
"That everyone knows of. The Reritau are Dark creatures, beings from beyond this life who cling to our existence with strange magical bonds that corrupt their very being. There's a reason they seem like monsters beyond just their simple flesh. They curse themselves to wander the world of the living when they do not belong."
Ben arched an eyebrow. It seemed now they were dipping into topics of Aroism that he and Kyyra had never explored before. He had always seen it as a sort of religion, with the Aroginis not quite a god figure, but close enough. Now apparently there was a soul and an afterlife that it was supposed to go to. So what did that make the Reritau? Ghosts hanging around that knew how to pick up dead bodies like puppets?
Ben opened his mouth to ask why it was such a big deal. But then something glimmered in the distance and his eyes immediately focused on the deserts. Taren caught the motion and spun around.
Up past two more steep ridges, there was some kind of orb of light hovering stationary over the barren dirt. It bobbed slightly in the air, swiveling back and forth slightly as if pressed against an invisible barrier. The longer Ben stared at it, the more it reminded him of a…
He took off past Taren, dashing down through several low places between the two ridges. In a couple of minutes, he finally came around a bend, the orb of light hovering just up ahead.
"Who would send that?" Taren said from somewhere behind him.
"Who do you think? The others, obviously!"
"And why did it take till just now for it to arrive?"
Ben finally came upon it, feeling a strange rush as he stepped through whatever invisible barrier was holding the Summoning back. He didn't waste too much time thinking about it, holding out his hand to accept the Summoning. It instantly took the shape of Jesk's head.
"Ben and Taren—"
"It's all right, Jesk! We're okay!"
The Summoning continued right on without pause. "—I don't know when or if you'll get this, but know that we received Taren's message. We know you're heading for the border to Holek, wherever it takes you through the gorge jungle. We pressed on and crossed the border in the evening after we lost track of you. Holek has much less enchantments watching for Summonings, so I have sent this repeated message to wait nearest the border wherever you will arrive.
"We are headed for the first city within Holek's borders. It is called Auraura and we must not delay. If you follow the river that flows out from the jungle, it will lead you to a small reservoir that is along our path. We will wait there no more than a day and a half before pressing on to Auraura. Contact us as soon as you receive this; we cannot wait any longer if we hope to rescue Kyyra before it's too late."
The Summoning ended, its glowing orb fizzling out into a few bright streaks in the dim evening light.
A day and a half. If they had arrived in Holek the night Ben and Taren had camped in the jungle, then that left them with a little over half a day to get down river to the reservoir. And Jesk had seemed so urgent. Ben wondered if they could press there through the night.
"We need to go!"
"Hold it there, Earth boy," said Taren. "Let me get a message off to them."
"And then we go!"
"First let's consult with them. You think that first horde of Reritau was bad news? I can guarantee you that we've got more of them the whole way into Holek. Take a look around…"
Ben frowned, glancing up at the desert waste that extended off to the horizon. He watched the river wind steadily eastward, winding and dipping past a few small outlets and pools scooted up against the parched earth. There was also a lot more glass broken through the surface, twinkling in the sunset light.
On a hunch, Ben started climbing the nearest steep hill. He heard Taren saying something, apparently having gotten through quickly to the others.
Up at the top, Ben had a much better view. And what had seemed like pools and small depressions in the desert were actually craters.
The whole desert looked like an ancient, bombed out war zone.
Izik's two moons shone brightly in the night sky.
Ben wondered how safe it was with him and Taren wandering through the wastelands at this late hour. Especially after their close encounter with those things…the Reritau. He kept his ears perked up at all times for the tell-tale sign of bones clinking on bones.
For more practical reasons, Ben felt it wasn't safe because of the craters. The landscape was pockmarked with them, making their travel slightly hazardous. One wrong step and either of them could go tumbling down into a pit of charred glass and rock. Still, the moonlight helped, and sticking close to the river helped avoid most of the danger.
Regardless, Ben didn't want to waste time getting back to the others.
It was a miracle they had somehow received Taren's general message after their tumble. It was another that the two of them had survived off the beaten path through the jungle. He had always repeated in his mind how dangerous the dark continents would be. But only now was he truly beginning to understand that concept.
Only now was he becoming aware of the dark dangers they faced.
"Watch it," Taren grunted, holding out a hand sharply.
Ben froze, glancing around quickly. He frowned when he saw no immediate danger. The only thing he could guess she was worried about was a fairly small crater just up ahead.
"Dude, relax," he said, brushing past her. "I'm keeping an eye where I step."
He made a point to walk exaggeratedly around the lip of the crater. Though the circumference was small, he blinked in surprise at how deep it was. The bottom far below was overshadowed by the crater rim. A few jagged bits of crystal gleamed in the moonlight.
"You are now," she added.
Ben glanced over at her briefly, debating whether or not to retort. Part of him was getting used to their little verbal spars. In a strange way, it helped calm his nerves, taking his mind off how dangerous their predicament really was. Arguing with her had almost become cathartic. But another part of him was trying to reason through what she had said. There seemed to be a latent meaning there that he was missing.
Well, there were a lot of things that seemed to be missing with Taren.
"You saw something, didn't you?" he commented aloud a little later. "A vision of me falling?"
Taren didn't respond. Ben didn't press her. Maybe she had magic she was keeping secret; maybe she didn't. After Jillayr's big reveal about her Inge, Ben wasn't sure what he really knew about the magic of his Izikian friends.
He still had his reservations about Aadyn, but she was so far behind them now that it felt like a distant memory.
"You don't feel like resting?" Taren perked up suddenly.
"No," Ben replied firmly. "Why? Are you tired?"
She shook her head no. "Just wanted to make sure we're really doing this."
Ben grunted, letting his eyes wander out over the pock-marked wasteland again. It rose and dipped like gigantic, frozen waves of ashen soil and sand. If he let his imagination see it just right, part of him felt like he was on the Moon. Well, Earth's Moon. As far as he knew, Kyyra's moons were made purely of glass. He wasn't sure what that would look like.
Something rustled up ahead. Ben nearly jumped out of his skin, crouching low and making his figure small. He watched as some animal up ahead had taken notice of their approach. It scurried off, disappearing amongst the shadows. Taking a deep breath, he glanced over to see that Taren hadn't even paused.
"Jumpy?" Taren jested.
"You don't feel it?" he asked, trying to calm his nerves. "The…eeriness about this place?"
She nodded grimly. "Oh, I feel it all right. I'm just doing my best to ignore it. You should, too."
That made Ben wonder what else about this place Taren could sense. No doubt her magic was tapping into all sorts of horrors and remnants from Darkness ages past. Ben still remembered some of the snippets from Kyyra's ancestral Shrines, back from around the time of the Dark War. Terenful in particular had experienced scenes of horrific war. Apocalyptic war.
And this was what was left over.
"We're not going to get sick being out here, are we?"
Taren cocked her head at the comment. "Nothing out here could make us sick. And I thought we already talked about the water."
"No, not the water. I meant like...radiation or something."
Taren clearly didn't know what the word meant. Ben realized it probably didn't have a place in Izikian vernacular. They could probably make war terrible in their own ways. The people of Earth had simply found chemicals and radioactive materials to do what he could only guess magical warfare produced in the way of horrors. Still, if Taren felt fine about waltzing through an ancient battlefield left scared over several millennia, he probably didn't have too much to worry about.
Taren was usually good about sensing danger before it hit them.
The river seemed to wind endlessly through the night. Ben wasn't entirely sure how long they walked. He noted on two separate occasions that the moons had moved in the sky. But at long last, the unending terrain dipped down towards a silvery, reflective surface about a mile off. The river snaked through the wasteland towards it.
"We're finally here," Ben breathed in relief.
Taren held a finger up to his lips. "And right in the perfect place for a trap."
Ben shoved her finger away, mentally cursing himself. Taren had just seen something, hadn't she?
"All right," he whispered. "What is it? What trouble now?"
She shook her head. "No trouble…not this time. But we still should play it safe."
Ben shrugged, letting her take the lead as they wandered down the shallow slope to the large, inky black lake. It reflected back the countless stars and the colorfully swirling comic dusts in the night sky. Ben briefly wondered if there were sea monsters hiding beneath its tranquil surfaces.
Everything out here wants to kill us. How are we still alive?
A short distance from the lake, Ben spotted the others. He recognized Cyasa immediately as she tore off from the lake shore towards him. A moment later, he was scooped up in a big hug that nearly crushed his lungs.
"We were so worried!" she managed through a half-cry.
Jillayr, Siessem, and Jesk were soon with them as well. Jillayr looked about ready to burst into tears, too, but kept her composure together. Siessem for once looked visibly relieved, but Jesk's face was etched with some kind of discord. And something told Ben it had nothing to do with their safety.
"We got your message," Jillayr told Taren. "It was the only reason we decided to push on towards Holek's border."
"I'm glad you did," said Ben. "Taren and I had a pretty straight shot once we got down from the mountains." He grinned. "Even the Reritau couldn't stop us."
He noticed the others all pale.
"You survived Reritau?" Siessem said thoughtfully. "That…that is no small feat."
Cyasa shivered. "Jesk has sensed them all around us. We've been careful. But the two of you…"
"More on that later," Taren interrupted. "Let's move forward, shall we?"
Ben hadn't realized how drained he really was, both physically and emotionally. It felt like an eternity ago since Taren and he had tumbled off the path. To see the others again was no simple thing; they were all alive and still together. Part of him wanted to set down here and recoup, even if it meant losing a little more time on Kyyra's trail.
But then he noticed that unsettled look on Jesk's face again and something told him they were very short on time.
"Jesk," Ben began nervously, "how close are we?"
Jesk exhaled. "Less than half a day's journey from Auraura. We'll camp the remainder of the night east-fall of the reservoir and make for the city at dawn."
There was a "but" he wasn't telling him, though. And Ben knew that he wasn't going to like it, whatever it was.
Siessem seemed to sense his line of thinking. "We need to hurry, Ben. I am having difficulties with sensing Kyyra."
Ben gritted his teeth. This was all his fault. If they had stayed together during the ambush in the mountains, they would have made better time. But he had nearly walked into his own death, and only Taren's strange foreknowledge had kept him alive. Now they were all far behind Kyyra's trail.
Perhaps too far behind at this point. Although Jesk was keeping tight lipped about a lot of things, Ben knew that their trail was inevitably winding to a close at Auraura. Whatever the reason for Kyyra's abduction, this was her final destination. He tried not to think what it would mean if they were too late.