Aren stepped from another mid-sized tunnel into a larger space. Her neck popped as she stretched and she blinked into the darkness ahead where she thought she saw flickering light. “Um…Dveldor, what are those lights? Are those lanterns?”
Dveldor stepped beside her. “Yes and no. You see reflection. Come.” He took her hand and dragged her into the darkness.
The lantern did little to lighten this space, the polished black stone of the floor seemed to go on forever and vanish into the endless night of the underworld where she had traveled for so long. The cavern must be huge. The air once again tasted fresher and wetter, but this time a roar greeted her, unlike the silent water and blue crystal of the room of tears.
Aren gasped as Dveldor pulled them both to a stop at the edge of a cliff, the obsidian floor falling away on either side of them for as far as the lantern light reached. She glanced down at the sea of light that covered the floor of the massive ravine and rolled up one of the walls.
Aren had sat on the edge of red sandstone cliffs and looked down on her own town many times, letting the crisp desert air roll over her as she dreamed of never entering the interior of people’s minds ever again. This city swallowed the twinkling lights of her little valley a hundred times over. It seemed miles away and close enough to touch at once.
Dveldor lead her toward where the lights seemed to dance and crawl up one of the walls of the massive ravine, the roar of water growing the closer they got.
“It’s a waterfall.” Realization dawned on Aren though the term failed to describe the torrent. Water poured toward the city below in an unending sheet from somewhere lost in the darkness above. The wall of water was at least half a mile across and mist rolled off it in waves.
“Yes, and we shall cross the Crystal Bridge.”
Aren nodded. She could see it now, a thin black line that arched from one cliff face to the other across the torrential flow. It looked fragile, even as they drew closer. “Will it hold us?”
Dveldor laughed. “It is stronger than it looks.” He aimed the lantern at the opening of the bridge and Aren gasped again.
It was made of some polished, translucent crystal and entirely undecorated with any carvings, swirls, or additional materials. It didn’t look like anything she had come to expect of the little Dwaros. Aren could also see the swimming lights through the floor and she shivered. “Are you sure?”
“Yes, Dveldor is sure.” He stepped on and jumped up and down a couple times, grinning at her. “See.” He turned and walked several paces forward and up.
Aren took a shaky step out onto the glass-like walkway. The translucent sides, thankfully, came up to her shoulder, even if they looked like they might crack and fall away. “Why make a bridge clear like this? It’s freaky.”
Dveldor came back and took her hand again. “Bridge is a symbol of how we came to be here.”
“No, no. All people. Human, Dwaro, Sidra, all come on Crystal Bridge. Through darkness and out. Then down deep. I tell you story sometime…after speak better.”
Aren nodded. “I understand. Your English keeps getting better, but it’s not ancient story time ready, is it? I look forward to it.”
At some point Dveldor closed the shade on his lantern. Aren didn’t notice at first. She was captivated by the view beneath her feet and above her head. The bridge arched high toward the ceiling she hadn’t seen before, broken only by the gaping hole from where the water fell. She could almost touch the stone roof that sparkled like quartz.
She let a hand run against the smooth glass side as she walked, and she closed her eyes, imagining she was flying through the wormhole home with Kaden. The bridge led them both back down toward the other side where she could barely make out in the dim light the switchbacks that would lead them downward.
Aren began noticing side passages that had been burrowed into the cliff face along the switchbacks. Faces stared out at her from the darkness. Dveldor sang to them in his beautiful language which drew even more of the little people. Soon a parade of Dwaro formed behind them as they wound their way down miles of stone steps and paths.
At first, each new arrival questioned Dveldor in their high singsong voices. He answered and they fell in line behind him. This repeated every few minutes, slowing them down considerably. Aren could see her own irritation reflected in Dveldor’s furry face.
Aren couldn’t keep track of time in this place, but her stomach told her it had been a long time since she’d eaten. She couldn’t be sure though if it had been many hours or if they’d been walking for days. Once the parade of Dwaros grew to a mob, filling in the narrow path behind them for a hundred feet, the new arrivals finally stopped questioning Dveldor. They simply slipped into the crowd and whispered amongst themselves.
Aren had seen things she never imagined. Waterfalls that fell thousands of feet above their heads and disappeared into the dim mists thousands of feet below. Intricate carvings that seemed to crawl and shift before her eyes as the light from the lantern rolled across the surface of the walls. Delicate crystals climbing from the floor and hanging from the ceiling reflected her image until whole chambers were filled with her exhausted face. But the crowd of Dwaros sent her senses to a new level.
The little people emerged from tiny caverns all around her, like an ant colony, their dark eyes flickering blue in the lantern light. Aren took in the wonder on their faces and knew that many of them had never seen a human before.
She experienced the same strange sensation with each of them as she’d felt with Dveldor. Her gift filled her mind with the buzzing vibrant sparks of light that spun inside each tiny soul. Soon Aren felt dwarfed by the sheer movement of life around her. Her gift tried to swim through it all and keep afloat, but flailed and thrashed in the crushing amount of memories and sensations that emanated from the crowd.
Blinded by the images and memories, many she could never understand, she stumbled along, clinging to Dveldor. Even with her gift near blinded by the overwhelming sensations, Aren knew that not all of the Dwaros would be so kind and protective toward her as her new friend. Hate and fear roiled around her in the same sea as curiosity and awe.
She glanced down at her dragging feet. Her legs felt far away, heavy, and numb. Exhaustion made it hard to keep her eyes open even with all the novelty of the location and the company. “Soon, Dveldor?”
He looked up at her with pity. “Yes, Aren, soon…only moments. We need to see Keeper, Sethkar, then you can eat and sleep. He’ll know you come by now.” Aren thought she saw a hint of fear as Dveldor mentioned Sethkar. That fear sank deep into Aren’s heart, cold and sharp, her gift absorbing more of it from the throng of Dwaros with each step.
Aren attempted a smile, to calm his fear as much as her own, but she failed and just nodded weakly. She knew too well that everything hinged on this meeting. My life is not my own down here. She wished for the thousandth time she could have stayed in the clearing and waited for Kaden.
Kaden looked at the being that approached him. He numbly felt he should be afraid, but deep curiosity replaced that fear. He hadn’t stayed long enough on any trip to actually talk to anyone. Not that the tigers and scorpions had much to say. He shook his head and managed to speak. “Where’s Aren?”
The being tilted its head to the side and blinked as though surprised that Kaden could speak at all. “The girl is beyond our reach.” It turned away from Kaden while motioning to him with a hand. “You will come with me.”
Kaden shivered as he felt a strong desire to follow the strange being. He fought the feeling. “I’m going nowhere without Aren! Where is she, and who are you?”
The being turned faster than Kaden could follow. “You dare demand information from me?” The tone implied the danger in such an act, but Kaden pushed his fear away. Have to be strong for Aren. He reached out with his mind and found the link back to Earth, something he didn’t have to pull open his Egg to accomplish from this end.
This link hadn’t been there when he’d attempted to return with Aren though. He’d had to sift through images to find home and he hadn’t returned to the same time as usual. Strange. I’m not sure if I’m glad to have it back or not. It felt like a tether. He could be gone from this world with a moment’s thought, but that meant abandoning Aren once again.
Kaden stared back at the slender being, looking straight into the large almond eyes, and mustered up all his courage. “Yes, I dare. You know where she is and you will tell me.”
Anger flickered deep in those inhuman eyes, but then disappeared. The being blinked and then a cold smile crept across the sharp lines of its face. “Very well. I propose a trade then. You will teach me your magic and I will tell you where your companion has gone, even aid you in her recovery.”
Kaden laughed. “My magic?”
“Yes.” The being’s tone took on an eagerness.
Kaden didn’t know what to say. “What magic?”
“Do not play games with me, human. You have an ability to travel without traveling. I have seen it.” Anger flashed in those almond eyes once more. “Do not pretend to hide it from me.”
Kaden blinked. “Oh, that. That’s not magic. You want to learn about wormholes?”
The strange being darted forward and wrapped a hand around Kaden’s throat in a flash of movement. Kaden had no time to react. The firm and delicate grip lifted Kaden from the ground, iron strong muscles rippled beneath the pristine golden skin.
Kaden felt the air being squeezed from his throat as blood stopped flowing to his brain. He triggered his tether and hated himself as he did so. Sorry Aren. I have to. I’m pretty sure a broken neck in this world would kill me as much as back home.
Evandrel held the human, a hurricane of anger and malice growing inside him. He’d been raised to hate these stupid creatures, and this one dared to mock him.
He debated what to do as he lifted the filthy beast higher. This human holds great knowledge and power, but plays games with me, talking of worms and their burrows. Is it mad? Perhaps a being cannot travel thus without being driven insane. The girl seemed to have sense enough, but she was not the one with this power.
Evandrel’s thought stream ended as a flash drove him to the ground. The young Keitane fell to his knees as a thunderclap slammed the air together around him and fire raced through his hand. The implosion left him blind and deaf for several seconds, but his other senses tested the area.
The human’s elements had dissolved into the dust, air, and vapor from whence they’d come. Evandrel’s mind raced to follow the traces, but felt nothing of the human boy left in the air above him. The knife at his chest still sang of patience. I should have been more careful, Evandrel chided himself. That was foolish. The boy may not return again.
Kaden gasped awake in his hospital bed. It was the exact moment he’d left. He was sitting upright with his hand outstretched to push his father away. Tracy, his dad, and the two policemen all raised their eyebrows at once at his outburst.
For them, he’d just been ranting about leaving and time and then just gasped as though in pain. But, for Kaden, he’d traveled across the barriers between universes, been nearly strangled to death by a very tall, green-haired man, and escaped back to Earth. He could still almost feel the slender vise-like grip around his throat.
His courage dissipated, allowing the fear that had been boiling up to flow over. He pushed his blankets away, feeling constricted and tied down. He fought the desire to drown in his emotions, to let the fear roll over him, keep him from acting. I failed my mother. I failed Aren. There’s no point.
No! I can’t leave Aren. I don’t have time for this.
“Sorry, guys, just remembered something.”
“What?” Tracy asked.
“Aren.” He then muttered to himself. “Hope it goes better this time.” He pulled up his Egg and left before anyone could ask another question.
Kaden popped back into existence. He stood in the middle of the clearing for the third time. The stars and the red gash gave him some light to see by. He squinted into the night, looking for Aren, but really expecting the gold and green man who’d attacked him. The chilled night raised goose bumps on his skin.
He shook his head. Naked again? I really have to learn how to bring clothes. Even the hospital gown would be better than nothing. Whatever magic Aren could perform had failed him again. “She changed everything. I have to find her.”
“I will help with that endeavor.” The slender being slipped out of the forest once more. “After you teach me your magic.” He moved toward Kaden with a fluid grace. The creature smiled at him with the same dangerous grimace Kaden had seen moments before, but stopped his approach several feet away.
Kaden stood tall, ignoring his nakedness and the cold, but he held the tether close in his mind. It’s not safe to show weakness in front of strange animals. “I don’t have time for your games, creature, I have to find Aren as soon as possible.”
The green man cocked his head to the side and regarded Kaden with a mixture of awe and hate. “Games? I play no games with you, human. As I said before, she is beyond our reach now. She has been taken by the Dwaros. We cannot follow.”
Kaden frowned. “I must follow. It’s all my fault. What and where are these Dwaros?”
The creature shook its head with a sorrowful look at the ground beneath them. “No. I will not send you to your death with your secrets. I will help you retrieve the girl once you share them with me.” The being’s hand shot up in a blur of movement.
Kaden took a step back and prepared to jump back to the hospital, but the hand froze in the air a few feet from Kaden.
The creature smiled again. “Do not fear me, young human, I have learned my lesson. No need to disappear.” He closed his large, green eyes and moved his hand in a circular motion.
Kaden frowned. “What are you doing?”
“Do not feign ignorance of the gifts, arrogant human. Hmm, you are here, but you came a great distance. I can see the line leading off, but I cannot follow it to its end.”
Kaden’s mouth gaped open. He reached out with his mind to his link home. “Wait. You can see my link back, my tether? No one’s ever seen anything at all, well, besides Aren.”
The head cocked to the other side. “I am not no one. I am Evandrel da’a Losel, a Light Bringer and initiate to the Order of the Grove.”
Kaden bowed slightly. “I’m Kaden. Nice to meet you.” He couldn’t keep the sarcasm out of his voice, but the being didn’t appear to notice.
Evandrel bowed back, but kept his eyes fixed on Kaden. “I do think meeting you may be fortuitous as well, Kaden.”
“Hence the strangling?” This time Kaden didn’t even attempt to mask his sarcasm.
Evandrel’s eyes tightened at the comment, but his reply remained calm and cordial. “Yes, I do apologize for not controlling my anger. It was unwise of me to use force. I was anxious to understand your magic, and you were not cooperative.”
“I don’t have any— never mind.” Kaden was tired of wasting time while Aren got further lost in this world. “So, let me get this straight. Apparently, Aren has been kidnapped by Dwaros, whatever those are, and you want to learn about my ‘magic’ before you’ll help. That sound about right?”
Evandrel bowed again and smiled. “Blunt and crude, but the truth in essence. You also appear to be in need of some clothing.”
Kaden blushed and glanced down at himself. “Yes, and you don’t seem to be my size.”