This is the twentieth chapter in Forest of Flames and the second in part three, Water.
"And that's how Cuddle and I first met."
Geb didn't even want to roll his eyes. Hapi had decided to ride with them on Boulder, and had talked almost continuously in the last few hours. At first, Geb had listened half-heartedly, but at this point he had better things to do. He had been thinking about Sedna for quite some time now.
In Hapi's presence she was happier than Geb had ever experienced her, even happier than with Jarilo. Maybe it wasn't about him, but rather about the fact that she had finally talked freely about her story. But Geb knew that this only made her even more insecure when talking to him or Iris.
He felt the same, he still didn't know what would happen in the end. Sedna had lied to them more than once, and they were all aware of what Geb thought about that matter. However, he also had to admit that everything had actually gone according to plan. What good did it do him to get mad at Sedna? She hadn't lied to them to betray them to the Shadows. She had just wanted to protect herself. No, she had to. In her opinion, she had done the right thing to survive. Could he really be angry with her?
"Hapi," he interrupted the Water Elm he had admittedly quite rudely ignored.
That completely took him by surprise. "Yeah, uh - I mean, what?"
"Why do you kill those whose companions have died?"
Hapi waited until he was sure that Sedna had nothing against the subject. "Our tribe needs companions more than anyone else," he said.
"More than the Tribe of Sky?" Karzelek asked, sitting alone in front of Geb as always.
"We don't live underwater, if that's what you think. We live on land like any other tribe - but we need our companions for almost everything we do. We hunt in the water, we travel in the water, we fight in the water - and even on land we use the water magic for a lot of things."
"Whoever has no companion is nothing but a useless burden," Sedna added bitterly.
Geb had to think about the war the Water Tribe was fighting. Was the Fire Tribe aware of how many lives they really destroyed? But he suspected that this was something he shouldn't interfere as a member of another tribe. In Sunstone you could actually get along without a companion.
"To us, you aren't a burden," he said instead. "And not useless either."
"Thank you." For a moment, she tightened her grip on him. Then she looked at Hapi, who was sitting behind her. "You were so certain I survived."
"Of course. You've always been incredibly tenacious."
She shook her head. "You knew it. I don't know how, but you knew I was alive."
"I'll show you. Give me your hand."
Sedna let go of Geb with one hand and stretched it behind her back, where Hapi put something with his hands that were far too big for his thin arms. When she opened her hand before her, where Geb could see, there was a little shell in it.
"So?", he asked.
But Sedna touched her right ear fin, the little tear that had never completely healed on their journey, and then Geb understood.
"I thought I'd lost it forever," Sedna muttered as she turned the shell in her hand.
"We were looking for you when you didn't come back," Hapi explained. "We found Needle's remains. Of course it could've been a normal swordfish, that was hard to tell with the skeleton. But then Cuddle discovered the earring." He smiled, embarrassed. "Apart from Selkie and me nobody knows about it. I didn't want them to scour the whole ocean after you. I didn't want them to find you."
"What about Father?"
He shook his head. "Not after the thing with your mother. But I think now he's ready for it."
She grimaced. "Let's hope so."
Dusk was already setting in when the air began to smell of salt. After the long journey over the Sea of Clouds, this was now a familiar smell, they had to be close to the sea. Since their encounter with Hapi, three days had passed - three days they had used to tell him everything about their journey. Even now, he already considered them, especially Sedna, true heroes. No matter how far away they still were from their actual goal. Even the Water Elmen had not been spared from the nocturnal attacks of the Shadows.
"The waterfall isn't the only way down, is it?" Karzelek asked.
Hapi laughed. "Don't worry, we're not going to jump hundreds of feet like that. This way!"
Instead of continuing to follow the main river, Hapi pointed out the way along a small side river that branched off before them. On the horizon, the main river was already wider - where it ran so far that the waterfalls could encircle the entire bay. The small sidearm, on the other hand, led ... under the earth?
In fact, the nearer they came to the apparent end of the river, the more clearly Geb realized that it did run underground. It wasn't a steep drop like with the waterfalls, but went so steadily down that one could still swim comfortably without losing control. And right next to it was even a narrow path that Boulder could use.
Karzelek seemed more relaxed when they entered the tunnel, unlike Iris. Zephyr, whom Geb saw underground for the first time, looked back at the entrance as well, as if he were thinking of flying and waiting for them at the bottom instead. But the two Sky Elmen remained with them.
"We'll meet you down there," Hapi grinned instead, suddenly getting off Boulder's back and jumping into the water. The stream immediately got him, and he let himself be carried down as if on a kind of water slide.
Geb's gaze wandered to Sedna, who was staring after him. "Go ahead," he smiled. "I won't stop you."
"It won't completely ruin your serious reputation," Iris added.
Sedna hesitated for a moment, but then she also rose from Boulder and plunged into the waves, following Hapi and her sister within seconds. Geb had never seen her swim, but this brief moment already showed that she was made for it.
With Boulder at the front, the others also made their way down. As it soon became apparent, the tunnel led into a cave that was as wide as the Zesto above it. Among them, Geb saw a sort of lake where Hapi's ray companion was already waiting for them, and directly opposite a river branch like the one they were walking by - only that the other river was defying gravity and moving upwards.
"Rivers don't do that," Geb murmured in astonishment.
Karzelek already pointed to a spot at the bottom of the strange waterway. There was a gray-blue Water Elm and, judging from his arm movements, he was completely occupied with controlling the water with his magic.
Of course, Geb thought. You have to get from the bottom to the top somehow.
By far the most fascinating thing about the cave, however, was the side facing the sea: the entire east wall of the cave was not a wall, but rather open - and separated from the sea and the bay by a massive waterfall curtain. The light of the setting sun made the millions of water droplets glint in red and violet colors, thus dipping the entire cave into a mystic twilight.
When the friends reached the lake, Sedna and her sister were already waiting for them in the water. Hapi was talking to the silver-blue Elm, who at some point stopped the flow of water during the course of their conversation. Finally, Hapi swam back to the group, but didn't bother to leave the water.
"Looks like some other merchant just left for Snailspring," he said. "Lucky for us, that way you could experience our inverted river."
Sedna looked at the waterfall that was slowly darkening. "We should hurry before Father falls asleep. I don't want to wake him up."
"Good idea," Hapi agreed. "I can lead the others over the bridges, but you should dive instead. If someone recognizes you..."
"I know." Then they would try to kill her.
"And you should rather leave your companion here," Hapi said to Geb. "No offense, but our bridges won't carry him."
Geb tried not to show his feelings. Like most Elmen, he wasn't eager to be separated from his companion. "Alright," he nodded. "I can't expect everything to be built for my tribe."
"He'll be fine in here. He's in good company."
"Four-Leaf can also stay here," Karzelek suggested. "He'll do well to sleep under the earth again."
Boulder's face seemed to lit up as Karzelek rose from his back and dropped Four-Leaf beside him.
"I suppose we'll leave the birds here too," Zephyr said. "Before they run into trouble out there."
"Will you find the way?" Hapi asked Sedna. "In the dark and underwater ..."
"I'll stay with Cuddle. That should be enough." At least she admits she doesn't know as much as she used to.
When everything was settled, Hapi showed them that the path on the edge of the lake also led outside. He used his magic for a brief moment to make a gate in the waterfall, so that none of them would get wet when they crossed.
On the other side of the waterfall, outside, Geb finally saw the bay Sedna had mentioned. The Ancamna Falls enclosed the bay in a semicircle, and in the middle of the surface of the water, an entire settlement was built on logs, connected by a labyrinth of wooden bridges. It reminded Geb of the settlement in the Beak Bay, but the houses didn't swim there. And there were more ships there than here: For a city by the sea, Geb could only spot an unusual few. Only a single large sailing ship lay at anchor.
In contrast to the Mount Ember settlement of the Fire Tribe, there was very little going on at this time of day. The nightly illumination wasn't very strong, only a few algae shining in the dark lit the settlement at seemingly random spots. And yet Geb found that Ancamna Falls looked most peaceful out of all the places they had traveled to. The steady noise of the waterfalls did the rest.
Hapi led them over the bridges and knew exactly which way he had to go. Geb followed him with the others, glad that nobody else was outside and asked them questions. Nearby, he saw the now familiar flat outline of Cuddle, Sedna swam under him so that no one could see her. Selkie and her seal were with her.
Only when they reached one of the wooden huts did the sisters climb out of the water. The cabin looked like all the others, perhaps somewhat less decorated with sea objects. Like everywhere else, it was dark inside - Geb suspected that the body markings of the Elmen were sufficient to get around after sunset. Besides, he heard nothing.
"He's still awake," Hapi said at that moment.
Karzelek disagreed. "It's quiet."
Hapi just sighed. "That's why." Carefully, he tapped the wood next to the fabric curtain that was the door. "Ikatere?", he asked. "It's me, Hapi. Selkie is with me too."
Behind the curtain, it suddenly suddenly shone so brightly that Geb hadto squint. There were bluish body markings approaching with hasty steps. Seconds later, a hand pulled the curtain aside and Geb stared into the face of Sedna's father.
It was hard to say how old he was, maybe somewhere between forty and fifty. But he looked as if he hadn't slept in days, he was uncomfortably thin, and he stank of something that Geb knew from the Fire Tribe and a few corners of Sunstone he rather avoided. Even if he didn't know how the Water Tribe had access to it - and perhaps he didn't even want to know - Sedna's father definitely smelled of alcohol.
He looked at Hapi, at Selkie, at the four strange visitors from other tribes, and finally at Sedna. How did he feel? This too was difficult to interpret. He just stared at her, motionless.
Sedna stared back. Her expression was obvious: she hadn't expected to see her father in that state. Or maybe Selkie and Hapi had warned her, but it was still a shock to her.
"Sorry," he heard Hapi mutter. So that's not the case.
"Who are you?" Ikatere asked with a rough, suspicious voice.
Sedna remained calm. "Sedna. Your daughter."
"Sedna is dead," he replied sharply. "Like her companion."
"Needle is dead," Sedna agreed. "Not me. I ran away."
"If you were her, you'd know you're talking sharkstuff. Sedna saw what happened to her mother. Nanshe was stupid. Sedna isn't. She knows the rules. I've taken care of that."
"Mother wasn't stupid," Sedna countered. "You miss her as much as I do. You told me that often enough. You can try to hate her for the death of her companion, but she couldn't help it, and you know that. You love her. That'll never change. And you hate the tribe, not her." Her voice had become faster, more penetrating. More desperate?
"When I left, you were hoping to find me dead, right? So you don't have to watch the tribe decimate your family a second time. I know I can't stay, Father. I will continue to travel with my friends, far from the danger of the tribe. I just wanted to let you know I was okay. And I'm sorry I never said goodbye."
"Get out of her," her father growled, turning away. When she didn't move, his head snapped back and his eyes glittered. "Get out of here!", he repeated so loudly that not only Sedna flinched. If he did that again, the whole city would know about her soon. "Didn't you hear? Do you want me to kill you?"
"Let's go," Hapi whispered to Sedna. She nodded silently and turned her back on her father. Unlike her, Geb looked back once more. But he too quickly turned his eyes away as Ikatere glared after them.
Selkie's marks flickered as they returned to the waterfall. What did she say to Sedna? Perhaps the same as Hapi, who desperately tried to keep up with Sedna's energetically big steps. "I'm sorry, Sedna. I should have stopped you."
"And I should have expected it." At least she slowed her step. "When did he start?"
"With the pufferfish drinking? Since we found Needle." When she didn't reply, he continued, "Selkie is fine. My mother and I take care of her. And of Ikatere. That's the least we can do."
Sedna looked briefly at him. "Thank you."
"And what now?", Karzelek asked Geb, as if he didn't want to disturb the conversation of the others.
"I guess we're going back to Gerra," he supposed. "I don't think Sedna wants to stay."
Sedna glanced over the shoulder as she walked. "We'll sleep behind the waterfall. We'll leave tomorrow morning."
He nodded. He hadn't expected anything else. What's better, he asked himself on the rest of their walk. Not knowing their parents or having parents like Ikatere? There was probably no satisfactory answer. At least he didn't want to be angry at Sedna anymore. After what had just happened, it was all the more important that they were there for each other.
"We're still friends," he assured her as they went to sleep, accompanied by the loud roar of the waterfall. "And a second family, if you need us."
"Geb," she whispered, so that the others wouldn't hear it. "That's what you've been all this time."
|Forest of Flames Chapters|
|One: Fire||1: Into the Unknown • 2: The Gift • 3: Travel by Snake • 4: Scorch Lines • 5: Wars to Be Won • 6: Impure Business • 7: Dark Fire|
|Two: Forest||8: Smoke and Feathers • 9: Midnight • 10: Heart of the Forest • 11: The Ones We Love • 12: Shadow Dance • 13: Makeshift Solution • 14: A New Beginning • 15: Eye of the Storm • 16: Traitors • 17: The Return • 18: Wildfire Hill|
|Three: Water||19: Answers • 20: Ancamna Falls • 21: Against the Flow • 22: Starry Night|