Chapter 1

 

“I THINK you two had best go in there,” the healer said softly to the redheaded half elf and his companion. “She’s not going to last much longer.”

His body drooping in grief, Tasis nodded and stood from the chair he’d been huddled on for the past several hours. His companion, raven-haired and lithe, was only half a second behind him.

The room they entered smelled of sickness, as it had for months. Evina, Tasis’s mother, had collapsed during a beautiful day early in spring and hadn’t been out of bed for more than a few minutes at a time since. The sickness had begun two years prior but had escalated rapidly since that day. The healers, unable to find the cause of the malady, could only help ease her from life with as little suffering as possible. Tasis appreciated it, but it had done nothing to lessen the agony of slowly losing his mother.

Evina lay in her bed, her emaciated body covered with blankets. She had been a beautiful, lively woman when she’d been healthy, but her once-full cheeks now looked hollow, and what had been an abundance of bright red hair was now a thin crop of dulling copper. Tasis had often half expected his mother to break a bone every time she moved, she’d become so gaunt.

Her eyes opened when they entered, and Tasis was glad to see they were clear. There had been times over the past two days where it seemed as if Evina didn’t actually see them, though they’d been standing right in front of her. She saw them now, however, and struggled to sit up. “Tasis…. Zaree….”

Tasis hurried to his mother’s bedside and gently pushed her back down. “Don’t sit up, mother. It’ll only strain you.”

Evina laughed, the sound hollow and bitter, devoid of amusement. “Everything strains me these days, love, but I don’t have to worry about that for much longer, do I? Isn’t that why the healer sent you in here?”

Tasis sighed. His mother had loved life, but her illness and impending death had understandably taken its toll on her cheery disposition. Instead of answering, he knelt at her bedside and rested his head on Evina’s shoulder.

“It’s okay, really,” Evina said as she stroked Tasis’s hair with a trembling hand. “I’ll be with your father again, where I belong.”

Tasis gave his mother a small smile, though he knew there was nothing he could do to hide the shine of tears in his eyes. Certainly, his mother being reunited with his father would be a good thing—his father had died when Tasis was very young, and he had only vague memories of the man, but his mother had never ceased mourning—except it would break his heart to have her go.

Evina’s eyes drifted shut for a moment, and Tasis caught his breath. When his mother opened her eyes again, Tasis was reminded that, no matter how prepared he thought he was for this, he was truly terrified of being made an orphan.

“There’s no time to argue,” Evina told him in a weakening voice. “Take the pendant from around my neck and put it on. Don’t ever take it off, not until you’re ready to go on to the next life.”

Tasis startled at the thought. His mother never took off the pendant she wore on a silk cord around her neck, and it seemed fairly close to sacrilegious to remove it. “But—”

“I said there’s no time to argue,” Evina stressed. “Just do it.”

Tasis’s hands trembled as he unhooked the cord from around Evina’s neck and clasped it around his own. There was a flash of light, and for just an instant, Tasis felt as if he were drowning. He startled, jerking a little as he blinked rapidly, and as quickly as it had begun, the sensation was gone. A glance at Zaree and Evina told him they hadn’t noticed anything unusual. In fact Evina merely nodded and turned her attention to Zaree.

“You’ve been like a daughter to me, child,” she said. “When your father died, I promised your brother you’d get the care and education you deserved, but I also promised him I’d encourage you to go back once you’d found your way in the world. You’re free to return to your people whenever you like, but I’d ask you to take care of Tasis. My boy isn’t ready to face the unknown yet. He’s only had sixteen summers, and no matter how mature he may be he’s still too young to be alone.” Evina took a raspy, labored breath and managed a weak smile. “I’ll give your father your love when I see him.”

Evina’s gaze traveled to her son’s face, and she smiled a little as she lifted a trembling hand and placed it against Tasis’s cheek. “I love you. I will always love you.”

Her eyes closed then, and she did not take another breath.

Tasis stared at his mother’s face, unwilling to believe Evina would never open her eyes again. He put a hand on her shoulder and shook her gently. “Mother?”

There was no response, and Tasis was finally forced to face the reality Evina was gone. He heard Zaree move next to him, and he turned his head to look at her. Tears were already streaking her face, and she wiped at her eyes with the back of her hand as she kneeled on the floor next to him. “I won’t leave you,” she promised in a whisper as she pulled Tasis into a hug. “So you can’t leave me either.”

Tasis nodded his agreement as he choked out a sob, not bothering to hold back as the girl he considered his sister wept with him.

Zaree was the first to gain her composure, something that didn’t surprise Tasis in the least. He’d always privately been of the opinion that, between the two of them, Zaree was the stronger one. She wiped at Tasis’s eyes with a handkerchief, then helped him to his feet.

“I need to go make sure the boat is ready,” she said, her voice firm with purpose. “You will go take a nap. You haven’t had more than two hours of sleep at a time for the past month.”

“I couldn’t sleep,” Tasis answered in a quiet, thin voice.

“You can, and you will,” Zaree shot back fiercely. “Go to your room. I’ll send the healer up to give you something to help you sleep if I have to.”

Tasis felt like arguing, and would have actually done just that if the weight of Zaree’s glare hadn’t been so intimidating. Instead Tasis sighed, shrugged in answer, and shuffled toward his room. He took the stairs slowly, staring at his feet as he went, and was reminded of the time his mother had commented that feeling empty was actually one of the worst feelings in the world. He hadn’t understood at the time, not really, but with the void inside him growing, he found himself agreeing. The nothingness was indeed appalling. A small part of him considered the fact he really didn’t like feeling that way and should stop immediately. The rest of him stubbornly ignored the observation as he stepped into his room, closed the door, and obediently flopped onto his bed.

The cord around his neck shifted as he landed, reminding him of the strange sensation he’d experienced when he’d initially put the pendant on. He was certain no one else had seen the bright flash of light. Evina might have discounted it as her illness, but Zaree would have been the first person to ask what in the Maker’s name had happened.

Tasis lifted the cord to eye level and examined the pendant hanging from it. The silver strands making up the piece were wrapped elegantly around a curious blue stone shiny enough to look like it was glowing. Tasis had once asked his mother what kind of stone it was, but Evina hadn’t been able to tell him. All Evina had known was the pendant had been in her family for longer than anyone could remember, passed from parent to child.

Tasis released the cord and let it drop, his eyelids suddenly heavy. He heard a murmur of voices, and wondered if he was hearing Zaree speaking to the healer downstairs, or if it was a symptom of fatigue. With the murmur still playing in his ears, he succumbed to sleep and began to dream.

 

TASIS WAS standing near the ocean. The beach was empty, save for a large stone and a small girl who sat upon it. The girl, a cheerful-looking creature with an impish smile and golden hair, waved at him.

Curious, Tasis made his way to the stone. “What are you doing here, all alone in the middle of nowhere?” he asked.

The girl giggled. “I’m waiting for the water, of course.”

Tasis looked up and down the coast, his brow creasing with confusion. “But the water is already here.”

“No,” the girl said, the smile not leaving her face. “Mama says the waves will get very big tonight. I’m waiting to see them, but Mama doesn’t want me to.”

The girl pointed away from the coastline and Tasis saw a tall, steep sandstone face. A figure stood at the top, near the edge of the cliff. “Aria,” Tasis heard a voice call down, and he assumed it was the figure standing there. The distance was too far for him to see clearly. “It’s time to come in, Aria.”

The child sighed and jumped down from her perch. “That’s Mama,” she explained, offering her hand to Tasis. “Come on. The water will be here soon, and you’ll be able to see it from our house.”

Tasis let the girl lead him up the beach toward the enormous wall of rock. When they reached the cliff, he saw steps had been carved into the face. As they climbed the stairway, Tasis had the oddest feeling he’d done this before.

At the top of the cliff, Tasis paused to take in the view. He could see storm clouds gathering, and the sea had gone well past looking angry and was heading more toward furious. His long red hair whipped in the wind, and he pulled the strands out of his field of vision. He was interrupted by a tug at his hand, and the previously cheerful child was looking at him with a serious expression.

“We’d better get going,” she told him. “It’s starting.”

Tasis turned away from the cliff’s edge to see what someone might have described as a castle. The stone structure was massive, dominating the landscape and seeming to blot out part of the sky. Tasis wondered why he hadn’t noticed it before and why he felt more comforted by the imposing fortress than he did intimidated, but he put the thought out of his mind as he followed the girl through the large wooden and glass doors gracing the front of the building.

“Mama,” the child called out as they shut the doors behind themselves, “I brought a friend. Is that okay?”

“That’s fine, love” came the same voice Tasis had heard earlier. “Just be sure the doors are shut tight. The water is coming.”

The girl looked out one of the door’s glass insets and squealed excitedly, beaming at Tasis as she pointed outside. “Look! There it is!”

Tasis squinted as he tried to see beyond the raindrops spattered against the glass, only to finally make out a wave so monstrous it covered any view of the sky. He cried out, stumbling back away from the door, positive the doors were going to be no protection for them.

“Don’t worry,” the child said, still looking through the glass. “It’s just going to wash everything clean.”

There was a deafening roar, and the ground shook so hard Tasis was swept off his feet. The view through the doors made it clear the building was now under water.

“Have no fear, child,” the voice of the girl’s mother said from behind him. “The ocean would never harm you.”

Tasis turned around to look at the woman, and saw himself standing there.

 

TASIS JOLTED up in bed, panting for air as if he’d actually been under those tons of water. He jumped when there was a knock on his door, and his eyes were still wide when Zaree peeked into the room.

“Oh good, you’re awake,” she said, her expression serious and her eyes rimmed with red. “It’s time to get ready. The boat is waiting.”

Tasis stared at her, confused. The dream had been realistic enough to disorient him, and he was having a difficult time grasping hold of reality again. He blinked and looked around, reassuring himself he wasn’t about to be washed away.

“Tas?”

Tasis startled again at Zaree’s concerned voice. “Um, yes. I heard you. I’ll change clothes and be right with you.”

Zaree crossed the room and sat on the edge of his bed, the look in her eyes speaking of her worry as she put a hand to his forehead as if checking for a fever. “You aren’t coming down with something, are you? Are you all right?”

Tasis felt his lips twist before he could stop himself, and sighed. “Aside from going to my mother’s funeral? I’m just dandy.”

“Look, if you want to talk….”

Tasis grabbed hold of Zaree’s hand and leaned forward so his forehead was resting on her shoulder. “No, not really. Not yet, anyway. Give me a few days to let the shock wear off first, and then we’ll talk about it.”

He felt Zaree nod in agreement and leaned back against his pillows to let her up. She stood, smiling as she bent over him to kiss his forehead, and left the room.

Tasis let out another sigh, burying his face in his hands for just a moment before forcing himself to get out of bed and dragging his feet to his wardrobe. A flicker of memory crossed his mind as he stood there, one involving his mother asking him to wear green when she died because it was her favorite color. She’d distinctly forbidden him to wear black. “I don’t want you to spend so much of your life in mourning black like I did,” she’d told him. “Green. It has to be green. You’ll do that for me, won’t you?”

Tasis squeezed his eyes shut, refusing to give in to another bout of tears. He had plenty of time to break down after his mother’s final wishes were carried out. For now he had to focus. With that in mind, he looked through the contents of his wardrobe for something green.

An hour later, as he stood on the deck of the boat that would carry his mother’s body to its final resting place, he reminded himself of those words, that there would be plenty of time to cry later. He wished those words would actually do something to stop the tears dripping down his face as he looked off into the distance, staring at the water and almost wishing the gigantic wave he’d dreamed about really would swallow him up.

It was kind of a shame, he noted to himself, that he would probably never look at a boat ride the same way again. Between his love of the ocean and Zaree’s heritage, it was no wonder he’d spent nearly as much time on the water as he had on the land. Once Zaree had been deemed old enough to captain a boat as per her people’s customs, she and Tasis were on land as little as possible.

Tasis tore his eyes away from the calm surface to glance over to where Zaree helmed the boat, looking grim. If possible, Tasis hurt worse for her than he did for himself. Zaree had never known the mother who birthed her, and Evina had filled that hole in her life from an early age. In essence, Zaree had also lost a mother today.

“This is a good spot,” Zaree said, her hard voice making Tasis wince a little. “Drop the anchor, will you?”

Once they were certain the boat was anchored securely, they had no choice but to turn their attention to the wooden stretcher on deck with them, a wrapped bundle laid out on top. Tasis had been making a valiant effort to avoid looking at the shroud containing his mother’s body, but he forced himself to crouch down at the head of the wrappings and undo the knots holding the end in place. He pulled the fabric back to get one last look at his mother’s face. Evina looked serene in death, and Tasis could almost believe she was merely asleep.

Tasis’s face contorted as he tried to keep a grip on his emotions, and he looked up at Zaree with an agonized expression. Zaree crouched down next to him to tie the knots back into place. When she stood again, she offered Tasis her hand. As one, they turned to the sea.

“You write such beautiful poetry,” Evina’s voice echoed in Tasis’s memory. “Will you write something for me after I’m gone, maybe recite it at my funeral? It would make me happy knowing your beautiful words would send me to where my body rests….”

Tasis closed his eyes against the pain, collecting himself for a moment before he forced his eyes open again and began to utter the words he’d written down only days prior. He’d never gotten a chance to read the poem to Evina, but he held hope his mother could hear the words now.

 

My soul glows brightly now,

A flame protected from wind and rain.

I laugh as I run through the grass,

Barefoot and free.

The grass laughs with me in joy.

 

When my soul begins to dim,

The wind beginning to drive in the cold,

I will lay myself down and remember

Days in the sun,

Running barefoot and free.

The joy will remain.

 

When my soul becomes dark,

And the rain has taken its toll,

What then?

Will you weep at the memory of what was,

Or will you laugh with the memory of joy that remains?

 

Don’t weep for me,

Shed not a tear for the darkness.

In your heart, my soul still shines—

A beacon of joy forever.

 

SILENCE FELL between the two of them, though Zaree’s hold on his hand tightened. It seemed like a long time before a gull’s cry from overhead pulled Zaree from her stillness. “If we don’t do it now, we’ll never be able to,” she said, her voice quivering so hard Tasis wanted to let out a sob for her.

Together, they picked up the stretcher and its precious cargo. Tasis thought fleetingly that it was almost frightening how little his mother weighed after months of illness. He was grateful, in a way. If she hadn’t weighed so little, he and Zaree might have had to bring other people with them to help carry out what needed to be done, and they hadn’t wanted that. Especially given how the people in town felt about both Evina and him.

When the stretcher was in place, they tilted it slowly, and the weighted burial shroud holding his mother slid into the water neatly. In a way that was what made it real to Tasis. Zaree and he only had each other now.

Don’t worry. Everything will be made right. Thank you for the poem. I knew it would be beautiful.

Evina’s voice, growing fainter with every word, sounded as if it were right behind him. He whirled around only to be reminded that, aside from Zaree, there was no one else on the boat.

“What is it?” Zaree asked him, looking more distressed than she already had.

Tasis shook his head, turning his attention back to the ocean to watch as his mother’s body sank too deep for him to see. “It’s nothing.”

Nothing, Tasis thought, aside from possibly losing his mind.