XXIX.

The silence unnerved him. He called her again and again, yet the only thing that met him was nothing. The trees were too knotted and tangled for him to see much from above: even the bright blue, snaking stream were mostly veiled by thickets. He reached out to Jiube instead, only to find it making some incomprehensible cries. He was already hurrying, the grayish hue upon the trees darkened menacingly with the death of distance, still he was aimless without any hint of the two’s whereabouts. He considered asking the trees, but found too many of them withered — the ones still alive were too bitter to be any help — and so he landed by the convergence of the blue snake into the larger lake.

What happened here? It was as though someone plucked off the sun and the void in its place sucked away all life to compensate for the brilliance stolen. Aldebaran dared to stoop and examine the palmful of lake water he gathered in his hand, a hauntingly empty splash as it rejoined the rest of its body with a paranoia as though it feared being forever suspended from the rest of itself. Like iron to a magnet, a moth to a fire, the last droplet shot into the still lake like an arrow. As he watched the sombre ripple from the strange crash of violence, he formed a mild hypothesis. He circled the lake in search of clues to support his guess, tracked the scripts to a dialogue he missed. He nearly tripped over a root he swore wasn’t there before.

He retraced the root, found its owner, and wondered: by the bank of the lake perched the withered, wooden form. Graceful branches that used to provide an idyllic frame to the glowing sapphire snapped, crooked with angles sharpened by death. Dried leaves littered its feet, a speckled matt of yellow and rotten brown. Aldebaran placed a hesitant hand upon the dried bark, and fresh remembrances and tragedy poured forth. The story, the love, the men that came and took it away, then…then the accomplice of the crime, a Nokshan like him…the Nokshan he just sought with bright blue plumes and a tortured mind.

She was here.

The idea of the proximity, his imagination twisting the gentle sun’s rays baking the dried barks to be warmth from her touch, her hand, his sister’s hand.

Wait, he was looking for Lyra. And Jiube. The present has enough troubles of its own and saved very little space for dreams. So, he tore himself away, allowing himself to notice the haphazard prints telling stories in the drying mud

Ah. Of course.

With one last glance at the willow as he attempted to commit its place to memory, he followed the mess past the dried earth or hints or disorder or a stick snapped, too fresh, “Jiube, li di duaya?” The inquiry fell on deaf ears. “Lyra?”

Suddenly, a hollow screech rung out, bouncing off the equally hollowed trees. He leapt off for the source, swallowing the unpleasant taste of suppressed panic, “Lyra!” THe runes about his neck smarted, he ducked an ill intentioned branch. As he ran it seem as though the world was on fire. THe sky screamed an orange blood and him of unwelcomed remembrances. A blur of movement by the corner of his eyes, unnatural blue teased before it disappeared again. He took after it, the skeletons of trees the only witnesses to his stupidity. It egged him on, the deafening roar of laughter from the fallen leaves carpeting the floor, the root glued to their treacherous places to trip and maim.

The blue of blue again. But this time, he distrusted his eyes, for he saw not the dress of a water nymph as he assumed, but plumes of a bluejay. “Eridani?” The blue was far gone. He gave chase. The dead trees took a new hue, the leaves flesh and blood: for he ran in a nightmare. There was the tree, its enormous trunk that takes a good number of the village to circle. Its stair-like roots and their jade mirrors beckoned.

He blinked, gasped.

There he was before him, that same old bastard with his demonic sword and his filthy hand grabbing his father by the hair. Powerless, like before he was frozen in his place, powerless.

“Al…de…look away…look…a…way.”

No, no, nonono, not again. It can’t be.

“Close…you…r…eyes….do–” As he blinked the egret wings were gone, and in their place bluejay.

“Bro…ther…A-hya…”

No.

The blade raised, a clash of silence, it falls. He killed his scream.

“Aldebaran!”

The illusions, who casted them? For he saw now, he saw. There was no mercenary, just a tree thicker than the others, the blue but the body of the water nymph and the cursed man no other than Lyra. But she had no sword, no head rolled. The nymph drew herself close together, sitting on a protruding root embraced by a whirlwind of regret.

Lyra winced as she stooped, the gash on her arm still running scarlet, “It’s alright…” She didn’t like her own attempt at comfort. “It’s…over.”

It was raining. Aldebaran somehow never noticed it before, but he was glad. Rain disguises things.

The nymph was studying her hands, now, “It’s over.” She tested the words. “He’s gone…”

To that neither could say much. The rain pattered on all about them to fill their silence. The nymph looked up, caught her kin falling from the sky. “He’s…gone…” She tested those words again, told the raindrops, and they wept with her.

At that, Aldebaran helped Lyra onto her feet, and quietly they began to leave.

“Lyra,” The voice was the note of rain on dried earth. “Thank…you.”

She nodded, looking over her shoulder one last time at the nymph praying for the rain to flood and thanking the earth that it will before following Aldebaran out of the dead wilderness altogether.

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