Desperate Times: part 7

Author: Andorus
Rating: PG-13


Disclaimer: Ren, Ioz, Tula, Niddler, the Wraith, the Maelstrom, Bloth, the constrictus, all his pirates, the Dark Water, the Dark Dweller, Octopon, Mer, even the goija–they’re all HB/WB’s property. The main things that are mine are Serril and Cherni, and the, er, “new addition” at the end.

Author’s Notes: Same as always; comments are totally welcome.
I don’t really know at what point in the quest this story takes place (except that it’s obviously after the end of the series, and it’s a bit further along afterwards, without being at the very end). I hope this came out okay–I’ve been trying to figure out how to resolve this properly for some time now, and it hit me a couple of weeks ago when lying awake at 3 AM and trying to fall asleep. I’m in the middle of final exams now, but the worst is passed, so I’m giving myself some time off.
Oh, and I’m REALLY sorry about the monumental delay in getting this done! But at least it’s done now, though; this is the final segment of this story, and I hope you all think it was worth the wait. ^^; Maybe I’ll actually get around to finishing off “Fun with Fangirls”… O:o)

As always, thanks for reading, and may the Force be with you.

*     *     *     *     *

Ren and Serril had reached a dead end. A wide river of Dark Water cut a dark and burbling swath into the already bleak and shadowed landscape enclosing them on all sides, stretching out as far as they could see to either side. It seemed impassible, and even if they had crossed it, the opposite bank and the obscured land looked remarkably similar to the grounds they’d crossed already.

Ren swore under his breath, but wouldn’t allow himself to panic just yet. There had to be a way out, somehow. But before he could even begin to sort out any semblance of a plan, there was a rushing sensation and the speed of the Dark Water river increased, and the Dark Dweller burst from the thick and viscous liquid, its red eyes gleaming in triumph as it surveyed its prisoners. Its prey.

“Your luck has finally run out,” it intoned, smug satisfaction literally oozing from its voice. “Surrender to me now, and I shall make your end swift and–“ It stopped to consider for a brief moment. “Relatively painless,” it amended, its blood-red smile widening dangerously.

Before Ren could even answer, Serril saved him the trouble. “Never!” she burst out fiercely. We’d never surrender to you, you monster! We’re leaving here alive, and whole!”

“Stupid fools!” it returned savagely. “What makes you think you both can leave here unharmed, or leave here at all? Your power alone is enough to strengthen my army of Dark Water for ages to come! Do not be so presumptuous as to assume I am going to let you slip from my grasp so easily! And as for the Son of Primus–“ It shifted as to loom a bit more over Ren than over Serril, and he felt a chill run down his spine at the brutal conviction he sensed emanating from it. “He has caused me enough damage. He shall not leave here unharmed, if I permit him to leave at all…” It broke off suddenly, and shifted again. “But enough of this talk. You two are mine!”

And once again, it struck before they could even react.

Or rather, before Ren could. Serril somehow had managed to move at a startling pace, seeming to half-leap, half-fly, to her right, away from Ren and the rain of Dark Water that poured down from above. There was a rock wall some distance away, but she managed to sprint there, her feet barely touching the ground, and she sprinted up the wall, as if guided by some unseen and mystical force.

Ren had tried to dodge, but had become completely engulfed in the choking, claustrophobic substance. He fought to move, and fought and fought, and finally freed one arm, reaching up towards–something he could sense was there but couldn’t quite see. The Dark Water had taken him almost instantly–he hadn’t seen what had happened to Serril.

And almost without realizing it, his other hand went grabbing for the Compass still hanging around his neck.

Serril, pausing to perch on the wall for a moment, like some creature of the darkness, closed her eyes and let her instincts guide her. She suddenly, for the first time in a long time, felt warm, felt able to do something other than heal the Dark Dweller’s victims or keep running.

Ren’s hand, grasping for anything as it stayed suspended above the Dark Water, felt a rush of air, like sea air rising off the waters on a warm summer day.

He felt the Compass stir–

Serril leaped, fearing nothing, aiming straight for Ren’s outstretched hand.

And there was a burst of light, brighter than anything the Chamber of Lost Souls had seen for eons. It took them all.

* * * * *

Cherni felt a surge of power from beneath her feet, from thousands upon thousands of meters below the surface of the ocean. It was raw and untrained, but it was unmistakably familiar, still, after all these years. Lil’ sis.

Tula had felt the surge of raw ecomantic strength from far below as well, but she felt a very familiar presence coupled with it that made her stagger a step back. Ren.

She knew it was no trick. Her senses didn’t and couldn’t deceive her. But what if it was a trick somehow, till? But–how could she know about–

The two adversaries eyed each other warily as the thought entered both of their minds. If it was a trick…then it made victory all the more necessary, as the other was obviously a deadly adversary, with the power of mental manipulation.

Tula took a deep breath and stretched out with her senses, feeling life thrum through the ocean and the air around her, and feeling that force feed back into her, rejuvenating and refreshing and asking nothing in return.

Conversely, Cherni couldn’t help but pull from the severe ache in her heart that had surfaced upon sensing her sister, her disdain of her surroundings, her grim determination to best the only person who could even come close to rivaling her. There was no room for error, no room for a tie. Not with all this power. Sharing wasn’t an option.

She felt the familiar sensation of heaviness set in on her shoulders and frame, but used it as something to push against and made herself stand upright, lifting her chin in defiance of her adversary.

And as one, the two women reached, and struck.

The ragtag pirates of the Maelstrom scattered hastily as a fierce wind blew those who were unprepared helter-skelter, and ran for cover as the clouds directly above the Maelstrom turned dark much too quickly for the churning, building storm to be natural.

Cherni was glowing a milky-white, deceptively dull color. Tula was glimmering in electric blue radiance. The wind picked up, with barrels and crates not battened down properly sliding and then tumbling headlong off the deck, hundreds of meters away into the calm oceans. Thunder rumbled, and a different sort of electricity–lightning–crackled in shades of blue and yellow and orange across the clouds and into the ocean all around the ship.

The water around the Maelstrom started to churn, and waves started to form, growing higher and higher, finally splashing across the high decks of the Maelstrom. Niddler came to first as the icy waters gave him a good smack across the face–his vision was blurred, his mind disoriented–but when he sorted himself out, he still couldn’t quite place what he was seeing.

Ioz came to a moment later, but he understood instantly. “Oh, no,” he whispered.

Cherni’s face was elevated, her arms raised, eyes closed, expression focused but still twisted by some internal rage fueling her onward. The wind was billowing Tula’s long, dark hair out behind her. Her eyes were closed, hands to her temples, face calm but intent.

The waters were raging now, and the boat was spinning slowly as the waters began to pull it along. Ioz felt the wind turn warm, then icy cold, then warm again–and his stomach clenched, a moment before he saw the spiraling towers of water cascade up from the depths towards the churning sky. Waterspout–no, two–three–

Cherni’s eyes flew open, and her arms suddenly came flying down. But Tula had felt the telltale prickle on her skin, felt the crackle, felt the hairs on her arms begin to stand on end–and the lightning storm fell around her, bolt after bolt of dazzling blue-white electric death dancing in a circle, crackling and sizzling and burning and missing her entirely. She stood in the eye of their storm, calm and seemingly oblivious to the painful and blinding death waiting her if she so much as stumbled by one or two steps in any direction. But between the bolts, Ioz’s eyes were fixed intently on her face, on her body, and he could tell from very subtle signs she was showing through her posture or through minor quirks in her expression that it was taxing her, and that she couldn’t keep this up for much longer.

She called one of the waterspouts down, having it grow and bend to brush across the deck of the Maelstrom to sweep Cherni into the raging ocean all around, and then she called the other one. But the eco-witch leaped, using the strong winds given off by the aquatic tornadoes to propel herself into the air, away from the spouts entirely, and hovered there.

With a single sweep of her hand, the nearest spout dissolved into a deluge of rain that further soaked the already wet decks below. Tula called the winds towards the other two and built those up and sent them after her again, just as Cherni redoubled her efforts to push the ring of lightning in on Tula–

The wall of the waterspout clipped Cherni and she fell, the wind pushing her down savagely, onto her arm, just as one of the bolts hit Tula’s leg–went through her leg–and she fell to one knee, her concentration and her strength truly wavering. Cherni staggered to her feet, clutching at her right arm, which hung limply, her face twisted in pain at the fracture or fractures the fall had incurred.

Cherni and Tula lifted their heads at the same moment and exchanged a long and wordless look. Everyone watching knew that something passed between them. Cherni’s straw-blonde hair was plastered to her pale forehead, her eyes were glowing bright red, and her slight form, still glowing milky white but now sagging, was still standing, although dubiously. The ends of Tula’s thick head of hair were singed, a good half foot or so clearly ravaged by the lightning. The lightning had cauterized the wound, so she shed no blood, but her leg was useless. She was trembling, sweating, her bangs stuck to her skin by her perspiration. She was pale but her cheeks were flushed. Her eyes were wide and a clear blue-green, and the electric energy of her powers was still crackling and shimmering around her.

“What’s happening?” Niddler whispered to Ioz, almost fearful of even speaking.

It took Ioz a minute to find his voice. Never had he seen such a mighty display of power–the heavens and the sky and the sea were completely within their grasp, and he felt suddenly very humbled, and almost afraid to speak as well. He also had never truly realized what Tula was capable of until that moment.

“The next exchange will decide who wins,” he explained in a hoarse whisper, the lightning circling Tula giving his features a haunted look, and then hesitated and swallowed. “And who dies. They know that they both can’t win, or work out any kind of truce. There’s much more at stake here than what meets the eye.”

Tula, eyes still locked with Cherni’s, clenched her jaw…and levered herself up, coming to stand on her left leg, ignoring the fiery dance of death circling close around her trembling and battered form.

And then there was another surge of power, one that every single creature aboard the Maelstrom felt. The illusory veil of darkness that had fallen over the deck, over the combatants and the witnesses, began to dissipate as something deep below them stirred, shining a fiery warmth and light that spread fast and far. And then they actually saw the light, as the waters below and around the Maelstrom took on an eerie blue glow not brought on by any phosphorescent sea creatures that lurked in the depths. And then–a silent explosion that simultaneously blinded and dazzled all as pure light exploded from the sea in all directions.

As the light faded, the waters stirred again, but just in one location, fifty or so meters from the Maelstrom. They churned and spun faster and faster, forming a whirlpool whose center glowed with the same light that had just filled the sky–and then it exploded upward, a column of glowing water…and the water subsided, falling back to the sea below, but something else was hovering there in its wake.

The explosion of light had dissolved more than just the darkness; it had taken the build-up of power with it, leaving the two combatants exhausted and shivering from the strain. There was no more wind or lightning to distract them or their audience, so every being on the main deck of the Maelstrom saw the two figures suspended in midair at the same moment.

Despite the distance, it was instantaneous. Ioz, Tula, and Niddler recognized one just as Cherni recognized the other.

Serril was floating there, her face lifted to the heavens, her eyes closed, in fierce concentration. In her arms was Ren, lying unconscious. They now were floating towards the Maelstrom, away from the now-receding whirlpool, drawing closer and closer until nobody on the deck could mistake who they were. The resemblance between Serril and Cherni was unmistakable, and of course they all recognized Ren on sight.

Simultaneously, Cherni and Tula’s concentration on each other shattered, and the tension mounting all around them vanished in the space of a heartbeat as the wind and the lightning dissipated. Tula finally wavered and fell to her knees, tears of simultaneous effort and pain and relief and worry sliding down her face without her realizing it. She was overwhelmed, her senses singing as she realized that the girl carrying Ren was a powerful ecomancer with an untrained, raw, almost wild gift.

Ioz moved to go to his fallen comrades, but realized his ropes were holding him back, just as Niddler squawked involuntarily as he tried to do the same. The ropes dug into Ioz’s cuts, and he clenched his teeth against the pain of the fibers rubbing against his wounded flesh.

This simple sound and movement snapped Tula out of her awestruck stupor, and she turned towards her friends. A glint of silver out of the corner of her eye caught her attention–Ioz’s sword, unattended and unnoticed by the gathered audience. She summoned a bit of wind–realizing how utterly exhausted she was–and pushed the sword towards them, lifted it, let it fall against the ropes between Ioz and Niddler, slicing through them cleanly and freeing them.

The boards creaked, and all turned as Bloth rose to his feet. “What magic is this?” he hissed, standing unsteadily, in control of his senses but still a bit dazzled by the elemental display moments earlier.

Ioz and Tula exchanged a startled look. “Bloth, don’t–” Ioz protested feebly, but it was to no avail. Bloth had noticed Ren, like the rest of them, and he was unwounded, and much closer to the boy than they were. He advanced, wordless for once, drawing his sword.

Serril’s feet were touching the deck, and she was sinking to her knees, gently and almost reverently depositing Ren’s unconscious form in front of her. As Bloth’s form drew nearer, her head snapped up, her eyes glowing a ferocious blue-green.

A sudden gust of wind threw Bloth forward and seemed to yank his sword from his hands. The wind suddenly reversed, throwing him backwards into Mantus and Konk, and shoving them precariously close to the constrictus pit…and the gate covering the mouth of the pit started to come open. And the constrictus took note, and started hissing and lunging upwards, at the prey it sensed nearby. Bloth and his cronies caught their balance, but suddenly Bloth’s sword was there, hovering in midair, pointed straight at his chest. Serril jerked her head left and right slightly, and the sword moved with her, pointing at Mantus and then at Konk, before assuming its central guard.

Bloth was visibly nervous, despite his best attempts to conceal it. “Well–what are you waiting for, men?” he barked after a moment’s hesitation. “Finish them off!”

But nobody moved. The display of power had convinced them that crossing the wills of the sorceresses before them would not be to their advantages, and Bloth knew that ordering them onward again would do no good. The constrictus was behind him, his freshly sharpened sword was just before him, and he faced the wrath of no less than two powerful ecomancers if he somehow evaded those.

For the first time, he was helpless to act.

Ioz, ignoring the searing pain and the blood still seeping from his wounds, helped Tula to her feet, and Niddler, nursing nothing worse than a bad headache, stepped in between them, supporting both of them as best as he could, and the three of them moved across the deck in unison. They moved slowly, but steadily, a silent entourage approaching their fallen friend, the air around them tinged with exhaustion and anxiety and uncertainty and dread.

Tula dimly noticed that, as if she were attached to a rope that was slowly being drawn in by Serril, Cherni was moving towards her–sister? The resemblance was obviously there, but…

And then Serril’s strength finally started wavering, she started trembling as she lost control over her body as exhaustion began to set in, and the sword in the air drooped. Just a bit. But it was what Bloth was waiting for, and it was all that he needed.

“No!” Cherni and Tula screamed in unison as the pirate lord lunged forward with a snarl, hand reaching for the sword’s hilt.

As his fingers started to close around the metal, Cherni raised her hand and viciously ripped it to the left and up in a semicircle. The sword followed, looping down and cleanly slicing through Bloth’s forearm, severing it. The pirate lord howled in pain and staggered back several steps, clutching at the stump of his arm as blood came pouring out of it and spilling silently to the deck in a grotesque cascade–but he straightened and took a step towards them.

Cherni was completely spent now. Her knees gave out and buckled and she collapsed, trembling feebly.

Suddenly there was an explosion from below the water, where Serril and Ren had emerged several moments before. A shadowy darkness surged up and out from the icy, salty depths–and then they saw the glowing red eyes and the jagged, tear-like mouth, and they realized in unison that the Dark Dweller had risen.

Serril and Cherni exchanged a fearful look, and Tula sensed something subtle pass between them.

“I do not know what you did to me, girl,” it raged at Serril’s prone figure on the deck, “but I will now ensure that you will never get a chance to do it again!”

It loomed, spreading higher and wider, until it seemed to fill the entire sky itself.

“We have to pool our strength!” Tula breathed, more for Serril and Cherni’s benefit than theirs, while forcing away the exhaustion threatening to consume her at any moment. She and Ioz and Niddler knelt by the prince and the rogue ecomancers.

Serril seemed filled with a renewed determination, as did her sister–and Tula did realize that they were sisters now, from the emanations she felt and from the way they carried themselves and behaved towards each other. Ren’s companion clasped her hands over his chest, over the Compass.

It occurred to Ioz and Tula that they didn’t have the Treasures with them–but for some reason, that didn’t seem to matter as much.

One by one, they placed their hands over Serril’s–except for Cherni, who knelt behind her sister and placed her hand on the girl’s shoulder, her broken arm hanging limply at her side, and except for Ioz, who placed one hand over Tula’s and the other on her back, and except for Niddler, who wrapped his wings around all of them, seeming to close their tightly-knit circle. Only a few seconds had passed, but with the Dark Dweller’s immense, oppressive, evil presence, it felt like hours.

And then, the creature dove, and completely engulfed the Maelstrom.

Concentrate, Tula was thinking, as all her other senses were completely robbed of function as the Dark Water surged around and over them. All she could feel were her hands, holding Serril’s, and Ioz’s arms all but holding her. She could barely even sense their presences, and was lucky to feel hers. The darkness was everywhere–it was absolute, neverending–she couldn’t see, smell, move, she could barely breathe–

And then something somewhere changed.

There was a pale glow, but even the palest of light broke sharply through the complete dark that had encased all of them. It was feeble, but it was something for Tula to latch onto. She focused on it, pouring all her energy and her thoughts and everything she could still sense of herself into it, and felt the others do the same. And as they did, the glow grew brighter.

It was the glow of the power of the Treasures of Rule.

The hum was there, too, that regal ringing that heralded the immense power within those small objects, and as they listened, it grew in volume bit by bit. It sounded muffled, as if something were trying to block it from being heard.

There was a spasm in the darkness, and then a silent burst–and the light and the ring were everywhere. It illuminated all of them, and unconsciously, they all leaned in closer, to feed the power more, though they still couldn’t quite pinpoint where it was coming from.

All around them, the Dark Water was churning fitfully–it didn’t like this. It hadn’t expected this–it had thought they didn’t have any Treasures of Rule with them.

But they didn’t…

The light grew sharper, more penetrating, and they all suddenly felt warmer, more alive, and were able to use their senses again. All around them, Dark Water was struggling desperately to push forward into the little orb of light surrounding them, but any time it pressed forward, it dissolved into the purplish, fizzing foam that they all recognized.

Concentrate.

The light grew brighter still, blindingly bright, and their vision was overcome by this brilliant, powerful, radiant blue that overtook everything. They could sense it pulsing and surging outwards, consuming all the Dark Water it touched and transforming it to the purple foam, signifying dying Dark Water, if the substance could ever really be considered alive to begin with. They could sense it spreading across the massive deck of the Maelstrom, spreading up and down, catching all the Dark Water that had slipped into every crevice and crack of the ship and doing away with all of it.

And then it spread upwards, further still, and went after the essence of the Dark Dweller.

They only dimly heard its anguished, resounding scream, very faintly beyond the Treasure-ring, which was as deafening as the glow was bright. The scream went on for several moments before it halted abruptly, and everything went still.

There was nothing but the light and the sound, but even those seemed to fade into the background as a sort of eerie, still silence set in. Nobody could see or hear anything, not even the blue or the ring…everything was motionless, almost lifeless, but there was something hanging in the air, something profound and powerful, some strange and strong emotion.

After moments that felt like days passed…everything came back to normal. The light faded, the sound seemed to just turn off…

The Dark Dweller, and every trace of evidence pointing to his visit, was gone.

Ioz and Tula and Niddler cautiously lifted their heads, almost afraid to move, looking at each other, unable to formulate their thoughts into words. As one, they drew in a deep breath, feeling energy return to their weakened bodies, and looked at Ren, and realized that Serril and Cherni had vanished.

What did remain, though, was a jewel resting on Ren’s chest. It was a pale watery blue, but the middle glowed with an internal fire that pulsated and shifted all across the spectrum.

It took them a moment for it to sink in. When it did, Tula drew in a slow, shaking breath. Ioz’s hand over hers tightened so hard that she feared he would break her fingers. Niddler finally was the one who voiced it.

“That’s–the next Treasure of Rule, isn’t it?” he ventured, his voice soft and tentative.

Before any of them could reply, Ren stirred. His hand groped at his chest, finding the Compass and the hands of his friends–and then it closed around the brilliant jewel.

His eyes fluttered open, and he lifted the jewel slightly, so that he could see it more clearly.

“Serril,” he whispered.

His eyes flooded with tears.

With a monumental effort, Tula pulled her hand from Ioz’s and shifted to help him sit up. The look on Ren’s face betrayed his thoughts–he looked hollow, but his posture slumped, as if a great weight had settled over his shoulders. His jaw clenched and he squeezed his eyes shut against the tears that fell anyway as he clasped the Treasure tightly in his fist.

“Ren, lad,” Ioz whispered gravely, placing his hand on the boy’s shoulder. At that simple touch, Ren crumpled. Tula put her arms around him as he slumped against her, cradling his head against her chest, trying to exude a comforting aura.

Niddler was the first to shake himself out of this awestruck reverie. He lifted his head and peered around the deck. All the pirates, Bloth included, were lying unconscious, strewn across the deck in what seemed to be a rather unnatural sleep.

“Maybe we should get back to the Wraith, where it’s safer,” he suggested gently.

Unable to think of anything to say, the others wordlessly agreed.

* * * * *

A week had passed. Ren had come out of his grief-stricken shell a bit since then, and asked the others if they could return to Octopon, to which they readily agreed.

Along the way, he had finally begun to open up.

“She spoke to me in my dreams,” he said suddenly, startling them all from the silence which had fallen upon the ship during the voyage. “She told me everything. She said she didn’t have much time, and she apologized for not telling me before, but she never had been sure until she saw her sister again and the Dark Dweller came.”

He was sitting on a trunk on the starboard side of the ship, gazing out to sea. Ioz and Niddler, the former whose torso wounds had been bound by the latter, were manning the sails, and exchanged a look with Tula, who, with her leg out of commission until she could see a healer, was manning the helm with her injured leg propped up and in a splint to avoid putting more strain on it. The former two abandoned the ropes and pulled barrels up next to Ren.

“She and her sister possessed halves of one of the Treasures of Rule,” he said, confirming the others’ suspicions. “They don’t know how they got there, but they think that they got them when the Dark Dweller broke free from the center of the planet. And when we put the Treasures into the lighthouse, the energy that was given off woke up the pieces within each of them, or rather, it made them realize what was going on. They were rogue ecomancers–they were two of the many illegitimate daughters of Salamantha.”

He glanced up at Tula, who felt a chill run down her spine at his words. Her hypothesis was indeed correct, then.

“Serril ended up in the Chamber of Lost Souls because she, her sister–Cherni–and their father–the three of them were on a fishing trip. The girls loved their father–he didn’t abandon them after Salamantha cast them off. He stayed and raised them as best as he could under the circumstances. But their boat was the first one attacked by the Dark Water. They’d never seen anything like it before. They were all thrown overboard and Serril was pulled down, but Cherni and their father escaped. He’d been injured from the fall, and Cherni did everything she could to keep him alive, but they were pretty far out to sea, and he died not much later. She eventually found her way to shore and made a life for herself, and built up a reputation in this part of Mer as the planet’s new eco-witch, and when Bloth came by a port she was in and posted notices for hiring new pirates, she offered her services. She wanted to get back at the Dark Water any way that she could, and she knew Bloth was after the Treasures. She didn’t care about his reputation–she felt that the ends justified the means. She was the one that attacked you and called the wind on you, Tula. But–she apologizes; she didn’t mean anything personal by it. It was just a job for her.”

Tula had reached a hand up to her still-sore throat, fingering it lightly at his words. She swallowed the lump in her throat and nodded wordlessly.

“Serril–” Ren’s voice caught just at her name. “She lived on the food and cargo from the ships the Dark Water brought down. She managed to go undetected because the power of the part of the Treasure inside her shielded her from the Dark Dweller, sort of like a self-defense mechanism. That is, she went undetected until she helped me.” His composure faltered for a moment, but he forced himself onward. “When the Dark Dweller pulled me down–it encased me in Dark Water, and tortured me, broke so many bones in my body and mangled me so much that I thought I was going to die. But she found me, and she healed me, completely. I–I still can’t explain it–”

“You’ve developed a bond with the Treasures,” Ioz pointed out gruffly. “We’ve all seen it. It could be that it’s internalized itself to the point that they’re a part of you, and the Treasure inside her gave her the power to heal you.”

Ren looked startled, then introspective, and he finally nodded slowly, fingering the Treasure unconsciously. He hadn’t let go of it since they acquired it. “I think you’re right,” he said at last. “Anyway–she completely healed me, and then the Dark Dweller found us–and it called her immortal–probably because with a piece of the Treasure inside her, there was no way she could die. It would’ve kept her alive, maybe even healed her–and because its power is so absolute and eternal, it made sure its carrier was, too.”

He went on and explained everything else that happened, up until the Dark Water engulfed them and he felt Serril’s hand and the power coming from her.

“And then I got knocked out, and didn’t feel anything until I woke up on the Maelstrom’s deck,” he continued soberly. “I felt these surges of power, this warmth–and that must have been her, and her tie with the Treasures.”

“That would explain how she was able to escape the Chamber of Lost Souls,” Tula added thoughtfully, softly.

He went on. “And then I heard her voice–her and her sister, but mainly her.” He drew in a deep, steadying breath. “She and her sister realized that the best way for them to do anything to stop the Dark Water would be to help us. Meaning, to give us their power. And the only way they could do that was to give us the Treasure. So–they put all their energy into the power of the Treasure that they could feel, and kept making it stronger and stronger. And in the end–they sacrificed themselves. They pushed everything they could of themselves into the Treasure, making it material while they themselves vanished.”

He looked down at the Treasure, still pulsing warmly in his palm, and shook his head miserably. “I feel like this is my fault, like there was something I could do to stop them–” he began.

“Don’t,” Ioz and Tula interjected sharply, then exchanged a glance. Tula let Ioz continue. “You can’t blame yourself for their decision,” he persisted. “If anything, they were probably right. Having one unified Treasure would do more against the Dark Water than having two people with its power divided between them. You know the old saying: a single goija will easily fall into a sea serpent’s jaws, but a school will send the serpent looking for its mother’s nest.”

Ren wasn’t convinced. Tula finally abandoned the helm and limped down to join them. She knelt in front of Ren, peering imploringly into his eyes.

“You cared about Serril, didn’t you?” she questioned softly.

He looked at her, startled and almost guilty, a flush crossing his face. “I promised her,” he went on after a moment’s hesitation. “I promised I wouldn’t let the Dark Dweller hurt her, and that I’d take her back to Octopon, where she’d be safe.” He swallowed painfully. “I never thought this would happen–”

“Neither did she,” Tula pointed out. “She didn’t think she’d see her sister again. Cherni looked just as surprised to see her as we were to see you. We–we thought you were dead. We were sure the Dark Dweller would have killed you.”

“He would have,” he agreed, “if she hadn’t been there to save me. But–I couldn’t save her–”

A heavy, uncomfortable silence fell among them. Finally, Ioz stood and came forward, kneeling beside Tula. “She would want you to do what’s right, and to use what she’s given you to best of your ability,” he pointed out. “Taking the Treasure to Octopon is the best thing you can do. It will weaken the Dark Dweller in a way that the Treasure by itself cannot–once again, the goija and the sea serpent. And it’s what she would have wanted you to do.”

Tula lifted her head and squinted at the horizon as something caught her eye. She couldn’t help but feel a pang at the shift in Ren’s emotions, but the realization that he didn’t care for her in that way didn’t hit her nearly as hard as she thought it would.

After a moment’s gazing at the horizon, she stood up, and then nodded to herself. What had caught her eye was the beam of the Octopon lighthouse. They weren’t far from the port at all now.

“We’re almost home,” she informed them quietly, making her way back up to the helm.

They all had seen the regret in her eyes, and watched her as she made her way to the steps. Niddler leapt up and flew to her, lifting her nimbly and setting her down by the helm.

Ren gazed at her for another moment, as she glanced down at them, and at him, for a moment, before returning her attention to the sea. He then glanced up at Ioz, who was also watching the ecomancer.

After another moment, Ioz finally glanced down at Ren, surprise crossing his face as he saw that the boy had been watching him. He glanced away, then at the distant gleam of the lighthouse, then back to Ren. The two exchanged a look that said more than words can say, and Ioz clapped his hand on Ren’s shoulder in a brotherly manner, finally breaking the look off and going to tend to the sails.

Ren looked across the ship, watching Ioz unfurl the sails and let the evening breeze guide them home, and watching Niddler change the dressing on Tula’s wound. He was alone with his thoughts once again.

Ioz is right, he finally admitted to himself reluctantly. She wouldn’t want me to be like this. And she understands. But this is the first time I’ve sworn something so important but haven’t been able to follow through…

He sighed, gazing out to sea as the shore began to appear in the distance as a dark line against the blue-green ocean, broken only by the constant glimmer of the lighthouse.

And she’s still here. His hand closed over the Treasure lying in his palm, but with a less desperate grasp. And I am returning her to Octopon. She deserved a better end than this, but she’d already suffered enough. This way, she’ll be a part of the restoration, of the healing, of the planet. And she’s with her sister again.

He remembered the warmth of her powers, the feel of her body pressing against his as she exerted her powers of healing, the one kiss they shared, and the one she gave him, with her whispers of reassurance and support, just before her body completely vanished, that he hadn’t told the others about.

Everything’s going to be all right. That’s what she herself told me, isn’t it? We’re alive, the Dark Dweller’s lost again, we got away from the Maelstrom and the Dark Water almost unscathed, and we’re one step closer to stopping the Dark Water once and for all.

He stood up and stretched, and looked down at the Treasure in his hand, and for the first time in a long time, he felt a faint but genuine smile crossing his face. We’re almost home.

Skip to toolbar