After extensive research and contacting tons of information brokers we were able to find out that Elisa hails from the colony of Occident. The journey there would be long and painstaking, mostly because we had to cross a large body of water. At least we had her location. Finding her there would be another challenge. Snow had fallen the entire night, coating the colony in a blanket of white that subsequently froze over, creating invisible patches of ice along the ground. It was magical. The house had been buzzing with energy since bright and early in the morning. Julian was hurriedly packing a variety of things from food and water to weapons. Ira sat looking stoic in a corner while Mariana chattered his ear off. Kali had been doing some kind of tai-chi very deliberately in the center of the living room for at least an hour, her balance and precision impeccable. I planned for a water vessel large enough for four to be left for us at the docks. All that was left to do was have a conversation with Ira. I huffed and stood from my perch on the steps and went to Ira.
“Ira. Can we talk?” I asked.
He gave me a weird look but shrugged, choosing to ignore whatever he saw in my head. “Yes. Let’s take a walk.” He went for the door and I followed, the two of us stepping out into the cold wordlessly. We waited until we were at least out of earshot of the house before speaking. “What’s going on?”
“I’m not really sure how to say this so I’ll just say it. You must go home. You can’t come on this trip. I’m sorry.”
“What do you mean I can’t come?” he asked, a twinge of hurt coloring his voice.
“You’ll only bring trouble being with us. You’re Jasper Collin’s son. We can’t afford to attract attention like that on a mission like this.” I shoved my hands deep into my pockets, sniffing as my nose began to run a bit from the cold. I wasn’t sure what else I could possibly say to make this better. Including Julian’s name in the conversation would only complicate things and I had neither the time nor patience for that kind of conflict. I just wanted this to be as painless as possible. “I hope you can understand.”
He looked straight ahead and nodded his head. “Alright.” He rubbed his hands together, letting out a long puff of breath that floated in the air around his face before dissipating. “If that’s what you think is best. You know where to find me when you guys gets back should you need anything.”
I reached out a hand and clapped him on the back lightly. As if we had the same idea, we both turned around and started back for the house. My ears were stinging and likely turning red from the frigid wind. I pulled my cloak tighter against my body. Our steps crunched in the snow, leaving packed footprints six inches deep. We hurried back up the steps and hardly brushed our boots off before shuffling inside, thankful for the excessive heat for once. Julian had 5 shot glasses lined up on the ground where the three of them sat watching our entrance. I grinned and plopped down beside Mariana, patting the spot beside me for Ira.
“What have we here?”
“Might as well warm ourselves up before the trek,” Julian said, cracking a slight smile.
“Mazel tov,” I said, grabbing a glass gladly and knocking back the liquid that burned its way down my esophagus and formed a blazing puddle in the pit of my stomach.
A few chuckles sounded and everyone grabbed a glass and did the same.
“Let’s move out,” Julian announced.
Everyone filed out, supply bags in hand—save for Ira. His hands were tucked into his coat pockets, eyes cast downward. At the bottom of the steps Mariana pulled him into a hug. Kali followed with a brief embrace of her own. I patted Ira’s shoulder with a sad smile.
“Be safe you guys,” he said.
Julian nodded. “We will. Thank you for your help finding my sister. I appreciate everything you’ve done thus far. Be safe on your journey home.”
Ira nodded and gave a wave before turning and disappearing into the thick veil of snow that had begun to fall profusely faster and faster as we stood around. When his figure all but disappeared, we turned in the opposite direction and headed for the docks. Hopefully this weather wouldn’t affect our nautical expedition too badly. We were quiet but our footsteps were loud. Like an out of tune orchestra, we marched, crunching through the now shin-deep snow. Not a soul in sight. I shifted the pack on my back, steeling myself against the harsh wind.
When the blizzard began to get more ferocious and the sky grew dark purple, Julian provided heat and light by conjuring a fireball in his hand. If the wind got too harsh it would sometimes engulf his hand, seemingly setting it on fire without ever leaving a scratch. The heat was impressive and the subtle warm glow of orange and red was almost soothing. It was reminiscent of a campfire. We took very few rest breaks if at all. The girls were strong and the fire kept them warm, so there was no need. My bracelet glowed incessantly. The green emanating from the charm mixed with the fiery glow from Julian’s right hand and the soft ginger glow from the dog tag on his neck. After a few hours, the wind finally died down, allowing us a breather from bracing against it. I breathed a sigh of relief, the warmth from the shot having dissipated at least 45 minutes ago.
“Shall we set up camp for the night? We won’t get much farther in this tonight and it’s gotten dark.” Kali asked, pointing to a nearby cave.
“That sounds like a great idea to me,” I said, already heading in that direction with Mariana’s hand in mine.
Filing into the cave, we gathered the bags in one corner and sat as far from the mouth of the cave as we could. Julian continued to provide heat, eliminating the need for us to go out and get firewood. After holding my breath for what seemed like an eternity, I leaned back, sighing heavily in the process. That’s when I felt it. This presence in the cave with us. It made my stomach crawl and the hairs on my neck stand on end. I didn’t mention it and remained silent. The temperature had dropped drastically. Julian’s flame had slowly begun to sputter out. Once. Twice. He glared at his hand defiantly as if he could will the flame to remain using the daggers shooting from his eyes. But, it didn’t. When it died, Mariana and I reached for each other in the darkness. I felt her warm embrace for about four seconds before I felt another icy pair of hands take hold of my shoulders and yank me backwards with such a force it felt like my soul had left my body and was being taken away—away from Mariana, away from the group, away from reality.
The last thing I heard was Mariana’s shrill, horrified scream of my name. With a deep, sudden inhale I braced myself. Digging my heels into the ground, I rocked up onto my feet and gripped the dirt, pushing myself full speed back towards the sound of her voice. My throat felt raw and painful like I had been screaming for hours. My eyes opened. Had they been closed? Sitting up, I scrambled to my feet, searching all around me for my assailant. I looked around the cramped space and saw nothing but the terror-stricken faces of my friends. My lip quivered. Mariana got to her feet and grabbed me by the arm tightly, her eyes searching mine for answers I couldn’t give. She gently brought me back to her spot and sat me down.
“You should sit down.”
When she didn’t sit, I looked back at where I’d been sitting to find a puddle of vomit. Not just any vomit. Mine. I quickly put a hand to my mouth and wiped. My fingers came away wet and I grimaced. How revolting. Using the hem of my cloak I wiped the remnants of my upchuck from my face.
“What the hell just happened?” Julian asked finally.
I looked at him, my jaw tight. “Something grabbed me. I don’t know what.”
“What do you mean something grabbed you?” Mariana asked.
“I don’t know how else to phrase something so literal. Something or someone grabbed me and started dragging me away! You were sitting right there! In my arms! And, I was ripped away! How could you have the audacity to ask me what I mean? Are you stupid?” I snapped.
I was fuming. I hadn’t meant for my voice to get so loud but before I knew it I was booming at her like a drill sergeant. My mouth was spouting off a mile a minute and before I knew it I had said much more than could be reparable with a simple “I’m sorry”.
“I didn’t see anything, Kai!” Mariana said in a half-hearted attempt at yelling back at me. The crack in her voice and the subtle biting of her lip gave it away. She planted her hands on her hips and looked towards the mouth of the cave. “I need some air... Smells like puke in here.” With a huff she turned on her heels and headed out into the night, boots crunching along in the fluffy snow.
“I’m going to check on her,” Kali said softly. She calmly stood and traced Mariana’s steps. She knew what was coming next and did not want to bear witness. Mariana could probably use the company anyway.
I put my head in my hands, pulling my knees up to my chest. My mind was racing and for once I was glad Ira wasn’t on this trip getting an eye witness preview into that chaos. Julian cleared his throat loudly.
“Hey.” I didn’t move. “Look at me.” Slowly and unwillingly I lifted my head, looking at him with a scowl. “I don’t even know her, but I know you definitely can’t talk to her like that. You don’t ever disrespect a woman like that. Period. And, if I ever catch you talking to her or even my sister like that, again, I’ll break your face.”
The flame on his hand had pulsed throughout his thorough chewing of my ass. Anything that was once ice around him and I had melted into a sopping wet puddle. I swallowed and got to my feet. My cloak and pants were dripping. I stared at him for a long time before I spoke.
“I know I messed up. I did not think before speaking and I don’t know, I’m a little messed up in the head after what just happened. Mariana is probably never going to speak to me again. She hates my guts. I can feel it.” I chuckled bitterly, a sour lump forming in my throat. “The best part is: I still don’t know what happened.”
Julian seemed to relax slightly. In fact, he almost seemed sorry for me. “Man, you better go talk to your lady before I make her my lady.” He cracked a smile and nodded his head toward the mouth of the cave. “I’m sure everything will be okay.”
“Thanks,” I said with a nod.
I ventured out of the cave after a reassuring deep breath and went searching for Mariana and Kali. I could hear their voices carrying on the wind. Mariana sounded frustrated and angry. I soon found them under a frozen tree, huddled together, staring into the night. I cleared my throat in case my footsteps didn’t already announce my presence.
“Mariana, can I speak with you?”
“Speak,” she said gruffly, still seated.
Kali took that as her cue to leave and stood with a grunt. “I’m going to see if Julian needs help making the meal.” She dusted some snow from her trousers and marched off for the second time.
Mariana crossed her arms over her chest and continued to stare straight ahead. I sighed and knelt down beside her. I hung my head pitifully, trying to figure out where to start.
“I’m really, truly sorry for the way I spoke to you earlier. It was unacceptable, harsh, and uncalled for. I know you were just trying to help. I don’t have any excuses I can make. I just... I’m sorry.”
She glanced at me, slowly uncrossing her arms. She took my hand in one hand and used the other to tilt my chin up. “You’re a good guy. I know you didn’t mean the things you said but I still appreciate you manning up and taking responsibility for the words that came out of your mouth.”
“You don’t hate me?”
“Quite the opposite,” she said with a small smile.
I nodded, standing and pulling her up with me. I looked back towards the cave but it was too dark to really see much from so far away. I turned my gaze back to Mariana, my eyes drifting down to her lips. I didn’t give myself time to question the action and pulled her into me. I hesitated a few seconds before finally pressing my lips to hers. A cascade of fireworks danced behind my eyelids and on my tongue. A tiny gasp left her mouth, followed by a content sigh. Her arms tentatively wrapped around my neck. Heat spread from the top of my head to the tips of my toes. I quickly pulled away, not wanting to ruin the moment by getting too excited. That didn’t stop a large, cheesy grin from spreading across my face. She looked around awkwardly, her cheeks turning rosy. The tips of her ears were bright red from the cold. I gently put my gloved hands over her ears and rubbed.
“You must be freezing. Come on.”
I pressed a small kiss to her forehead. I desperately wished I could tell what she was thinking. There was no way in hell I was going to ask though. Leading her back to the cave took a lot quicker than I had hoped for, but all good things must come to an end. Upon arrival we were greeted with the smell of food rather than puke.
“What’s for dinner?” I asked with a smile.
Julian chuckled. Kali pointed vaguely to the cave walls. “I collected some moss off the cave wall.”
Mariana grimaced and plopped in front of a sizeable boulder. She rested back against it and stretched her legs out in front of her. “Please tell me moss isn’t the highlight.”
“Luckily for us, a fox was lurking around the cave,” Julian began. “The fur was gorgeous. It was as white as the snow. Shame to kill it really. Anyway, I made a fox and roasted vegetable soup with a side of cornbread. I was feeling lazy.”
“I’m impressed,” I remarked.
Kali laughed. “You should see what he can do when he really tries. Big bro is a regular culinary prodigy.”
Julian dragged one of the duffel bags close to the pot simmering away on the fire and pulled out a small white bowl and a ladle. He poured two ladles of soup into the bowl. Passing the bowl to Kali, he began to repeat the process while Kali went to a makeshift oven they had created. She pulled out a pan of golden cornbread and brought it over, cutting out a slice and placing it on top of the soup. She smiled and passed the bowl to Mariana. When everyone had a bowl we began to dig in. The flavors and depth in the soup were bold and well developed. Paired with the heavy texture of the cornbread it was beautiful. It almost brought tears to my eyes.
“This is fantastic, Julian,” Mariana said. She put her lips to the bowl and slurped loudly, biting off a chunk of cornbread afterwards. “Absolutely outstanding,” she mumbled with her mouth full.
“Agreed,” I said, nodding my head with vigor.
After the meal and a much needed rest we set out once more. At the docks our ride was awaiting us as planned. With a holler I tossed my bag onto the deck and hauled myself up. The movement of the sea beneath my feet was a disorienting transition from land. I’d never actually been on a boat. The rest of the crew had followed suit and were busy exploring or preparing for the next leg of the journey. I stared up at the moonlight beaming down on us with bright, ivory light. Compared to the moon, maybe Elisa’s colony wasn’t so far. I still felt strange after what happened in the cave. A persistent feeling of paranoia hung over me. I felt like I was constantly being watched and followed from very close range. Mariana had noticed my change in behavior and hung back a bit.
“You don’t look very well. What’s wrong?” Mariana asked, moving closer so the others wouldn’t hear.
“Kai, come on. That’s not an answer.”
I shook my head. “It’s really nothing, love.” I pressed a hand to her cheek and a kiss to her lips. “I’m going to help Julian set sail.”
Briskly I walked to the helm and found the keys conveniently in the ignition. I turned it on and the boat roared to life, various lights flashing on in succession.
“Here we go.”
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