Haveraul insisted on sightseeing. He hoped–though he would never admit it to Akura’a, though she knew anyway–that it would help cure her of whatever ailed her. He’d seen the look in her eyes when she first saw the coast and Arukadia’s vibrant jewel-toned dwellings nestled among the rocks. It was delight–airy and effusive and unlike the sullen gloom that seemed to cling to her otherwise. He thought maybe he could unearth that feeling again. Maybe that would help. So while the others stayed behind and bartered with the locals, he and Akura’a had left on a hike that had lasted all afternoon. Now as the sun was beginning to dip near the horizon and had painted the sky in vibrant swathes of color, they came upon an inlet and Haveraul pointed to the opening of a sea cave.
“That there is Talerielle’s Grotto,” he said. “Ever heard of it?”
She shook her head.
“You’re in for a real surprise.” He clambered down part of the jagged coast and motioned for her to follow.
Sulma slunk past the bonfire where the others were gathered for food. It had been days now since she had properly left her tent, and she had started to go stir-crazy. Not for want of company–she didn’t want company. She was content in her solitude. But staying inside deprived her of her vision. There was only so much dust to disturb in her tent. So as the others gathered for a communal meal, she slipped quietly out and past them.
The crickets were beginning their chorus, the satisfying scent of the fire perfumed the camp, and the moon hung like a pendant in the purpling sky. It would have been a beautiful evening, Sulma thought, if there weren’t so many ghosts in the air.
She stayed crouched and quiet long after the camp was out of sight, fearful of things unseen, things that needed to be seen.
She made her way to the river. That is where she had last seen Akura’a, and maybe that is where she would find her again. The babble of its gentle flow was the perfect complement to the crickets; their thrumming had a prickly fuzziness to it, whereas the water over the slick stones was smooth and mellifluous.
She reached the river’s edge and hesitated. She felt blind in the tent–cut off, out of the loop, impotent. But free to see again, she knew how painful looking could be.
The grotto was miraculous. The particular rock formation the waves carved into was a geode–the cavernous hollow was lined with veins of crystal in a riot of blues, pinks, and purples. These reflected the light of the setting sun and sent serpentine shivers of color dancing across the surface of the water. Akura’a gasped the moment she laid eyes on the iridescing waves.
“Not too shabby, eh?” Haveraul prompted.
“It’s beautiful,” Akura’a said. “I’ve never seen color so vibrant.”
“A long history this ol’ cave has. Wish Rovel had come along. He’d be a lot better at tellin’ it.”
Akura’a bent down next to a small tidal pool and marvelled at the self-contained world. “They’re as colorful as the cave,” she exclaimed.
“They?” Haver wandered over to investigate.
Akura’a had her broad face pressed nearly against the water, her eyes wide, letting her pupils bounce about from creature to creature. In the pool were all manner of anemones and coral and urchins and echinoderms. She knew names for none of them, but she was delighted at their abstraction–like the Godsmiths had indulged their wildest fancies when crafting them. They were spiked and tentacled, soft and shelled, whorled and plump, spotted and striped and burning with intense, saturated color. Even their movement was amorphous and hard to describe–with no arms or legs they instead quivered and slithered and scooted and undulated and drifted. A small seahorse had wrapped its tail about a bit of seaweed and bobbed back and forth, its small, nodular body dancing to the rhythms of this miraculous, miniature world. It looked so content.
She stood up and looked again at the crystalline roof, and then the shimmering pool below it. She didn’t know what to give her attention. And that’s when she noticed a large stone hand holding a spear reaching out of the water. And tucked into a small alcove, there was another statue half submerged, one of its hands held out, as if clawing at the rocks, trying to climb out of the water it was slipping into.
“How did I miss those?” she wondered aloud.
“Lot to take in at first,” Haver said. “Them’s Talerielle’s Idols. Lot more than just those.” He pointed to the bottom of the pool, which ran deeper than expected in the middle. Akura’a stepped up to the edge, where water was just lapping up and over, coating the rocks in a thin film. She looked down to the sea floor, through the chromatic swirl.
Sulma dipped her hand in and stirred the sediment on the bottom. Mud and dirt began to rise and turn in slow circles. She watched silently, holding her breath, waiting for visions to emerge. But there was nothing. The rotation of the water became imperceptible, and soon the silt was separating itself, falling in wispy slow motion back to the riverbed.
Sulma sighed and waded in. She yelped as the icy water glazed itself along her legs. She trudged south a bit, and toward the middle of the stream, where an outcropping of rocks split and frothed the waters, creating a web of whirlpools and rapids. She anchored herself on these rocks, and reached in, scraping up a huge clump of mud and debris. She watched as the current picked it all up and pummeled it across the sides of the rocks, and tossed it about in the twirling eddies. The dirt had more life here. More secrets to tell. She watched as a small pebble and leaf became caught in the orbit of one of the whirlpools. She watched as they moved closer and closer to the center, being pulled toward their inescapable fate, and something started to emerge.
Even through the density of color, Akura’a could see that littered across the bottom were ancient statues. Their solid, unyielding forms were made soft and malleable by the light refracting through the undulant water. They were broken and battered, their limbs swept about and lodged in the earth at odd angles.
It was a cemetery, full of bodies.
It was a battlefield, scattered with corpses.
And even as the creeping water distorted their forms and softened them so that they looked like ectoplasmic ghosts, Akura’a would still catch glimpses–when the angle of the light was just right–of hollow eyes frozen wide forever in horror.
She was instantly back on the knoll.