Anyway, withotu further ado: The Quest for Rinaria, Part VII ~ Through Gray Water
The Quest for Rinaria, Part VII
Through Gray Water
As Winterblade stared at the Gray Shore, she longed to give orders to turn around and sail away as fast as Seawraith could go.
The shore was steep, rising sharply from the water to a flatter area about three times Winterblade’s height above the water. It was a sickly, washed-out gray with the occasional streak of rusty red blotching it. It was a solid piece of rock as far as she could see in either direction, and it was smooth as marble. There were no shallows – she could tell because there weren’t any waves beating against the rock. The air was uncomfortably warm and still, and instead of hearing the sound of surf breaking, she heard a quiet and insistent hissing, as if a mosquito had learned to speak like a snake. Mist rose from the sea in thin tendrils, like steam, less thick here than farther out to see, and somehow more sinister.
Winterblade ached to sail far away in any direction, as far as they could go, even though she knew she’d never quite remove the taint of this place. It was wrong, she thought, fighting panic. There were no seabirds, no starfish, no seaweed, no waves, no wind, and the smell of the sea was overlaid by the smell of sulfur – this wasn’t a shore! It was –
“Dead,” she whispered. “Dead Rocks, that’s what this place should be called.”
But she had no desire for her crew to see her afraid, and even less desire for her brother to, so she turned away from the sight of the hideous beach and climbed onto the railing on the starboard side of the ship.
“Eneng!” she shouted. “How’re we puttin’ t’ shore?”
Eneng shrugged. “Not sure. ’ow deep d’ you think it is?”
“Very deep if there’s no waves!” Winterblade called back. “Any’n’ checked the heat o’ the water?”
“Korep did,” Eneng replied. “And it’s hot. Not t’ be fallen into.”
“Then we should get the ships as close as possible!” Winterblade yelled. “The last thing we need is a dinghy capsizin’!”
There was a shout from on of the other ships, and Eneng jumped down from the railing to run across the ship and listen. Winterblade looked between the Searaider and the rocks, wishing Rinaria could be on an island more like the Scattered Stones Keys. Those had shallow beaches – with both actual shallows and beaches – and beautiful grassy meadows, where a creature could rest beneath the shade of palm trees and marvel in the softness of the sea breeze.
When this is over, she thought, we’re goin’ straight to Scattered Stones Keys.
She briefly imagined spending a whole day leaning against a palm, doing nothing but watching the tide come in and out, and the waves –
“Eneng!” she shouted suddenly.
Her brother reappeared on his ship’s railing. “What?”
“The tide’s comin’ in, ain’t it?”
“I think so.”
“So if we waited a few hours, the water would be almost level with the flat rock?” Winterblade pressed.
“Maybe,” Eneng called back doubtfully. “But the water may come over the top of the rock. We don’t want t’ have t’ wade through it!”
“No,” Winterblade agreed. “We’ll have t’ be careful with the timin’.”
She caught the faint sound of Shartalla’s voice drifting over the water. It sounded like the pine marten wasn’t too happy with the location either.
“Ready the dinghy an’ the longboat!” Winterblade called back to her crew. “We’re goin’ in once the tide rises!”
An’ let’s hope this island improves when we get closer inland, she thought nervously.
But in her gut she knew it wouldn’t. The lines of the riddle about the island – Through Gray Water swiftly fly, light no fire, trust no ground – echoed ominously in her ears.
Like we’d be lighting any fires in this heat, she had first thought when they reached the island. Now she knew why fire might come in handy – We can’t light any torches t’ help see through the mist!
And trust no ground? This was going to be so much fun.
It was only another two hours before the tides had risen enough to row the dinghies in. Winterblade’s crew was only fifty strong – she had the smallest of anyone there – and she always left at least twenty aboard. She felt a little guilty about having to leave some behind while most of the crew went searching for a famous, wealthy, abandoned city, but she had a plan of sorts.
“Got the rope?” she asked her first mate.
He nodded. “Aye aye, cap’n.”
“Everyone carries some,” Winterblade instructed. Then, with that, she led the way to the rope ladder that gave access to the dinghy.
The rope would be used to mark a path, as best they could, so that her crew who remained would be able to make their own journey to Rinaria when she allowed it. Then, if there was treasure, they could have their turn to gather some.
The longboat was a narrow craft with low sides, and Winterblade instructed the rowers to row slowly. There was a sail, but considering that steam was curling from the surface of the sea, Winterblade preferred the stability of oars.
She sat in the prow, holding the mooring line tight in her paws, ready to jump out when the dubious coast drew near. Her boats – there were three – were the first to launch, but it wasn’t long before the splashes of their oars were echoed by oars coming from the others’ boats.
Winterblade didn’t look to the starboard to see whose boats had been launched. (She knew they weren’t her brother’s; he never seemed able to move along quickly.) She focused on the rocks, bunched herself up like a coiled spring, and, when the longboat drew near enough, leaped out and onto the rock.
Her sharkskin shoes slithered on the damp rock a little, but it wasn’t nearly as slippery as she’d expected. Quickly as she could, she scrambled up the stone and tied the rope around a rock protrusion.
The other two boats from her ship had also landed safely, and her crew were pouring out onto the rocky shore. Boats from Korep and Shartalla’s ships had landed as well, and Eneng’s were right behind. Winterblade looked past the ships to the fog, trying to see if anyone had followed them. Call her paranoid, but she knew better than the others that if Snowhawk had put her mind to following them, she would find a way. But she couldn’t see the Nygoan, and if she couldn’t see Nygoan she doubted Snowhawk was there.
Shartalla and Korep struggled up the smooth slope of the rock until they stood even with Winterblade. “Think this is ’igh enough that the tide won’t cover the moorings?” Korep asked.
Winterblade nodded. “I think so. There’s a white line yer standin’ on, an’ I think that’s the highest the sea comes up.”
“C’n y’ smell the sulfur?” Shartalla asked, wrinkling her nose. “That’s an odor I ain’t caught much.”
Winterblade nodded wearily. About that moment, Ksheygha, Zuryzel and Dejuday joined them, and Eneng struggled up a second later.
“So,” Ksheygha said cheerfully, “time to compile information!”
Winterblade’s crew worked tying lengths of rope together, and then securing one end to a prominent rock protrusion. They only had a mile’s worth of rope, and barely that, but Winterblade hoped it would be enough to at least show the way through the Gray Water – which she didn’t quite understand. She had thought it would be the sea, which was plenty gray, but something about that felt wrong.
“So – for starters,” Shartalla began. “We’re definitely on the island where Rinaria is.”
“No question,” Eneng agreed confidently.
“But what’s this Gray Water?” Zuryzel asked. “It wasn’t the bay, was it?”
She waved toward the sea as she spoke.
Eneng rolled his eyes at her and Shartalla wrinkled her brow, as if in surprise. Korep was the one who answered. “The sulfur yer smelling comes from hot springs, Zyna. Hot springs and geysers.”
Winterblade stared at him. “Geysers?”
“It sounds to me like we have to navigate our way around them,” Ksheygha said thoughtfully. “Geysers are dangerous, even the small ones, but you can’t see the small ones. That explains the line about trusting no ground, too. The ground around geysers is very thin.”
Winterblade curled her paws into fists. “Just fer my infermation, what exactly is a geyser?”
“Great Cerecinthia, ’Blade!” Eneng exclaimed. “How long ’ave you been a captain?”
“I don’t put t’ shore much,” Winterblade snapped. “An’ when I do, I ain’t exploring wilderness.”
“A geyser is when hot water spouts out of the ground like a fountain,” Ksheygha said quickly. “Sometimes the water only spouts as high as your ankle, and sometimes it’s higher than a mast. It’s hot enough to kill a creature if he or she gets hit with too much water. The water’s full of minerals, too, so it’ll sting if it gets in your eyes – that’s if it’s cooled down.”
Winterblade frowned. She had enough trouble understanding how unnatural fountains worked. “How does water just act like a fountain without bein’ a fountain?”
“Have you ever seen a pot over a fire and the lid starts shaking?” Ksheygha offered. “Because there’s too much steam to fit in that pot? A geyser is like that. Something keeps the water hot underground, and when there’s too much in its pocket of earth, it pushes through the weakest opening.”
“Thank you, Ksheygha,” Zuryzel murmured. “I didn’t know what it was, either.”
“So basically,” said Korep, sounding none too pleased, “the Gray Water is a geyser field. We have t’ cross it t’ reach the Icy Cliff.”
“And we have t’ go through it quickly,” Shartalla added, her brow knit. “Mm.”
Korep gave her a puzzled look. “Y’ain’t thinkin’ about turnin’ back, are you?”
Shartalla shook her head. “Nah. I’m all fer treasure, an’ I’m all fer adventure. It’s just… there has got t’ be a better way than runnin’ o’er ground that c’d explode.”
“You got a better idea?” Eneng asked.
Shartalla looked mistrustfully at the ground, which sloped upward away from the sea until it was lost in the fog. “It’s just… Y’ can’t tell where the ground ends an’ the mist begins! This is ’ow I al’ays imagined the Serpent’s Land would look like.”
“What would you rather do?” Ksheygha asked softly.
“It’s an island, ain’t it?” Shartalla pointed out. “I’d rather sail around it. Find Rinaria from the sea.”
She glanced at Zuryzel as she said it, and Winterblade realized why Shartalla was so reluctant: she was trying to protect her best friend. If Zuryzel realized that too, she gave no sign; all she said was, “If that were safer than going through the geysers, why wouldn’t the clues tell us to?”
“Besides, don’t forget there’s a volcano somewhere on this island,” Ksheygha added. “You don’t want to blindly sail too close to it.”
Shartalla considered that. “Per’aps,” she murmured. “But if it’s a choice atween land an’ sea … I al’ays take the sea. ’Tis the way my crew are trained.”
She glanced at Winterblade, and the ferret took the hint. “What if we can’t get back to the ships?” she pointed out. “It’d be best t’ ’ave another way away from the city.”
“I agree,” Korep said suddenly. “Shartalla, y’er the best sailor amongst us, an’ if the sea weren’t safe fer whoever received these clues, y’ll still be able t’ manage these waters.”
“Shartalla, can I speak to you a minute?” Zuryzel asked.
The princess and the pine marten withdrew a few paces and began speaking in low voices. Korep murmured to Dejuday, “Shartalla’s just tryin’ t’ keep you two safe.”
“Zuryzel won’t stand for that,” Dejuday whispered back. “She hates being given special treatment.”
“But she is special,” Ksheygha pointed out. “Out of all Demeda’s children, she’s most fit to rule.”
Winterblade stood up. “Well, whatever Zyna and Shartalla decide, I’m done wastin’ time. The day’s ’alf done, an’ we ’ave t’ get through whatever’s up yonder before dark, since we can’t light lanterns.”
“We need a plan to go forward,” Ksheygha warned.
“We been sailin’ one sea at a time up ’til now,” Winterblade pointed out. “It’s served us well so far. Let’s keep takin’ one thing at a time. The mist ’as t’ thin out as soon as we get farther from the sea, so let’s break through the mist an’ then go from there.”
Korep nodded and stood as well. “Sounds like a plan t’ me.”
Eneng took the lead, climbing carefully up the steep slope of the rock, which was slippery and offered few holds. As long as he was on rock, he figured, there couldn’t be any geysers, so his main concern was not falling back and rolling into the steaming seas. The rock wasn’t completely vertical, but it was steep enough that Eneng used his upper paws to help crawl up the way.
Winterblade climbed behind him, rope wrapped around her shoulder. The mist, though thinner here than over the water, was so thick that she had to struggle to keep sight of her brother’s brown fur. She would never admit it out loud, but she was terrified. If her brother should slip – or if he should find one of those whatever-Ksheygha-called-them that could spout water as high as a ship’s mast …
Eneng entered a particularly thick patch of mist and she briefly lost sight of him. Shartalla should’ve gone first, she thought angrily, but then her brother’s face reappeared.
“Here’s the top!” he called.
Winterblade struggled up the last few feet toward him, and when she drew close enough Eneng extended a paw to pull her up the rest of the way.
“Is there a place t’ tie the rope off?” Winterblade asked, resting on her knees on the top.
“’Blade,” Eneng whispered, “look.”
He pointed forward, and Winterblade gasped.
They stood in a lip in stone between two towers of rock facing due west. A few steps from their paws, the rock ended as suddenly as if a line had been drawn, and the ground now was gray gravel and pieces of shale, interspersed with black stones that Winterblade knew must have come from a volcanic eruption. The ground was dotted with pools, some small enough to leap over and some large enough to hold even Oceanflower. She couldn’t see any actual water, but she knew they were pools because they were all steaming. There wasn’t a tree anywhere, but miles in the distance was a wide, snow-capped mountain that, instead of seeming blue like most distant mountains did, seemed silver. On its south side was a sheet of bluey-white that Winterblade’s eyes were drawn to.
“The Icy Cliff,” she whispered, pointing.
“It’s a glacier,” Eneng whispered back, staring open-mouthed. “’Blade, I – we’re climbin’ a glacier.”
“That’ll be a relief after this heat,” Winterblade replied, fanning her face because it was sweltering.
“Hey!” yelled Korep from below. “Where’s that rope?”
Winterblade tied the end around the nearest protrusion of rock she could find, noting as she did so that this piece was milky white with a gold band around its base. Then she threw the rest down the hill – it would help with climbing. Once she heard Korep give orders to start climbing, she followed Eneng, who had gone a few steps onto the gravel and shale.
“I don’t see any water spouting up,” she murmured. “Only hot pools.”
“Geysers don’t go all the time,” Eneng explained. “’Blade, this ground can’t be stable. Any part of it c’d be concealin’ a geyser, or a hot springs … an’ look t’ the south.”
Winterblade hadn’t been looking south, and earlier her vision had been impaired by the large rocks they stood between. Now she looked and winced; the ground there looked as if it had been cut away. It must have crumbled away at some point because the ground was so unstable.
“We’re gonna ’ave t’ get dangerously close t’ that if we’re goin’ t’ climb the glacier,” Eneng murmured nervously.
Winterblade glanced up and saw seagulls circling, and above them a sky that was blue (albeit hazy.) “Cheer up,” she scolded. “Ain’t it occurred t’ you yet? We’ve found Rinaria. It’s been lost since the Dark Ages, an’ we’ve found it.”
There was a grunting behind them, and a young ferret from Winterblade’s crew hauled himself up. When he met his captain’s eyes, he straightened and said, “Cap’n.”
It took Winterblade a moment to remember his name. “Digrent – you ever seen anything like this before?”
The ferret looked out at the landscape and shook his head. “No, Cap’n. I lived on Pelleck Island.”
As did I, Winterblade thought as she nodded and looked again out at the barren plain. When I wasn’t on the Deathwind, I lived on Pelleck Island too. That place was full of pirates’ families and retired sailors, and none of them told about a place like this. Bear King, why did you make something as hideous as this?
More pirates crawled up, all of them stopping in amazement when they saw the plain ahead of them. Winterblade called down the rope, “Hey! Slow down! There ain’t much room left up here!”
Eneng took a few tentative steps further out; then another, then another. “I think it’s safe t’ come out this far,” he called over his shoulder. “But have ever’one come up slowly.”
The next creature to struggle up was Ksheygha. Once at the top of the rope, she elbowed her way through the milling ferrets, none of whom had ventured further onto the shale than Eneng and Winterblade. Wideprow’s first mate stopped dead when she saw the plain.
“I’ve heard of places like this,” she whispered. “But I never thought they were real.”
“Can you tell what’s safe?” Eneng asked, turning around to face her.
Ksheygha snorted. “I would suggest keeping far away from the pits. Or pools. Whatever they are. Other than that … we’re just going to have to be very, very careful.”
Eneng strode up until he was only a few inches from Ksheygha. “Is that all you’ve got?”
Winterblade rolled her eyes at her brother, then started forward onto the shale. The rocks were hot beneath her shoes, but if that was from something underground or just a result of baking in the sun for hours, she couldn’t tell.
“Well, what else did you expect?” Ksheygha snapped. “This ground is fragile.”
“Like ice on a lake,” Winterblade shouted back, still tiptoeing farther onto the plain.
“What?” Ksheygha exclaimed. “No – it really couldn’t be more different!”
“Sure it c’d,” Winterblade shouted, turning slightly but still walking. “Y’ walk in single file, an’ nobody stands in the same place fer long.”
She risked a small pause to scan the terrain. “There’s a round piece o’ solid-looking rock about sixty yards that way!” she called back, pointing southwest. “It c’d hold maybe thirty creatures on it. A group c’n follow me out there, then we c’n find the next safe path. Some’ne follow me with some rope so we can lay a path! Quickly!”
With that, she kept going forward – slowly, but not too slowly.
A moment later she heard quick pawsteps behind her and then Eneng’s voice. “This is where we start layin’ down rope.”
“Why did you come?” Winterblade demanded irritably. “Y’er a captain. Y’er s’posed t’ be directin’ crews.”
“Korep an’ Ksheygha can take care o’ that,” Eneng snapped. “I was yer brother long before I was anyone’s captain.”
With that, he left the end of the rope on the ground and followed her, trailing rope behind as he did so.
Winterblade refused to admit it, but she was glad it wasn’t one of her crew who came with her. Especially when, about halfway to the rock, she tried to put her paw down and the ground crumbled beneath it.
She yelped and jerked her paw back, to find steam coming out of the new cavity. Nervously, she tapped the ground to the right of the new hole with her toe, and more ground fell away. She tried the earth to the left, and the shale sank there, too.
She bent down as near as she dared to the hole and saw what she thought solid rock on the inside of the far end. It was narrow enough for her to step over; maybe the ground was solid a few steps on?
“I’m gonna try to step over,” she told her brother. Then she took a deep breath, uttered a silent prayer, and stepped over the narrow opening. The ground on the other side held firm.
“It’s okay!” she told her brother, panting in relief.
Eneng lay the rope over the steaming cavity. “There’s some water in there,” he reported. “The thing looks about as deep as you ’n’ I are tall.”
“Think it’s one o’ those gey-thingies?” Winterblade asked nervously.
Eneng shook his head. “Nah, the water’s movin’. I think it’s a stream runnin’ t’ the cliff. Probably empties out int’ the sea without surfacin’.”
“Why’s it so hot?” Winterblade asked, inching forward again.
“Same reason everything else on this island is,” Eneng muttered. “I can’t b’lieve this is the safest way t’ the city! They’d have merchants travel this place?”
Winterblade kept her eyes on the ground. “They musta had the safe paths marked,” she suggested. “Or maybe they had boardwalks. That way caravans c’d travel there without disturbin’ the ground.”
Eneng made a sound that combined a scoff and a sigh.
They reached the large rock Winterblade had spotted about ten laborious minutes later. They had passed one of the craters, this one barely large enough to hold their paws, and seen it shimmering with silvery water. That had made them both nervous, though neither said so aloud, and when they reached the rock they were so tired of tiptoeing that they collapsed to their knees on the rock. Winterblade noticed some steam swirling up from the far side, so she crawled over to investigate.
“We should try to keep goin’ southwest,” Eneng offered, wiping sweat from his brow.
Winterblade hardly heard him. On the far side of the rock was a pool, this one big enough for easily fifteen ferrets to stand around.
“Eneng!” she exclaimed. “Come look at this!”
Her brother crawled forward and gasped. “’Blade, that’s –”
Winterblade filled in his sentence:
The pool was pure, clear blue, like the brightest autumn sky. It was far too bright to be reflecting the washed-out sky above them; and unlike the sea, there wasn’t a hint of green anywhere in this water. It was bubbling a little, as though boiling, and the bubbles made the pool shimmer. It didn’t look that deep – only about twice as deep as they were tall – and the rock at the bottom was white and had been twisted into interesting shapes by some force or another.
“Must be full o’ cobalt,” Eneng murmured.
“How does somethin’ so bright show up in somethin’ like this?” she exclaimed, waving her paw at the surrounding terrain.
Eneng snorted. “Let’s ask Ksheygha whenever she catches up. I surely don’t know.”
Winterblade stood up on the rock – which was smooth, white, and shot through with yellow – and waved toward the ferrets still gathered at the beginning. One at a time, the first thirty ferrets began the trek. Eneng also stood up and scanned the terrain for another rock.
“See any?” Winterblade asked, keeping her eyes on the pirates hurriedly inching along the rope.
“None as big as this one,” Eneng sighed. “The biggest one I can see is due south.”
“We don’t want to get too close to that cliff too soon,” Winterblade warned.
“No,” Eneng agreed. “But the next one I see that’s southwest must be three hundred yards away! That’s six times the length o’ Searaider.”
“We can al’ays turn back an’ start fer the other rock if we find any geysers,” Winterblade pointed out. “We can’t turn around halfway down that cliff.”
The first ferret – Digrent – reached the rock; he carried a coil of rope over his shoulder. “Ksheygha says to tell you that Shartalla’s takin’ the sea route,” he reported. “In case we can’t come back this way.”
“Is the princess goin’ with her?” Eneng asked.
“Aye,” Digrent reported. “But not her mate.”
Winterblade blinked. “Shartalla got Zyna t’ take a safe route when ’er mate wouldn’?” she asked Eneng. “Am I goin’ nuts?”
“Nah, I ’eard it too,” Eneng murmured. “Wonder if Zyna knows Dejuday ain’t aboard Wynraser.”
“If she don’t, ’e’s gonna be in so much trouble,” Winterblade grinned.
Eneng nodded in agreement as another ferret staggered up to the rock. “All right. We need t’ get movin’, though – have t’ get t’ that glacier b’fore dark.”
Winterblade nodded. “Digrent – give my brother that rope.”
Eneng took the new coil of rope, then looked toward the next rock they were aiming for. “It’s on the other side o’ that pool. How’re we gonna go around it?”
Winterblade tossed her knife in the air; it landed with the blade pointing north. “We go around it north,” she decided.
Eneng scowled. Nonetheless, Winterblade stepped off the rock onto the shale again.
This way was twice as long, but much easier. There was no point where the ground crumbled. One time, they tiptoed between two pools, but nothing happened.
At least, nothing happened until they were about ten steps from the rock.
The Bear King was surely with them that day, because they looked up and saw a tiny spout of water above the middle of the rock.
“Was that there a minute ago?” Winterblade asked fearfully.
“Back up just in case,” Eneng suggested.
They backed up, wary of being in the same place too long.
“Think that’s a geyser?” Eneng asked anxiously.
“It’s kinda small,” Winterblade said doubtfully. “Maybe the crews just need t’ not get too close?”
“Ksheygha would say not t’ go near it,” Eneng murmured.
No sooner had he said that than steam began to rise from the rock. Eneng and Winterblade backed up a little more.
“What’s happenin’?” Winterblade asked nervously.
Then a jet of water burst into the air, higher than Winterblade was tall. She and her brother jumped further back, Eneng grabbing Winterblade’s shoulder. Then the spout of water grew higher, first ten feet tall, then twenty, then as tall as a ship’s mast, then even taller. Steam rose high enough that Winterblade craned her neck to see it, and it was blown along by the wind.
It was fortunate that the wind came from behind Eneng and Winterblade, because had it come from any other direction, water from the geyser would have splashed onto them. They were too awed to do anything but stare, transfixed, at the towering eruption of water and steam. Neither had ever seen anything like it.
The geyser lasted for several minutes, releasing pent-up power in a sky-high froth of boiling water and steam; then it slowly began to die down, until it was no higher than their ankles.
“Well,” said Eneng quietly, “we can’t go that way.”
Winterblade nodded. “Where was that other rock?”
It was only then that they heard shouting from the rock where their crews were gathering. Apparently, none of them had been afraid so much as impressed. Winterblade rolled her eyes.
They walked back several yards of the rope until they saw a straight line to their new goal. There were at least forty steaming pools between there and where they stood.
Fabulous, Winterblade thought irritably.
Walking due south was the least pleasant experience so far. The sirocco that had kept them from being touched by the geyser new blew at the sides of their faces. The pools they had to wend between smelled worse than rotten eggs. Although they were as colorful as jewels – green, blue, red, and even purple – Winterblade was wary of them. Her imagination played a scene of one of them erupting into a powerful blast of steam, maybe cutting them off from the way back to the sea.
“When we’re done with this,” she muttered to Eneng when they were halfway to the new rock, “wanna meet up at Scattered Stones Keys?”
“Look on the bright side,” Eneng muttered gloomily. “This place is better than Ribasco Island. There weren’t any kind o’ water there, an’ certainly no color.”
“The Keys are still better,” Winterblade retorted under her breath. “An’ when we gets there, I’m buyin’ the first round o’ liqueur.”
“An’ I’ll buy the margaritas,” Eneng grinned.
The pools steamed ominously as Eneng and Winterblade tiptoed between them. It was almost as if Winterblade could hear them saying, We could explode at any minute! Beware! But she couldn’t decide if it was a friendly warning or a threat.
They reached the new rock without any new incident, but it was only big enough for ten creatures. Winterblade turned around and yelled, “Ten can come!”
“’Blade,” Eneng said suddenly, “what if this ain’t the Gray Water?”
Winterblade looked out at the shale-covered plain. “Why d’you say that?”
“Because the water here ain’t gray,” Eneng replied nervously. “It’s all kinda colors.”
“I think the phrase Gray Water means the steam,” Winterblade replied. “I mean, the stuff comin’ off the pools, not from the sea. The words fer water an’ steam are the same in the ancient tongues.”
She crawled to the southernmost edge of the rock, and exclaimed, “Whoa!”
The edge of the cliff was only twenty feet away, but the mist that came from the ocean was fifty feet away. That meant there was at least thirty feet of beach between the cliff and the ocean. She was too far away to see how high the edge was, but she suspected it was high enough to cause an injury but not be completely fatal.
But that wasn’t what caught her attention.
About forty feet to the west, the cliff jutted out, giving her a view of the layers of rock making up the stone. Much of it – to her amazement – was red and yellow. She had seen coasts like this before, where sand and rock had piled up high, solidified, and then the sea wore part of it away, leaving the cliff striped. The red and yellow weren’t bright, and they were mixed with the gray that seemed prevalent over the island, but the point was that the rocks were different.
“Eneng,” she said, “look!”
But her brother was already looking at the cliff. “I see it,” he replied, frowning. “What I don’t see is how this is possible.”
But Winterblade, when she saw clues in front of her, could piece them together quickly enough. “That used t’ be a strip o’ land in the sea,” she supposed. “There must be another one on the other side of the island! A volcano went off, or maybe there was a landslide, or something, and the ground in between was filled with different rock. There were already hot springs underground ’ere, but now that they were trapped from the sea, they began buildin’ up an’ gettin’ under pressure an’ … whatever else. They pushed up, but the sandstone –”
“Limestone,” Eneng corrected. “At least, I’m pretty sure that’s what those cliffs are. Although, I’ve never seen limestone with red in it afore –”
“Point is,” Winterblade interrupted, “that’s what the lines mean! Go through the gray steam, on the solid rock! There ain’t no hot springs or geysers in there!”
Eneng grinned fiercely at his sister. “’Blade, I think y’er right!”
“An’ the cliff’s crumblin’,” Winterblade added, “which is why the riddle warns us to trust no ground.”
“O’ course!” Eneng agreed exuberantly. “An’ if the cliff’s crumblin’, the coastline will be different than it used t’ be.”
“So Shartalla should be fine sailin’ around it,” Winterblade grinned.
At that moment, Digrent stumbled onto the rock. Winterblade frowned at him. “Why’re you always the first one up?”
Digrent shifted his paws nervously. “Because I’m the newest, Cap’n,” he explained.
“Oh,” Winterblade realized. “Gotcha.”
“You allow hazing on yer ship?” Eneng teased.
“I only got fifty crew,” Winterblade retorted. “Everyone knows everyone. It’s nearly impossible t’ stop it.”
For some reason that Winterblade couldn’t completely fathom, walking along the cliff wasn’t nearly as bad as picking along the plain. Maybe it was because the breezes were cooler, or maybe because she could hear the sound of surf breaking far below. But she thought it was really because they could stick together more. She and Eneng were still the leaders, but the rest of the pirates walked along in twos and threes not far behind them. Eneng and Winterblade cleared the shale away as they went, and found that, at most points, it was wide enough for five ferrets to walk side-by-side. They took advantage of that and stayed well back from the edge – for the most part.
Of course, when they reached a particularly windy place, Winterblade had to stop and look over the edge. “Ha! Glad we’re not down there!”
The beach below was also solid rock honeycombed with steaming pools, all of these a mercurial silver. Winterblade doubted there was actual mercury in them, but when she was fifty feet above them, they didn’t scare her.
“Shartalla would love this part,” Winterblade murmured.
“Mm,” Eneng agreed, dragging her back from the edge.
As the sun set behind the mountain, it became harder to see, but the ground began to slope up. Eneng let out a yell of delight. “I think we’re past the Gray Water!”
They stopped at a place where there was scraggly gray grass growing in a circle with a radius of forty feet. This wouldn’t do for camping that night, but they could gather there and decide on a plan. The glacier was about two miles west still, and because it was hidden from the setting sun, it was a dark, icy silver. But the ground in front of it was flat, and covered with grass that might actually be green. It was hard to tell.
Korep, Ksheygha, and Dejuday were among the last ones to reach the grass, and Ksheygha looked livid.
“Do you have any idea how stupid it was to go on without a plan?!” she shrieked at Winterblade. Her eyes were wild. “Anything could have happened!”
“But nothin’ did,” said Eneng confidently.
“Which means we musta done somethin’ right,” Winterblade added cheerfully.
Dejuday and Korep were concealing smiles, amused, no doubt, by Ksheygha’s worrying.
Ksheygha glowered at them for several minutes; then she stalked off, muttering about idiots.
“She was under stress,” Korep excused her, watching her walk away with affection in his eyes.
“I sent summa my crew around t’ scout the area,” Winterblade reported. “The last one should be back soon.”
No sooner had she spoken than Digrent puffed up. He faced her and jumped into a brisk salute. “Cap’n!”
“What’d y’ sea?” she asked.
“I checked the edge,” he reported. “It’s a bit shaky ’ere, but it gets firmer further west.”
“Okay then,” Winterblade smiled. “We keep goin’ west until we camp. Plan?”
“Plan,” Korep and Eneng said at once. They both grinned. After all, how bad could a glacier be after creeping across that plain all day?
“Let’s move on!” Korep shouted happily.
There was a general muttering from the pirates, many of whom had just sat down. Winterblade clapped her brother on the shoulder and said, “Almost t’ the end, Eneng. Almost t’ the end.”
Eneng grinned at her and nodded.
They only walked a few hundred feet when it became much darker. The pirate siblings were forced to walk closer to the edge, where there were more traces of sunset to light the way. Winterblade had always been a little scared of the dark.
Bear King, she prayed, you promised to be our Light. Please grant that none of us fall off this cliff. I want to see Cerecinthia one day, and meet You face-to-face, but I’d like to find Rinaria first, if You don’t mind.
She glanced at her brother and saw his eyes, too, were miles away. She also noticed that he still had rope coiled around him.
“Hey! Still need that rope?” she teased.
Eneng glanced at her, then at himself, and then laughed. “Ha! I hadn’t noticed.”
“’ey, Digrent!” Winterblade shouted. “Come ’ere an’ get this rope!”
Most of the pirates were further back, and some were a ways away from the edge in spite of the lack of light. Digrent hurried to his captain from one of those groups, and Eneng took a few steps toward him to give him the rope.
Eneng had just lifted the rope partway over his head when it happened.
There was a terrifying rumbling sound, and the ground behind Digrent began to implode.
“Eneng! Back up!” Winterblade shouted, even as she ran toward her brother and her crew member.
Neither of them needed telling twice. They sprinted toward Winterblade, but as they ran, the ground behind them continued to collapse. Winterblade backed away herself, and when they reached her and the ground kept crumbling, she too began to run. Instinctively, she grabbed her brother’s paw to keep them from being separated.
They ran to the seaside edge of the cliff, and once there turned around to look back. The collapsing ground had stopped about six feet from them. The rumbling was below them now, as the loosened earth settled onto either side. They were standing on an island sixty feet above the sea, cut off from the larger land.
“Bear King!” Eneng shouted, and Winterblade wasn’t sure if it was a curse or a prayer. Probably a prayer.
Then she noticed she couldn’t see Digrent.
“Digrent!” she shouted. And in response, she heard a feeble,
It was coming from the southeast, so Winterblade hurried to that corner of their island and peered over. Digrent was ten feet down, clinging with both paws to a slim piece of rock. His face turned up pleadingly, terror inscribed on every inch of his face.
“Eneng, find a way to tie the rope off!” Winterblade yelled. Then she swung her legs over the edge of the rock and began to climb down.
It was a canyon between the two islands now, and steam curled up between the rocks. Winterblade vaguely heard shouting above her, Eneng yelling to Korep perhaps, but her concern was on her crewferret.
It’s my fault! Winterblade thought angrily. He’s my responsibility! I should’ve been keeping an eye on him!
She reached a place where she could twist around and hold out her paw to Digrent. “Swing up an’ grab my paw!” she ordered in the calmest voice she could manage.
Digrent looked down nervously; it was too dark and misty to see the bottom.
“No!” Winterblade snapped. “Look at me.” Her voice calmed. “Keep looking at me. Swing up and get my paw.”
Digrent swallowed. He took several shallow, panicked breaths, then one deep one, and twisted. One paw came free and he grasped Winterblade’s.
“Get yer hind paws where yer forepaw is now!” Winterblade instructed, pulling him up.
Digrent managed it; when he did, he looked pleadingly at his captain. “I’m sorry, Cap’n.”
“Not yer fault,” Winterblade replied. “I shoulda been keepin’ an eye on you. Now, can you climb up from here?”
Digrent looked up anxiously; then he nodded.
“Good,” Winterblade praised him. “When you get up, tell Eneng to send the rope down fast. You c’n help him hold it up. I’ll be directly be’ind you.”
Digrent nodded, still looking terrified. Then he took a deep breath and began climbing.
Bear King, Winterblade prayed, thank you.
Once Digrent’s hind paws cleared a foothold, she reached up and grabbed it, starting to pull herself up.
Barely had she grabbed it when the protrusion she’d been standing on broke.
She yelped in alarm, then grunted as her side hit the rock wall. For a moment she was so stunned she almost blacked out, but she managed to keep herself conscious.
“Eneng!” she shouted. “Hurry!”
Digrent turned around, alarmed, but she ordered, “Keep climbin’! Hurry!”
He nodded and climbed faster.
Eneng’s head appeared against the sky above Winterblade. “Y’all right?” he yelled, alarm written across his face.
“Rope!” Winterblade shouted. “Tie the rope off!”
“I’m tryin’!” Eneng cried. “There’s no place – wait, let me keep lookin’! Hold on!”
Winterblade glanced below her. There was mist curling up; a hot spring must be below her.
Bear King, please, she prayed fiercely. If I fall, let me land on rock. Let me land on dirt. Don’t let me land in a spring. Please, I don’t want to die that way. Please, please, please.
Digrent reached the top of the cliff and pulled himself up. He yelled that he could help Eneng. Winterblade heard more shouting, but then her sweaty paws began to slip.
“Hurry!” she called pleadingly. “Eneng, hurry!”
The mist curled around her, like it was trying to drag her down.
Eneng’s head appeared again, this time the coil of rope in his paws, ready to be thrown. For a moment Winterblade’s heart leaped. She was safe!
Then her paws gave way.
“Winterblade!” Eneng shouted, dropping the rope over the edge.
Winterblade screamed – maybe her brother’s name, maybe just gibberish – staring at his face like her life depended on it. Then the mist closed over her head, hiding Eneng from view.
A moment later, she hit the water. And it was agony.
Her vision turned completely red. She shrieked in pain. The burning started at her ankles, then spread up rapidly. This water felt more like lava; in only seconds, her head went completely under, and there was no sound.
Then there was sound again.
At first, all she could hear was her own screaming. Her whole body was on fire – maybe her brain was, too, because she couldn’t remember anything. There was something hard and cold beneath her. A second later, she heard voices shouting, indistinguishable and unintelligible. Something tapped her lips, but she couldn’t stop screaming.
She ran out of breath and gasped, her vision still red, rolling back and forth. Someone grabbed her paws, holding her down, and something cold was pressed against her face.
The voices became a little clearer; she could tell each one apart, even though she couldn’t understand their words. She had been pulled out. That must be it. Someone had pulled her out. She couldn’t open her eyes, she couldn’t stop gasping and whimpering, and uttering the occasional scream. The voices around her muttered strange things, their words creating as much of a fog as the pain.
Then – clear as a fire in the mist, and welcome as water to one stranded in the desert – she heard her brother’s voice.