Paradise Chapter 5

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Chapter 5: Longing

Sky sat on the hood of the shuttlecar, her arms wrapped around her knees. He's coming back, she thought, over and over again, fighting the ache in her chest that told her something was horribly wrong.

Char knew this world, and he had powers she and Ember didn't have. If anyone could find him, he could.

She kept imagining Char coming back through the mist, Ember in his arms. Or Ember, alone, walking toward her. But each time it was an illusion, her wishful thinking creating images out of formlessness.

A loud groan not far away in the bog sent chills across her skin. She huddled down, wondering if she should climb inside the safety of the car. But she wanted to wait until she knew he was okay, in order to be completely safe herself....

A huge dark form appeared in the mist. She froze.

It was Char.

She jumped off the car, ran to him. Looked behind him for Ember.

"Where is he?" she said.

"I didn't find him. I'm sorry."

"But he has to be out there!"

"I looked everywhere that I could. You forget, I can sense these things. I didn't feel him anywhere close."

"How can that be?"

"Either he's been dragged somewhere far away from here...or he's--"

"No! I'm going to find him." She stepped toward the sea of mist swirling around the island.

Char grabbed her, his hands locking around her shoulders, yanking her to a stop. "I'm not going to lose you," he said.

"I can't just leave him! You can't stop me--" She struggled. He gripped her arms, holding her as effortlessly as if she were a small child.

"Sky. We can go look for him again if you want. But you won't do any good if you go rushing out there like this. You'll get hurt."

She forced herself to relax in Char's grip. He let her go. She walked over to the car, sat down. She had to think. There had to be a way to find him. Time was running out.

Char sauntered over and sat down beside her, the dark material of his clothes wavering as if of its own accord, flapping against her arm, as soft as smoke. He laid his hand on the surface of the car, the tips of his fingers almost, not quite, touching hers. She fought the urge to pull away. He had been so good to try to find Ember...to heal her....

"I think we have to be realistic about this," said Char. "It's not likely that he survived. I'm sorry, Sky." His hand inched forward, covered hers. Cold seeped into her. She pulled her hand out from under his, wrapped her arms around her knees.

"I...would feel it if he was gone." She wasn't sure if she would or not--she desperately hoped so.

"Really? I was under the impression you humans have lost the ability to feel things beyond your own skin. Unless--it only works with a close bond?"

"Yes."

"You love him, then."

"Yes." I do love him! she thought. How can I not? He's given me everything. He loves me. He's the one man I can trust. I can finally see that I'm beautiful, through his eyes. What I feel when we are together--the pain I feel when we're apart--how can that not be love?

There was a lot she didn't know about him. She knew that he was strong yet gentle, kind yet powerful--the kind of man she could never have dreamed she would possess. It was all she needed to know.

But was it enough to be love? You had to grow into love, so she'd heard. She'd never experienced love before...what did it even mean? This incomparable feeling every time they made love? Needing him more than anything? Giving him everything she could of herself? Perhaps it was all of this....

"I used to know love....Love beyond imagining...." A wistful tone haunted Char's voice. "Now I need something to fill this...this emptiness." He pressed his hand to his heart, gazing into the mist. Then he looked back at her, pain in the dark shadows of his eyes. Such deep pain she fought the urge to turn away. "Could you tell me about your love? Your love for this man, Ember?"

She ached to find him, but she took a few moments to tell Char about him. Losing him had made her realize just how much he was a part of her. She would do anything, sacrifice her own life, to find him.

Lose herself, lose her love--to get him back. How did that make sense? It would take his love away from him--hurt him to lose her--but he would be alive. That was all that mattered. And he could find someone more worthy of him....

"So he risked his life for you," said Char, after she told him about how Ember had gone to get revenge on her father for abusing her as a child. "That is a part of love, then. But if he had been strong enough, you wouldn't have had to protect him. He would have prevailed against your father."

"He did it for me. And he is a lot younger than my father, who has practiced for centuries."

"I see. So you would do anything for Ember in return?"

She nodded.

"So, at first, you didn't know him at all. But he was very gentle and he helped you trust him. Even though his power could have hurt you, he didn't."

She nodded. Heat rose to her cheeks, even though she'd tried to give him as few details as possible. Their relationship had started with the marriage bed, so she could hardly have left out that part.

"And he was beautiful, and he gave you experiences beyond your imagining. This is why you love him."

"Not just that. It's hard to describe. You can't really describe love, even if you are in it."

A wry smile crossed Char's face. He thought for a moment. Then he said, "Sex sounds like an interesting component of love. It actually seems like the key part of it."

"Yes. But that's not all love is."

"Mm. It still sounds like something I would like to try...especially if it's something that can spark love...." He was silent again, looking off into the mist. She thought, I really need to get going. Perhaps--I can get into the car. I can drive it, even without autopilot--I think. The car can scan for him. How didn't I think of it sooner?

Char laid his hand on her shoulder. "I can help you find Ember--but it's likely he's gone. If we don't find him this time, perhaps you would consider...giving your love to another object."

She froze. Hoping he didn't mean what she thought he meant. "What?"

"If you think about it, I am much more worthy of your love. I am exponentially more powerful. I would never have lost to your father, never need someone else to fight my battles for me. I am more beautiful by far. I can give you more pleasure, I am sure, if you'd consent to teach me. I'd hold back my power, and not hurt you. You could grow to trust me. And this can be a wonderful place. It's not all like this swamp. This world wouldn't be a prison with someone to share it with. I could learn what love is. Sky, the first time I saw you, I wanted you. You are so beautiful. Please, at least consider it." He took her hand in his. Gently. But so cold. And in his eyes--a flame burning deep, a hunger that could not be satiated--

Fear iced through her. Again, like with her father when she was little, she was paralyzed before power and lust.

Then, she thought of Ember. She needed to find him. She yanked her hand away, and Char let it go, infinite sadness in his eyes.

She slid off the hood of the car, shaking. Hoping he wouldn't grab her, force her, she opened the door, and jumped inside. Waved her hand over the dashboard, and the holographic controls sprang to life.

She locked the doors. Char got off the car and stood looking at her, his eyes haunted, his shoulders hunched over. He didn't look very frightening--like a fading creature, long past its prime, sinking into the bog.

After fiddling with the controls for a moment, she figured out how to lift off manually. Then the car rose into the air, higher and higher, till Char became a dark speck, then disappeared into the ocean of swirling white.

She directed the car to sweep for life signs, and made an ever-widening spiral out from the island. Her heart sank each moment it came up negative.

Please, let him be all right, she prayed, although she knew gods were not real. The closest to gods were Winged, and even if they had been near, they did not grant wishes. She had to do this on her own.

Agonizing moments slipped by.

Then--"blip"

A little red circle, faint, but there--blinking on and off--
Blip--blip--blip--

A life sign. Ember!

Vital signs appeared beside the blip. A heartbeat. His heart was beating fast, as if he was afraid--

"I'm coming!" she said, and sent the car down through the mist at the edge of the swamp.

Dead flowers shot up through the billows of white like ancient faces, warning her to stay away.
She sent the car toward the life sign.

A small island heaved out of the bog. The red blip widened, blinking faster. She set the car down onto a bleak heap of soil, adorned only by twisted vines entwining around each other like snakes.

She got out, walked among the vines, deeper into them until they curved over her, crowding out the light, creating a cavern, walls on both sides dripping with decay. It smelled worse the further in she went, as if something dead was rotting inside.

Her eyes adjusted to the dark, looking for any sign of Ember.

A faint cry. Coming from the side of the cavern.

Golden eyes caught hers. Ember, pressed against the vine wall, branches coiled around his wrists and ankles as if made for that purpose. His face bruised. His clothes torn. Through the rip in his shirt, blood showed--

She ran up to him, reached for him. Her hands could barely reach his feet.

"Sky?"

"It's me. I have to get you out of here."

"No, Sky, please. If you love me, you have to leave. Run. Get out of here before--"

"I'm not leaving you! The shuttle's close. I'll get you down..." She yanked the branch that entangled his ankle. It seemed like it actually tightened--

"Sky--" His voice was broken, full of fear. "You have to run before it's too late!"

She climbed up into the branches beside him. Kissed him on the cheek.

Behind her, a crackling sound, like dry leaves....

She turned to see a huge dark form heave up out of the mud. Unfurling itself until its head nearly brushed the ceiling of the cavern.

Eyes, slices of dark glass. So much like Char's--but afire with madness.

It came toward them, squelching through the mud. A terrible being clothed in dead leaves and dirt, deformed, yet with a broken beauty to it....

Its eyes, brimming with pain and hate, stabbed into hers.

Black fire consumed her.

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