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Paradise Chapter 3
Chapter 3: Quest
Ember turned to Char. "What have you done with it?"
"Don't look at me."
"It wouldn't just disappear!" Lightning glowed across Ember's skin.
Char sighed. "What have I told you about that. Your lightning is useless against me. What motive would I have for taking it?"
"You've told us how you don't want us to leave."
"Yes, but I told you I would let you go. I don't go back on my word. Tell you what. I'll help you find it. That'll prove I'm innocent."
Ember let his lightning subside. He grasped Sky's hand.
"I don't see how it could just disappear."
"You don't know this world like I do. There are things here…not entirely benevolent…." He stepped forward into the clearing. "So your vehicle was here?"
Char closed his eyes. Immense, dark, magnificent, he looked like the statues of the Winged back home. She didn't like to think that he was related to their ancestors. Of course, if he was one of them, he wasn't an ideal example. He had been banished for some sort of serious crime….which meant they had little reason to trust him.
She pressed close to Ember, gathering comfort by his warm skin against hers.
Sorrow pierced her when she thought of how even this paradise wasn't what she'd imagined. Perhaps they could continue their honeymoon on another world that was already explored, its dangers tamed….there were many worlds with beautiful places, but nothing could compare with a garden with giant flowers…so she'd thought. At least they'd shared some time together before this man spoiled it….
"Aha!" said Char.
"What is it?" said Ember.
"I think I know where it is. Follow me." He turned, stepping into the shadows.
Ember didn't move.
Char sighed and turned to them. "You'll have to trust me if you want to find it."
"Perhaps we'll just look for it ourselves."
"I know this place, its deceptions and dangers. I suppose you'd be happy if your pretty companion there sank into the ground, and the turf closed over her head. Or if you found mushrooms that caused hallucinations that kept you enslaved to them till you dried into dust. This place is beautiful, but also dangerous. You need a guide who knows the places to avoid." He held out a hand. "I'll protect you. I promise."
Ember looked at Sky, his golden eyes shining in the dark. "Are you okay with this?"
"I don't know what he'll do if we refuse him."
"Maybe it's best if we stay on his good side. At least that way we can keep track of him. I don't care what he does to me; I'm going to protect you with my life."
Char looked at them expectantly from across the clearing. She hoped Ember wouldn't have to defend her….even with Ember's considerable powers, she didn't know what would happen if he went up against Char. She hated the thought of him getting hurt, for her.
"We're coming," said Ember.
"How did you find out where the shuttlecar is?" asked Ember, as they struggled to keep up with Char's long strides.
"I can't dart from one side of the world to the other in the crack of lightning like I used to, but I can…sense things."
"How far away is it?"
"Oh, somewhere this way."
"You don't know where it is?"
He shrugged. "Distance, like time, is still relative to me. I'm not used to having to measure it."
Sky picked out subtle jeweled tones of the flowers now that her eyes had adjusted to the darkness. The moon cast dim shadows on the mossy floor. Unfamiliar stars glimmered against the blackness of the sky….somehow they seemed brighter here, like diamonds….This place might be treacherous, but it was also beautiful, and she couldn't believe its beauty was a deception, not after the water from the pool had burst her senses with pleasure she could never have imagined.
"Do you mind if I ask you a question?" said Char.
"What is it?" said Ember.
"How did you get here?"
"You didn't see us do that?" Ember bit out sarcastically.
"No, I just started watching you when I sensed your presence at the pool."
"We came through a Portal."
"Ah, so there is more than one. Where is it?"
"I…can't tell you."
"I'm helping you, remember. If there's a possible way for me to get off this world….But I suppose you don't want me to come back with you."
"We…will be grateful if you find the car..."
"Mm. It's probably irrelevant anyway. It's not likely my family missed a possible option to keep me from escaping. I'm trapped here forever, while you will be free to leave as soon as we find the shuttlecar."
The bell-flower forest gave way to a barren stretch of ground. Sky struggled over broken chunks of sod. Ember helped her. Her dress wasn't the best for this. Truthfully, she'd thought she wouldn't have much use for clothes here.
Ahead loomed dark, twisted vines like the ones across from the pool. "Careful," said Char. "Don't let the thorns touch you. They're poisonous. I found out the hard way. They made me feel a little ill, when in my previous form, it would have had no effect whatsoever. But who knows what it would do to a human?"
"We're not human—at least, not completely."
"Still, you're not immortal." He maneuvered into the vines, ducking a little. "Make sure you follow my path exactly."
Ember stopped, faced her. "Are you up for this?"
She nodded, even though her heart pounded against her chest. She didn't like the idea of following this man, especially into a forest of poison vines. But what choice did they have?
He gave her hand a squeeze and helped her inside. At least she and Ember weren't as big as Char, so if he could fit, so could they. Still, a thorn snagged her skirt as she entered. She gasped, almost slamming into another vine. Char caught her, grasping her wrist, wrenching her to a stop.
His hand was cold, like ice. Almost as if her warmth was bleeding out into him. His eyes—black voids of endless midnight—caught hers. In them burned a desperate longing. A chill ran through her. She tried to pull her wrist away, but it was trapped. Panic clutched her throat.
"Let her go," growled Ember.
For a moment, Char just looked at Ember, his eyes unfocused. Then he let go of Sky's arm. "Of course." His eyes flickered back to their casual intensity. "Be more careful—pretty one. I didn't get your names. As I told you, names aren't really my forte."
"Sky," she said.
"Sky. Yes. A good name. And you?"
Char laughed. "A little related in meaning to mine, no?"
Ember just glared at him.
"I just saved Sky's life. I'd be grateful if I were you."
They had to go single-file, Ember between her and Char. Sky was careful to make herself as small as possible, huge black stalks flickering by, their shadows strangling small patches of moonlight on the forest floor. It felt like everything was closing in on her. All she could do was keep Ember in her vision, follow him. Nothing else existed. This horrible place was an illusion….soon she'd break free.
The moon shone like a shard of shell between the silhouettes of vines, their twisted fingers pricking the sky.
"It's just ahead," said Char.
She followed Ember through the vines, keeping him in sight at all times. His marvelous form, glorious even in silhouette, her one hope against the darkness.
She slipped between two large vines, emerging into a clearing. She grasped Ember's hand and he pulled her close, giving her a quick kiss on the cheek like the exquisite brush of a flower.
A swamp spread out in all directions. A decaying forest of flowers drooped like lamenting statues in the fog. A faint gurgling sound emanated from it. It smelled like death. She wanted to turn back at once.
"It's in here?" she said.
"Yes. Fortunately I know the way." Char strode down the embankment, and stepped onto the dense moss of the bog. He gestured for them to follow. It held his huge form, so there was no reason to think it wouldn't hold them.
"Make sure to follow my footsteps exactly."
Reluctantly, she let go of Ember's hand, since they had to go single file again. She stepped onto the bog. It groaned, sinking a little under her weight. Fear twisted in her stomach. It has to be safe, she thought. Just keep Ember in your vision, and everything will be fine.
Mist tingled against her skin, little prickles like electric current. Flower stalks loomed up in the sickly gray miasma. The deeper they went, the thicker the fog seemed to grow, until she could barely see ahead of her. A white bundle of cloud drifted by, obscuring him. Fear stabbed her chest. "Ember!"
"Sky!" His form appeared in the mist. His face, full of love and concern—he grasped her hand and he led her forward, his warm fingers pressed against her palm. "I'm here."
"How far is it?" he asked.
"Just a little bit longer." Was it her imagination, or was there a bit of mockery in Char's voice?
The smell was thick, overpowering. She tried to breathe through her mouth, but that did little good. Nearly choking on it, she forced herself to move forward.
A light shone ahead, fuzzy and indistinct. Could it be their shuttlecraft? The further they went, it seemed like the light never got closer. Then it disappeared. Her stomach plunged. Darkness swirled around her.
The darkness seemed to be a living thing, twining around her like a snake made of shadow, then darting off to dissipate into nothing. More sparks appeared, this time smaller, dancing in mockery, always just ahead of them.
"I don't like this," Sky whispered.
"I'll protect you. I love you so much, my Sky."
She nodded, unable to say anything, not even the three words that meant everything….
Something heaved out of the swamp. A dark tendril lashed toward her—She flung herself into Ember, and he held her tight.
The thing, cold, slimy, wrapped around her ankle, pulling her. It snapped sharp barbs into her. She screamed. Held onto Ember with all her strength—
A thick tendril wrapped around her waist and gave a hard yank.
She felt herself falling—
Down, down into the bog—
Dense, rotting moss closed over her head, smothering her, the smell unbearable.
Ember's face was the last thing she saw.
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